Traditionally, the language of our faith is uttered in the extreme—salvation from the fires of hell, empty tomb after three days, two of every animal on the ark. That’s because there is no limit to the message of salvation. No matter how terrible things get, God’s promise to save is always bigger. Still, though, I find it fascinating to read the plea of a desperate man.
In today’s lesson from the Old Testament (Jonah 2:2-9), we read Jonah’s prayer to God from the belly of a fish. Even in my biggest, longest, most complete book of prayers, there isn’t one that even comes close to covering that. The story of Jonah in miniature: Jonah is told to go and preach to the enemies of Israel, he refuses and flees on a ship, God pursues him with a storm, and then he is cast overboard, only to end up being swallowed by a great fish. And while inside that fish, Jonah utters a prayer of desperate thanksgiving—“O God, just when I thought it was all over, you saved me. Deliverance is yours.”
What I find particularly fascinating about this story is that Jonah had pretty much turned his back on God. In fact, he was running away from God as quickly and thoroughly as he could. God found him, but that wasn’t pleasant. Jonah reached a point of desperation: “Then I said, ‘I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?’” In other words, Jonah thought his number was up. He thought God had decided to kill him. Given his circumstances, who wouldn’t? And the central way that Jonah expresses that desperation is by saying that he had been cast out of God’s presence—cut off from God. But just then, just when he thought he was separated from God forever, God hears that expression of lostness as a prayer and saves him.
Jonah recalls, “When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple.” Even his giving-up remarks were received by God as a prayer for help, and God heard that prayer and responded.
Perhaps faith should be defined as the ability to discern God’s presence and providence in even the worst situations. Essentially, Jonah was half-drowned because he refused to accept God’s call. He was thrown into the sea, surely to perish, and yet he was swallowed by a giant fish. Jonah saw that as salvation—even before he was vomited up on the beach. I’m not sure I would be able to see it as such.
Jonah had faith. In his moments of desperation, he was still able to connect the dots back to God. Usually, facing that sort of circumstance, I might conclude (wrongly) that God was absent. And maybe Jonah almost got to that point. Maybe the real message here is that God is bigger even than our faith in him. Whatever the case, Jonah’s prayer from the fish’s stomach points to deep faith—odds-defying faith. How am I called to look for God’s presence in even the most desperate situation?