The Jonah Complex

I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the story of Jonah. Let’s face it, that’s probably the coolest story anyone ever learned in Sunday School. Sure, David defeated a giant with a rock, but Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale before it vomited him up safe and sound on dry land. I believe history has seen more unlikely heroes like David than it has unconventional fish bait like Jonah.

But the thing you didn’t realize as a child is how little mention that fish actually gets in the story. There’s just a casual reference at the end of Chapter One about how “the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.”

Like, yeah, God did that. No big deal.

And again at the end of Chapter Two: “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”

So long, Fishy. It was fun while it lasted.

When I got a little older, I came to like Jonah’s story for different reasons.

I’ve had my fair share of Isaiah moments. Times when I raised my hand and declared, “Lord, send me!”(Isaiah 6:8)

I’ve even had a few Ezekiel moments where I went “in bitterness and turmoil, but the Lord’s hold on me was strong.” (Ezekiel 3:14).

I’ve had a thousand, little one-verse moments for both my obedience and my rebellion.

Jonah got four chapters. Four chapters of running and hiding and begging and relenting and stewing in bitterness because this was why he ran in the first place.

What has long intrigued me about Jonah is something they never taught me in Sunday School. All I remember from my childhood is the happy, little ending where the city repented. Yay, Jonah! You fulfilled your mission!

But there’s Jonah, at the end of the story, sulking in the hot sun while God chastises him for being without compassion for the people God sent him to save. It ends so abruptly with God expressing his love for the people of Nineveh and Jonah declaring his will to die.

Will Jonah repent or will he not? Tune in next time…

And then God cancelled Season Two.

It’s sort of like that much-debated piece of literature “The Lady and the Tiger.” I guess God thinks you don’t need to know what Jonah did in order to consider what you would do.

The fish may have delivered Jonah to the place God intended for him to be, but Jonah was still running. That’s what blows my mind about this story. The only person who didn’t repent was Jonah. And yet, God used him even in his rebellion.

Jonah was called to Nineveh, and when he ran the other way, God calmed a storm and redeemed an entire boatload of heathen sailors.

Wait, what?

I thought we were talking about Nineveh here. That’s where Jonah was supposed to be. That’s what he was meant to do. No one said anything about any sailors.

But it appears to me that Jonah was in the wrong place at the right time. It seems to me that God redeems our messes more powerfully than we could ever give ourselves credit for.

The last year or two has been really hard for me. I feel like I haven’t been tracking as well as I should. I feel like I’ve been stumbling toward Tarshish rather than charging into Nineveh.

I feel too dark to be a light. Too unworthy to be a vessel. Instead of letting guilt take me by the hand and guide me home, I’ve welcomed it in and let it take up residence.

Sometimes I don’t like the person I’ve become—the one who snores away while the storm rages on.

Yet I find hope in believing that God has elected to use me, in spite of my rebellion. In some cases, as a result of it. I like to think that even when I’m thrown to the waves and left sinking into the darkness, God’s glory will be revealed to those left standing on deck.

Travel via fish’s belly is not the most glamorous route to redemption, but sometimes it’s necessary for wayward souls like mine.

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