Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels
Author: Tullian Tchividjian
The story of Jonah is simple. He doesn’t do what God wants him to do, sailing away in a different direction. A storm comes. The people on the boat throw Jonah into the sea to stop it. A whale swallows him. After some time, the whale vomits him out, and Jonah does what God wants him to do.
We all remember it from our early Sunday School classes, almost a cartoon-like story with a lesson of do what God wants to you to do or, a negative version, don’t disobey God. That is mostly what we remember about Jonah. Unless we return to read and study this story as an adult, we may have a child-like view of the Jonah story.
What Tullian Tchividjian does in Surprised by Grace is give us a more mature view, adding great depth to a short story. It is more than a reluctant prophet or rebel tale; it is a story of God’s grace.
Pastor Tullian enlivens a short book in the Bible with strength and context which delivers meaning for us today. As he points out, the story of Jonah is the only one in which the story is about the prophet. It is a story about the messenger, not necessarily the message. The person perspective is interesting. Through Jonah’s decisions, actions, and thoughts, we gain the lessons of grace and purpose.
A few highlights of the book that I found particularly interesting were on this perspective, meaning the story of Jonah’s life and the decisions made.
Pastor Tullian focuses on the gospel aspect of the Jonah story. As he states,
“The gospel doesn’t make bad people good; it makes dead people alive. That’s the difference between the gospel of Jesus Christ and every other world religion.” (p. 56)
The gospel propels are lives. Yet, we run from it at times, just as Jonah did.
Another interesting angle from the book is the difference between punishment and intervention.
“Until we see God-sent storms as interventions and not punishments, we’ll never get better; we’ll only get bitter. Some difficult circumstances you’re facing right now may well be a God-sent storm of mercy intended to be his intervention in your life.” (p.57)
The challenges we face may be a call to do something different, to do something better… to change directions.
As the story of Jonah unfolds, the short story carries a big message.
“…everything’s bigger than expected. That theme continues here in the Nineveh scene. Just as the task assigned to Jonah was large, and the storm was large, and the fear of the sailors was large, so also the effect of Jonah’s sermon is large; the turnaround in Nineveh is huge…” (p. 100-101)
The power of God’s word and grace can change the direction of one life as well as many, many lives. It is ironic that a short story has such a big impact, from an individual life to many lives… all changing dramatically.
A final point to highlight is the tribal versus missional perspective. Even though we are rescued by God’s grace, we sometimes become self-righteous and don’t expect God to offer the same grace to others.
“A tribal mindset is marked by an unbalanced patriotism. It typically elevates personal and cultural preferences to absolute principles: If everybody were more like us, this world would be a better place.”
“But in a missional-minded community, the highest value isn’t self-preservation but self-sacrifice…”
“Here’s the real tragedy: by nature, we’re all tribal, in the root sense of being fundamentally self-centered. We’re all convinced that if only everyone else was more like us, this world would enjoy smooth sailing. “ (p. 135-136)
We get disappointed when someone is not punished as we think they should be. We expect God’s grace in our own lives but not necessarily in the lives of others.
Jonah exemplifies this when he is angry that God does not decimate Nineveh but instead extends his grace, just as he did for Jonah. The individual self-righteousness overpowers us, sometimes; however, we should understand the grace of God and how it works for us as well as for others.
What a story! There is so much to Jonah, and Surprised by Grace brings out the many angles which we should soak in. It is a story of an individual who repels God’s direction, yet is saved and changed to undertake important work. It is an account of a large city hearing the message of “change or else” and not only pays attention but makes real change happen. And then it comes back to the individual who is disappointed when the city is not destroyed, as threatened.
It is a story of God’s grace delivered singularly and broadly.
It is a story of acceptance on many levels. It is about accepting changes we are being guided to undertake, no matter how challenging they may seem. It is about accepting God’s grace as an individual but then not being hypocritical or hyper-critical when others gain it.
It is a story we should understand and apply in our communities today, where irrational words and actions are driving tribal passions instead of the mission of God’s grace and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Note: Through a blog contest at Crossway.org, I received a free copy of this book. My review and discussion are not swayed by this, but did want to disclose how I received this book.