The story of Jonah has been oversimplified for far too long.
Many look at the Old Testament, like the story of Jonah, and believe it to be less relevant to modern life because it is so much older of a text, and that is bears no agency to the problems or life experiences of today. I read the story again for the first time since Sunday School when I was six, and was delighted to realize just how much it relates to the past year of my life: the life of a recent college grad, just trying to figure out life.
I began by fleeing God’s presence when I was despairing over what my next move would be after graduation. Just like Jonah, I was afraid of the potential destruction, ruin, and failure I’d experience if I stepped into faith and jumped into the void. I boarded a vessel that was both a pivotal decision that shaped the rest of my experience of this first year out, while also being a desperate cry for help, crafted by my own thoughts about my future, not the future God wanted for me.
The vessel was a place-holder job that paid the bills but was not the focal point of a greater calling. I placed that eerie feeling of blunt purpose in the hull of the ship and let the sails take me out onto the sea. Like Jonah, I got thrown off the vessel when my work experience concluded, and fell into complete peril.
I had no job, I knew my savings were going to run out fast, like my strength as I struggled to tread water, and my purpose on this earth was unclear to me. While I did not outright ask God to end my life, or think more deeply suicidal thoughts, like Jonah did, it became pretty apparent in the month that I was floundering, trying to find purpose, financial security, and a safe place to lay down inside of, that my daily thoughts were becoming a debate over whether or not I was making a difference – or if I was ever going to.
Questioning your existence can be tricky and easily swept up into an evil descent into a mental health crisis; however, if it is done in a healthy, careful, hopeful environment, real motivation and renewed strength can come. I experienced a little bit of both. I needed the desperation to push me forward. As the weeks rolled by, I had to pull my resources. I had to push aside personal feelings in order to move forward and keep trying.
Each day felt like a battle with the waves that kept coming and coming, but I began to realize that if I could keep my head above the tossing surface long enough, like Jonah waiting for God to decide his fate inside the belly of the fish, I knew God would come for me.
Verses one through three of chapter two depict Jonah’s despair and suicidal thoughts as he describes the ocean swallowing him up. But in verse four, he manages to get out a moment of vague hope about seeing God’s temple again before his end. He echos this hope again in verse seven when he recalls God, and believes his prayer will be heard by God in his temple.
At this moment I wanted to remind everyone that Jonah disobeyed God because he feared the city, Nineveh, that had grown evil and needed to be reminded of God’s power, love, and ability to destroy if repentance didn’t take place. Why am I bringing this up now? Because Jonah is not only the man who was in the belly of the whale, as his story has been pigeonholed for so many years.
He is also the biggest advocate for God, especially in verse seven when he regards people who pray to idols that evoke vanity, rather than God’s steadfast love. In this way, being an advocate for Christ is one of the many purposes bestowed on us when we come into existence and live on this earth.
In the final lines of Jonah’s prayer, I hear my own voice cry out to the Lord:
“But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (verse 9).
The best moment of this story is the instantaneous reaction God gives the animal: the fish vomited Jonah not back into the sea, but rather on dry land! I interpreted this knee-jerk reaction from God as a model for how obedience, but also reconciliation, works in relationships.
What does this look like?
The moment someone apologizes and dies to self for the sake of another person, healing occurs and the chasm between the two closes with the power of resolution. I think it is very easy to think of God as all powerful and so highly above His creation in this small, four-chapter story, and He is. He makes trees grow overnight, manipulates worms and whales to do His will, and bids storms to rupture over the sea.
And yet, God maintains a relationship with his servant and creation, Jonah.
It seems that in this interaction of Jonah praying to God and God responding by rescuing Jonah instantly, depicts how, perhaps, an apology and reconciliation ought to happen between two people.
Though it is difficult for me to admit it to myself, let alone others, I relate to Jonah’s anger towards God when He spares Nineveh, later on in the story. While I see the logic in saving the city that did indeed repent and return to God, Jonah’s anger makes more emotional sense because the city was his enemy, and Jonah is struggling to embrace and love the parts of his life experience that were difficult to face.
Jonah was called to go save the city from sin, and while he was disobedient and reluctant, he eventually carried out his purpose. Perhaps Jonah would have felt more satisfaction if the object of his dread (the city) did indeed fall from their own wickedness. Being bitter and vindictive is often more pleasurable to indulge in, but deeply more destructive to the individual who enjoys watching the failure of their adversary.
For me, I was angry with God because I felt like I discovered my calling too late. It was inconvenient to discover that I had to add three or more years of education onto my path when I was a senior in college to become a Sign Language Interpreter. It seemed so unfair that God sparked my interest in a completely different, unrelated field, with a misunderstood language and community and occupation seemingly “so late” in my academic career.
I thought I was done with school. I thought I was ready to go out and make something of my already hard-earned education. The though of being tied down all over again was terrible! I did not want to walk into a city and have to bear the burden of being God’s servant, when I harbored so much fear and doubt and resentment of the difficulties I knew I’d face.
What did I do?
Like Jonah, I did. I walked into the city like a trap set in the woods. In the same way some describe God’s love as a capturing, relentless love, I locked myself into His plan when I signed up for classes, paid my tuition, and bought all my textbooks. And yet, doubt still strikes me down on the days I feel most vulnerable about my decision to, at the very least, give this calling a shot.
Despite obeying God, Jonah also continued to struggle once he turned the city in his call for them to repent. He grew angry with God for not punishing the sinful city and people within it. He did not understand that God’s mercy and love is not selective, and I still have days when I do not understand why God formed my very non-linear path the way that He did.
Here is the hope: God promised me, and you, a light burden.
In chapter 11 of Matthew, Jesus states: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light,” (verses 29-30). Though Jonah’s task was no easy one – in fact it was marketed with all the cards stacked against him – in reality the task ended up being quite easy for Jonah.
The city was more than willing to change their ways, and apologize for their sins. Jonah barely spoke truth into their lives before they turned away from evil. While I do not want to assume anything about what lies ahead on my path of living out my purpose – the purpose I always knew was there – the One who made me promises a burden, but a burden that will be easy.
Not only does God assure my burden, but also lays himself in place with me in my journey so that I my learn from him.
Since my struggle over the past year was running away from making a choice to continue my education, following God’s plan, I am attracted to the idea that God is both with us, but also with us to teach us. My life is just as much of a cliffhanger as this story is – ending with questions and no response from Jonah – and yet, I’d want God have the last word any day, rather than my selfish doubts and disbelieving leave a bitter taste in my mouth.
I do not know if this next move is going to work out, but Jonah did not run forever, and there was no place to hide – not even in the stomach of a whale – where God could not find him. Jonah may be an odd story to pick up when going through a time of decisions, transitions, and being lost. Yet, be encouraged to go back and see how relatable Jonah is – you will find you are in good company.