“I called to the Lord, out of my distress, and He answered me.” Jonah 2:2
Jonah’s story is one of the most familiar and favorites in the Bible. Children love to hear the story of a giant fish swallowing a man. Adults often spend useless energy arguing over how a man could live inside a fish, and miss the real point of the story that even God’s people (Jonah) can misunderstand and puzzle over His amazing grace (He even loves the Ninevites?!?!?). Grace is eternally puzzling, and for that reason, so hard to accept, trust, and live by.
Another overlooked part of this little book is Jonah’s prayer while inside the fish (2:1-9). I listened yesterday as someone read it in a worship service and knew I had to remind you of it in today’s GraceWaves.
The verse quoted above is the opening line of the prayer. Jonah had wrestled with God’s will and ran the other way. Sometimes God’s will is gentle direction, other times it is divine mandate. Some people respond to the light. Other need to feel the heat, or in this case, feel the fish. Inside the belly of this great fish, Jonah began his prayer with confidence in God’s attention. Even a reluctant and recalcitrant prophet like Jonah knew where to find grace. God is always glad to see His children return to Him, even when we are limping.
In the prayer, Jonah continued to describe his situation and how he arrived there. He was in the darkest place imaginable, “the belly of Sheol” (v. 2), believed he was “cast out from Thy presence” (v. 4), and sought deliverance from “the pit” (v. 6). Then he “remembered the Lord” (v. 7) and offered a prayer that ends with thanksgiving and confidence “Deliverance belongs to the Lord” (v. 9). Read the whole prayer. It will resonate with your soul. Now let’s learn two important lessons.
First, Jonah recognized he was in a situation completely beyond his power to solve. More importantly, he had arrived there by taking his life into his hands and resisting God’s will. We are quite good at making a mess out of our lives. Often we try to manage and manipulate situations and people, and then wonder why we are having such a hard go of it. In truth, we always live on the edge of chaos and the sooner we forsake the illusion of control the better. Jonah should have “call out to the Lord” early in his crisis, when he first felt the pressure of being called to go to Nineveh. He would have gained strength for the journey and avoided the unpleasantness of residing in a fish for three days. So, walk closely with God, and call out to Him regularly, not as a last resort. At the very least you will lessen the frequency of that chaos invading your life.
Second, Jonah’s soaring prayer and confidence came before deliverance. Not until verse 10 did God speak to the fish to spit out Jonah on dry land. Jonah’s prayer came while he was in “the pit.” Faith, thanksgiving, and praise are wonderful any time, but much more persuasive and helpful when coming while in the pit. I love my personal stories of deliverance, but find that I grow in grace best while still surrounded by darkness and while the thorn remains. So learn to believe, thank, and praise God when you are sliding down into the pit or standing on the bottom of the pit, not just when you are walking away from it. Consistent awareness of God’s gracewaves creates a certain spiritual state which God uses for your deliverance.
David also spent occasions in the pit. He wrote Psalm 34 while standing on the bottom. His plea to God can be yours as well, “Say to my soul, ‘I am your deliverance!’” (v. 3). Pray that prayer. Tell God you need to hear the words “I am your deliverance.” He will answer.
Dr. Terry Ellis