Jonah: Sorry, Not Sorry
Have you ever heard of the non-apology? Here’s the definition from Google.
Non-Apology: A statement that takes the form of an apology but does not constitute an acknowledgement of responsibility or regret for what has caused offense or upset.
We see the ALL. THE. TIME. in politics and the like. Some politicians are absolute masters at the non-apology. Common examples of the non-apology are statements like “I deeply regret…”, “Mistakes were made…”, “I’m sorry you feel that way…”, or even the prevalent “I’m sorry, but…”
These all take on the form of an apology without, as per the definition, acknowledging responsibility or remorse for one’s own actions.
This article from Cracked explains some of the most common forms of the non-apology and reveals why we fall for them so often. We want to give people the benefit of the doubt. We want to believe that people are sincere and that they are willing to acknowledge fault and move on. We want to see the best in people. That’s how relationships work. There can be no relationship without reconciliation*.
*reconciliation: the restoration of friendly relations
When people offer a non-apology, there is no true reconciliation. The offending party retains all their pride and dignity, often without addressing the very attitudes, words, or actions that caused the offense in the first place. We rely on non-apologies when we are afraid to humble ourselves in order to repair the relationship. Real apologies are seen as weak. The non-apology allows you to keep up the appearance of strength. But there can be no true relationship without humility.
This is all made harder by what I consider to be the worst quote from any book of movie ever. It’s from the novel Love Story, by Erich Segal, and popularized by the 1970s film adaptation by the same name. You may have heard it before. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
What terrible relationship advice! If I truly love someone, I will apologize the instant I realize I hurt them. I’m not always the best at this – just ask my wife. But I’m trying. I’m not too proud to acknowledge fault or wrongdoing. Sometimes I’ll even apologize in order to make amends when I don’t think I’ve done anything particularly wrong. But I try to be humble enough to see things from the other person’s perspective.
THE NON-APOLOGETIC PROPHET
We are all greedy, self-centered creatures by nature. We all face this internal struggle between looking out for our own interests and wanting what’s best for our social group. We are both highly individualistic AND incredibly social creatures. Any human on his/her own will die. We need each other. Reconciliation should be our highest goal.
This is why I can’t stand the prayer in Jonah 2 – as it pertains to Jonah himself. I really love this prayer for anyone else. You can see in my last post, I recommend the prayer from Jonah 2 for anyone who is struggling emotionally, mentally, physically, or spiritually. It’s a great prayer for re-centering, for reorienting our lives around God. When we feel like we’re drowning and the world is closing in on us, this prayer helps remind us that we’re in God’s hands. God is with us even in the depths of despair.
But for Jonah to pray this prayer really grinds on me, not because of what he says but because of what he doesn’t say. He never once says, “I’m sorry.” This prayer is a non-apology!
Look at it again:
“In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the depths,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me.
I said, ‘I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.’
The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you, Lord my God,
brought my life up from the pit.
“When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.
“Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”
What does Jonah do? He cries out to God. He acknowledges his helplessness and his distress. He praises God for saving him. He desires to worship and offer sacrifices to God. He pledges to make good on his vows to God.
All good things, but he never once says, “I’m sorry for disobeying and running from you. That was really foolish of me. Please forgive me.”
The argument could be made that the apology is implied, that Jonah really is repentant. One could assume that Jonah’s words own up to his fault, and that there would be no need for sacrifice if he weren’t acknowledging his sinfulness. We could maybe see that confession, forgiveness, and repentance are all implied by God’s salvation.
But I can’t go there. I don’t think Jonah is sorry for what he did. I don’t think he’s repentant. I don’t think he really sees the need for forgiveness, because in his view he didn’t do anything wrong! How do I know this? Because of the rest of the story, but we’ll get to that later.
THROWING SHADE AND #HUMBLEBRAG
What makes it worse is that Jonah even uses this prayer to throw shade at the pagan sailors who tossed him overboard. “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.” That’s a direct slam against those sailors who cried out to their little-g gods during the storm. Jonah doesn’t even know that the entire crew converted to becoming worshipers of YHWH while he’s drowning in the sea to avoid the very same God.
And no good non-apology is complete without a humblebrag at the end! “But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you.” Yeah, sure Jonah. You’re assuming a lot. Guess what? While you’re in the bowels of a fish, the sailors you just slammed are actually making vows and sacrificing to YHWH.
I love the prayer in Jonah 2 for anyone except Jonah. Coming from Jonah, it’s like the pie from The Help, if you know what it mean…
Do you know what really turns people away from God’s love for them, Jonah? A calloused, unrepentant heart that denies the need for forgiveness. Those who cannot acknowledge their own sin are not only lying to themselves, but they are making God out to be a liar. Jesus had a word for people like you, Jonah – “Hypocrite.” You want the salvation from God without repentance. You want God’s mercy without showing mercy to others. You expect grace for yourself and judgment for others.
And you’ve got to know that when I address those issues to Jonah, I’m really talking to a mirror.
Because as much as I can’t stand Jonah, I see so much of him in myself. That’s the brilliance of this book. That’s why this shouldn’t just be relegated to the realm of children’s Bible stories. That’s why we need to take our time with this story and really dive into it. On a surface level reading of Jonah 2, it can seem like Jonah’s really turned a corner. But he hasn’t.
Jonah is that person who shows up to worship Sunday after Sunday, who sings the songs and takes communion, who leads prayers, who even preaches on occasion, but still struggles to have any empathy for those who aren’t just like him. Jonah sings “Oh, how I love Jesus,” but then badmouths immigrants. Jonah takes communion, the body and blood of Christ, but then scoffs at movements like Black Lives Matter. Jonah says a hearty “Amen!” when the preacher makes a point about God’s salvation, but refuses to tip the overworked waitress because service was a little too slow.
Jonah is a hypocrite. Jonah is a prophet of God who doesn’t understand God at all. Jonah is an unrepentant sinner. Jonah is a racist hyper-nationalist who thinks in stereotypes and 280 characters. Jonah is more concerned about being right than about reconciliation.
But before we get too harsh with Jonah, we’ve go to realize this story is like the story told by Nathan to King David. If we aren’t careful, we can get worked up and angry just to have it thrown back at us that “You are the man. You are Jonah!”
So I apologize if anyone was made uncomfortable by this. I regret any offense that may have been caused. And I’m sorry, but we’ve all got to take a good hard look at ourselves in the story of Jonah.