I grew up in Sunday school. I spent a lot of time sitting in front of flannel boards and illustrate Bibles; I watched a lot of Veggie Tales, and I listened to Adventures in Odyssey on the radio. As a result, I often think I know a Bible story well. I think I understand God and the way he works—both in Scripture and in my life. But over time, my faith is evolving and as that happens, my understanding of these Bible stories changes as well.
For awhile, I fought this evolution. (Sometimes I still do.) To embrace a new way of thinking is to concede that the previous way may have been wrong or incomplete, and if there’s one thing my perfectionist self can’t stand, it’s admitting I was wrong about something.
But now, I am learning to appreciate and even love this transition. 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 for me as I read Scripture.
One story that’s changed for me is that of Jonah and the whale.
This is one of those stories that gets used a lot in Sunday school (why?!), 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 wasn’t wrong; he had indeed messed up. Big time. He couldn’t handle the guilt, and 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.
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.
Perfectionism sometimes leads me to live like Jonah, believing that my mistakes are the one factor that defines my standing with God. I am both blinded and paralyzed by this incorrect view of myself, and in those moments, I am hopeless. We lose hope when we forget that God is on our side, not our opponent. I expect nothing but punishment, forgetting that as my friend Rebekah pointed out, Jesus already handled it for me.
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.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who live him, who have been called according to his purpose.” –Romans 8:28
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.
An earlier version of this post can be found here.
All month long, I’m sharing 31 ways to fight perfectionism, as part of the Write 31 Days challenge. You can find all my posts in this series here (or by clicking the “31 Days” button at the top of this page). Tomorrow, I’ll share a personal mantra that has been a game-changer in my fight against impossible expectations.