I don’t love the book for a whole slew of reasons, but that’s an analysis for another day.
I have been thinking a lot about Jonah and that whale.
As a kid, I watched this story unfold on flannel board, and I’d venture to guess that even if you’ve never cracked open a Bible, you are probably familiar with it.
Here’s the deal: God asked Jonah to go to Ninevah, but Jonah hated the Ninevites too much to ever share God’s Word with them. He deliberately disobeyed God and was angry and ashamed, so during a storm, he begged a ship’s crew to throw him overboard and let him drown. “I’ve messed up,” he told them, “and this is the only way to fix it.” And he had messed up. Big time. He wasn’t wrong about that. He ignored, lied, schemed, and ran away. He couldn’t handle the guilt, so the crew threw him overboard as he requested.
You know the rest of the story, right? God sends a whale, the whale eats Jonah, Jonah hangs out in the whale’s belly before being spit out onto shore, at which point he decides to obey God’s original orders after all.
Even though I grew up in Sunday school and sometimes think I know a story well, as my faith changes over time I realize that I didn’t actually get it at all. I love that about Scripture.
Slowly, the lens through which I view God is changing, moving from restriction and fear toward freedom and love. It’s been happening for years now, but I’m still amazed by the moments I can actually notice Jesus making things new. That’s happening with Jonah and the whale.
All this time, I thought God sent the whale to punish Jonah. What a terrifying, harsh, and strange way to punish someone for their poor choices: let them get eaten alive by a giant sea creature. Of course, the whale eventually spits Jonah out and he survives, but I assumed that God just changed His mind and decided to be merciful later.
The truth is, Jonah had a death wish. He was in such a pit of despair that he would not allow himself to be rescued by human hands, so God got creative (as He often does). He had a different plan for Jonah, and it didn’t involve his death. Our mistakes never disqualify us from God’s love or from His ability to use us for His purposes, and so He is willing to go to great lengths to rope us back in to the family. Jumping off that boat should have been the end for Jonah, but God wasn’t finished with the story. He would have done anything to redeem Jonah’s story, so He sent a whale.
God would do anything to redeem my story, so centuries later, He sent His Son.
In my own life, things have happened and I wrote them off as punishment. All the while, God meant them for mercy. A weird experience at youth group one night? I thought it was God punishing me for not reading my Bible enough, but I think it was a merciful reminder that Christianity doesn’t fit in a box. A bad break-up? Not punishment for making poor choices in the relationship, but God clearing the way for much better opportunities and teaching me to trust Him. A job loss? Not punishment for idolizing my job, but an opportunity for God to blow us out of the water by the ways He provided moving forward.
Now, don’t get me wrong–I know that God will sometimes ask us to walk through difficult circumstances and trying times (I don’t imagine there was anything pleasant about Jonah’s experience in the belly of that whale). But we lose hope when we forget that God is on our side, not our opponent. What I know now is that His goal is always grace and mercy and Glory and Love. That’s why Scripture tells us He’s working all together for good.
That whale? It was not Jonah’s enemy or an opponent, not Jonah’s final chapter or punishment. That whale was a second chance. It was mercy.
It was rescue.