While acknowledging that murderers deserve strict justice, I ask you the same question put to Jonah. Would you be offended if God spared the lives of ISIS from military overthrow? What if God granted these butchers long lives full of relative happiness? “Do you have a good reason to be angry?” God asked Jonah (4:4). He leaves the question hanging in verse 11:
“Should I not pity... that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”The thing is, any reason we use to argue against God’s compassion on Nineveh (or ISIS) eventually comes back against us. If we say, “God cannot be compassionate because they are too evil,” well, who decides the limits of God’s compassion? Scripture says God would be justified in damning all of us right now if he only acted on the principle of strict justice.
Besides, in some ways jihadists are more ignorant than ourselves. Having grown up in a backwards, Islamic world, they “don’t know their right hand from their left” (4:11). We sin against greater light, so in some respects our “smaller” sins are worse than theirs.
God was teaching Jonah—and us—the lesson that Christ taught his disciples: “Whatever measure you use will be meeted back to you,” (Luke 7:2). The standard you use to judge others will be used against you.
In terms of social justice, there is “a time to kill” (Eccl 3:3). God appoints authorities specifically to wield the sword of justice, especially against murderers (Rom 13:4, Gen 9:5). Justice is glorious and we pray for it. Still, mercy is more glorious and God is free to give it to whomever he wills:
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:14-16).If God intervenes to show compassion on sinners—even ISIS—let us be careful not to measure in such a way as suggests we are anything but debtors to mercy. We should want justice because it is good, not because we measure up to it. We should want justice in the same way a criminal who turns himself in wants it, trembling and praying for mercy.
Jesus warned that, “because wickedness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” My greatest concern for the church during times of increased persecution is not how many will be martyred, but that so much spilled blood will be allowed to extinguish our sense of compassion towards our killers. Grief and vengeance can blind our sense of mission at the moment when the gospel of free compassion is most desperately needed. At times like this we need to be most careful to guard our hearts from roots of bitterness. “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy, but mercy triumphs over judgment,” (Jas 2:13).