Day 1: He huddled in the slime and juices, knees drawn to his chest. Raking a trembling hand through dripping hair, he slowly raised his head to take stock of his situation. Utter blackness overwhelmed him. Sinking back down, he wept. Why me? How could this happen? Curse those wicked Ninevites! But – how am I even still alive?
Day 2: Muttering to himself, he crept on hands and knees in the dark, groping for something, anything, to help. Strange and horrible gurgles punctuated the hollow silence as digestive enzymes showered him. Overwhelmed by the stench, his stomach heaved. I’ve got to get out of here. I shouldn’t be here in the first place. What did I do to deserve this?
Day 3: The leviathan that gulped him down writhed in pain, slamming him against curved rib bones. His hands slipped as he braced himself in vain for the next wave to hit. But his hope had slipped altogether. I give up! There’s no way out!
I cried out to the Lord in my great trouble, and he answered me (Jonah 2:2a NLT).
Have you ever been in great trouble? Have you ever caused your own great trouble? That’s precisely where the prophet Jonah found himself. God had told him to go to the Assyrians living in the city of Nineveh. He was to preach against their wickedness, which was an abomination to God.
Jonah, however, boarded a ship going the opposite direction, directly disobeying God’s command. In response, God stirred up a mighty storm on the sea, and the ship was about to break up. Jonah realized he was the cause of the storm and advised the terrified sailors to throw him overboard. Because of his rebellion against God, Jonah ended up caged inside a giant fish in the ocean’s depths.
Moving from Distress to Dedication
But after stewing in the goo and muck of a fish’s stomach for three days, Jonah’s desperation led him to finally cry out to the Lord (Jonah 2:1-10). Jonah’s plea from the literal and spiritual depths offers us a pattern for returning to God after rebellion. As we digest (pun intended) Jonah’s prayer, we discover his progression from distress to dedication.
Step 1: Realize Only God Can Help Us
I called to you from the land of the dead, and Lord, you heard me (Jonah 2:2b NLT)!
Jonah lasted three days before distress taught him to call on God. I must admit, at times, I’ve taken much longer. We, like Jonah, can become spiritually desensitized from our rebellion. But God allows consequences to quicken our senses and show us we hold no power to fix our own situation. To finally realize there’s only one source of rescue. But we can’t expect Him to intervene while we cling to self-reliance.
What a wonderful promise, though, waits for us when we cry out to God in surrender. Like Jonah, we find that He hears. He answers.
Step 2: Acknowledge God’s Discipline Is Necessary
You threw me into the ocean depths, and I sank down to the heart of the sea. The mighty waters engulfed me; I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves. Then I said, ‘O Lord, you have driven me from your presence. Yet I will look once more toward your holy temple.’ “I sank beneath the waves, and the waters closed over me. Seaweed wrapped itself around my head. I sank down to the very roots of the mountains. I was imprisoned in the earth, whose gates lock shut forever (Jonah 2:3-6a NLT).
On the one hand, Jonah landed himself in a prison of his own making. He chose to run away when God called him. But in these verses, Jonah blames God for his predicament. Indeed, God did cause these consequences for Jonah. They are His discipline given for a specific purpose. But Jonah’s attitude is not accusatory or condemning. Three days in darkness sharpened his vision of the goodness of God’s response to his sin.
What does it take to accept and learn from God’s discipline in our lives? My first inclination when I experience God’s heavy hand is often bitterness. It hurts! I recoil, whimpering and whining in self-preservation. I want my own way!
If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it (Matthew 16:25 NLT).
The truth of this Bible verse must penetrate self-centeredness and become the creed we live by. When we believe God is causing consequences to move us to a better place, we will trust Him through the process and realize a joyful conclusion.
Step 3: Allow the Distress from Discipline to Bring Repentance
But you, O Lord my God, snatched me from the jaws of death! As my life was slipping away, I remembered the Lord. And my earnest prayer went out to you in your holy temple (Jonah 2:6b-7 NLT).
Though Jonah waited until death was near, discipline caused him to finally turn his eyes back to God. To look to Him for hope. Jonah’s words reveal the glimmer of light dawning in his darkness. He responds by stepping toward God in authentic prayer.
A dear friend of mine is stuck in her sin because she believes her sin is greater than God’s grace. That’s just one reason we sometimes stay mired in our consequences. But God is always just a prayer away, and His grace is sufficient for you (2 Corinthians 12:9). Will you repent and turn back to Him now?
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God (Psalm 51:17 NLT).
Have you forgotten about God? Are you simply wallowing in your misery? What might you feel if you turn and find hope in God again, or maybe for the first time?
Step 4: Recommit Wholeheartedly to God
Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God’s mercies. But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise, and I will fulfill all my vows (Jonah 2:8-9a NLT).
I believe Jonah was pointing to himself in verse eight as well as warning others. He rejected God’s mercies for three agony-filled days. But he also testified about his dramatic heart change once he turned back to God. Out of his new heart flowed praise, sacrifice, and obedience. In the book’s next chapter, Jonah immediately traveled directly to Nineveh and delivered God’s warning to those wicked people.
Our joy should gush like water from an open fire hydrant when God rescues us from certain death. God’s mercy should prompt us, like Jonah, to live differently. I’ve heard it put this way: If you have Jesus in your heart, let your face know it, and your life show it.
Your Testimony of God’s Faithfulness
For my salvation comes from the Lord alone (Jonah 2:9b NLT).
We usually think of a testimony as what we have after a trial concludes. But we should note that Jonah prayed his testimony about God before God rescued him. While still soaking in a fish’s digestive fluids, Jonah declared his trust in the truth he knew about God.
Friends, we have much to learn from Jonah’s faith-filled testimonial prayer. The next time you find yourself in the depths, will you call on God to raise you from distress to dedication?