“God is good all the time. And all the time God is good.”

This might be one of the most recited religious phrases I’ve ever heard. And I guess when you break it down, it’s actually very true. God is good. But I want to suggest that this truth, which is widely claimed as good news, actually creates some real tension for us in life.

I propose that while God is very good, gracious and loving all of the time, we often don’t really want him to be good, and gracious and loving all the time. We want God to be good, gracious, and loving to us. But usually not to our enemies—not to those we don’t think deserve it.

This really is the whole message behind the Jonah narrative in the Old Testament. We’ve spent so much time over the years debating whether the fish that swallowed Jonah was literal or figurative, that we have managed to lose sight of the whole point.

Jonah was really upset. And do you know why he was so angry?

Let’s refresh our memory:

God tells Jonah to take a message to the city of Nineveh, which was in Assyria. The Israelites hated them, because the Assyrians had time and time again made their life a living hell. They were their worst enemies.

Jonah, therefore, takes off running because he wants nothing to do with this mission. That is the very last place he wants to take God’s message of second chances to. So, he runs. From there, you likely know the rest of the story: God re-directs him, in a way, and he ends up finally going to Nineveh with God’s message. And what happens? His worst nightmare. They listen– and instead of destruction, they are now going to flourish under God’s love and care. And that’s why he’s so mad. Jonah’s response to, “God is good all the time”?

Jonah 4:1-3

Jonah was furious. He lost his temper. He yelled at God, “God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!

3 “So, God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead!”

His problem was with God and his unwavering goodness. God is so merciful. God is so grace-filled. Those ideas are all good news when applied to us and our stories, but when applied to someone we don’t think deserves it, it can be quite problematic for us to accept and believe with no strings attached. Jonah gets so twisted by this basic truth about God’s character that he wishes God would literally take his life. He’d rather be dead than to have to see God’s radical grace and mercy extended to a group of people that he’s convinced (and rightfully so) don’t deserve it.

Ever felt that way? Of course you have. We’ve all been there. We’ve all come up with excuses for why we deserve grace, but someone else deserves justice. We’ve all come up with a list of sins that we think God disapproves of more than others, and generally they’re the ones we don’t struggle with or don’t think we’ve committed. We’ve all created a list of people who deserve second chances and those who don’t. I think part of our human condition is this: God’s grace is for me, and God’s justice is for anyone who hurts me.

I used to spend a lot of time putting people into categories. Those people were “good” people. And those people were “bad” people. This group is “right” and that group is “wrong.” But I think those categories don’t tell the whole story. Maybe it’s: there are “free” people and there are “enslaved” people. And the difference isn’t so much of what we believe or even what we do, but that the “free” people are the ones who realize they’re “forgiven” people—forgiven people who are no better than those enslaved. And it’s from that place of unearned love and grace that free people live better, love more authentically and do real life together.

And so we come back to this: God is good all the time, and all the time God is good. And while this reality sometimes makes us uncomfortable, it doesn’t make it any less true.