And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. – Jonah 1:17 (ESV)
Let’s pretend you’re in Sunday school and your 3rd grade teacher tells you the story of Jonah and the whale. It sounds pretty cool doesn’t it? You go home and tell your mommy about the story of the man swallowed by a giant fish.
Your mom begins to tell you how great God is and what He can do. She also tells you Jonah was a Christian. You kinda dismiss the fact he was a Christian since you already assumed it anyway.
As a third grader it doesn’t connect with you how God would prepare trouble for one of His children. And it doesn’t matter anyway. You believe God and there is nothing He can’t do.
Besides, you’re tucked away in your bunk bed, with your favorite stuffed animal, and mommy and daddy are in the next room. It’s a wonderful life.
The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever. – Jonah 2:5-6 (ESV)
When the storm chases you
Now, let’s step into your future. You’re no longer eight years old or in a third grade Sunday school class. You’re unhappily married and have been for what seems like an eternity.
Your marriage has the feel of a prison sentence. You’re daily drowning in the belly of hopelessness as the weeds of discouragement are wrapping around your head and the bars of bitterness are closing upon you.
Nope, you’re not in the third grade any more. Your safe little world where God was big and trouble was small has turned into a war between two worlds and God now seems distant. The question we’re asking is, “What has changed?”
- Has God changed?
- Have you changed?
- Is God still big, good, kind, and loving?
- How have your beliefs about God changed?
- How has your world changed you?
Perhaps you’re not in a stormy marriage. Maybe your storm is some other kind of relational tension. The storm is not the main thing anyway. It’s merely the context for God to show Himself strong; we to show ourselves weak, and God to be magnified through our inability.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. – 2 Corinthians 4:7 (ESV)
- Are you in a storm?
- What is your current situational difficulty?
- What troubled water is rising in your life?
- How are your thoughts of God as you navigate the storm?
Bad things happen to people
The storm has come and Jonah is in a sea of trouble. Yahweh has appointed a great big fish to swallow him. There is nothing Jonah can do. He is going down. Way down.
The relational and redeeming God of Israel appointed a fish to swallow Jonah. Think about that for a moment. Our great and loving God willfully picked out a fish to swallow one of His children.
Maybe someone would interject and say it was because Jonah sinned. This could be an attempt to protect God’s reputation, by getting Him off the hook. God is love. How could a loving God cause trouble? Be released–God will be okay. You don’t have to protect Him.
If you believe it was because Jonah sinned, you will want to swim cautiously in those theological waters. You may get yourself entangled in your own theological seaweeds.
Per chance God did it because Jonah sinned, then that makes us candidates for fish food too. We’re just like Jonah–born in sin and guilty of sin.
And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” – John 8:7 (ESV)
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. – James 2:10 (ESV)
Don’t play the sin card too quickly. Sin is not the only reason God will take you down or in this case, swallow you up. We must think more deeply and more reflectively about what is going on in this story.
The danger of assigning sin as the reason for Jonah’s trouble can be an unintentional accusation against God’s character. You may have heard something like this before: “Be careful. If you do that, God will get you.”
Bad things happen because God loves us
Portraying God has a legalistic parent is a horrible thing to say about Him. It’s shortsighted and does not give any consideration to His infinite love, mercy, patience, forbearance, grace or the greater purposes He may be orchestrating in a person’s life.
Job’s friends made this mistake, while totally missing the point of how God had bigger fish to fry. Criticizing Job as a sinner was shallow thinking. Besides the fact it was laced with legalism–God blesses or curses you based on your performance.
To think God punishes every time you sin is not only uncharitable toward God’s character, but we all would have been sent to hell a long time ago. Even our good works are stinking works (Isaiah 64:6). Who can stand before a holy God? We must have deeper reflection about God, trouble, and how it relates to us.
Let me ask you: how do you think about the trouble in your life? I counsel a lot of Christians who have a lot of trouble in their lives. In a way, they are modern-day representations of Jonah–they are being swallowed up by their difficulties.
One of the things I want to communicate to my friends-in-trouble is how they need a bigger vision of who God is, especially when life is going bad. Anything that God does to us or allows to happen to us is because He loves us.
There is no other way to think about God if you’re a Christian. You can never say there is a moment in your Christian life where God does not love you. Even though God prepared a big fat fish for Jonah, it did not diminish His love for Jonah one iota.
There is a real biblical tension here: God loves me and God will prepare trouble for me. Somehow your theology has to accommodate both of these things. If it does not, you will drown in despair and discouragement.
For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight. – Jonah 2:3-4 (ESV)
There have been times in my life where I have been so low and life seemed to be closing in on me, that the core truth of God’s love was forgotten. Has there ever been a time in your life where you thought maybe God did not love you and Christianity was not real?
A biblical response to trouble
For further reading
This is part of a nine part series on Jonah–a series of sermons preached at my church in the fall of 2012. You can listen to all of the sermons here. This article series has been published in book form.
- Chapter One – Getting Real
- Chapter Two - Closing the Gap
- Chapter Three - The Storm Hurler
- Chapter Four - God Appoints Trouble
- Chapter Five - Salvation Management
- Chapter Six - Second Chances
- Chapter Seven - If You repent; God Will Repent
- Chapter Eight - A Reason To Be angry?
- Chapter Nine - Caring For The clueless