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And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17).
Let us pretend you are in Sunday school, and your third-grade teacher tells you the story of Jonah and the whale. It sounds incredible, doesn’t it? You go home and tell your mommy about the story of the man swallowed by a giant fish. Your mom tells you how great God is and what He can do. She also says Jonah was a Christian. You dismiss that he was a Christian since you already assumed it anyway. As a third grader, it does not connect with you that God would prepare trouble for one of His children. And it does not matter anyway. You believe in God, and there is nothing He cannot do. Besides, you are tucked away in your bunk bed with your favorite stuffed animal, and Mommy and Daddy are in the next room. It is a wonderful life.
The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever (Jonah 2:5-6).
Now, let us step into your future. You are no longer eight years old or in a third-grade Sunday school class mesmerized by flannel boards. You are unhappily married and have been for what seems like an eternity. Your marriage has the feel of a prison sentence. You are daily drowning in the belly of hopelessness as the weeds of discouragement are wrapping around your head and the bars of bitterness are closing upon you. Nope, you are not in the third grade anymore, and this isn’t Kansas, either. Your safe little world where God was big and trouble was small has turned into a war between two worlds, and God seems distant.
What has changed? Has God changed? Have you changed? Is God still big, good, kind, and loving? How have your beliefs about God changed? How has your world changed you? Perhaps you are not in a stormy marriage. Maybe your storm is some other kind of relational tension. Regardless, the storm is not the main thing anyway. It is merely the context for God to show Himself strong, for you to show yourself weak, and for God to magnify Himself through your inability (2 Corinthians 4:7).
The storm has come, and Jonah is in a sea of trouble. Yahweh has appointed a great big fish to swallow him. There is nothing he can do. He is going down. He is going way down. Israel’s relational and redeeming God appointed a fish to swallow this little man. Think about that for a moment. Our great and loving God willfully picked out a fish from the massive ocean to swallow one of His children. Maybe someone would interject and say it was because Jonah sinned. This diversion could be an attempt to protect God’s reputation by getting Him off the hook. God is love. How could a loving God cause trouble? Be released: God will be okay. We do not have to protect His reputation.
But you do want to swim cautiously in those theological waters if you believe it was because Jonah sinned. You may get yourself entangled in doctrinal seaweed. If God did do it because Jonah sinned, then we’re all candidates for fish food. We are just like Jonah—born in sin and guilty of sin. (See John 8:7; James 2:10.) We must not play the sin card too quickly. Sin is not the only reason God will take us down (or, in this case, swallow us up). It would be best to think more deeply and reflectively about what is happening in this story. The danger of assigning sin to Jonah’s trouble can be an unintentional accusation against God’s character. You may have heard something like this before: “Be careful. If you do that, God will get you.”
Portraying God as a legalistic parent is a horrible thing to say about Him. It is shortsighted and does not consider His infinite love, mercy, patience, forbearance, grace, or the greater purposes He may be orchestrating in an individual’s life. Job’s friends made this mistake while missing the point that God had bigger fish to fry. Criticizing Job as a sinner is shallow thinking laced with legalism. Legalism says that God blesses or curses us based on our performance. Not only are the thoughts that God punishes us every time we sin uncharitable toward His character; if it were true, we all would have landed in Hell long ago. Even our good works are stinking (Isaiah 64:6). Who can stand before a holy God? We must reflect deeper on God, our troubles, and how it relates to us.
For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight” (Jonah 2:3-4).
Even though God prepared a big fat fish for Jonah, it did not diminish His great love for His servant one iota. If you are a Christian, there is no other way to think about God. You can never say there is a moment in your Christian life where God does not love you. There is an indisputable biblical tension here: God loves you and will prepare trouble for you. Somehow, our theology has to accommodate both of these things. If it does not, we will drown in despair and discouragement. There have been times when circumstances seemed to be closing in on me, and I was so discouraged that I had forgotten the core truth of God’s love. Has there ever been a time when you thought maybe God did not love you and Christianity was not real?
At this point, I want to suggest something that may appear strikingly odd. What if you only had the stuff you were thankful for in the last 48 hours? Or, what if God only gave you the things you have expressed gratitude for receiving? The purpose of my questions is diagnostic. It intends to measure the condition of your heart, particularly how you relate to God while living in a corrupt and discouraging world. Would you be characterized as a grateful person? Where would you be on the scale if grumbling was zero and gratitude was ten? One of the oddities of Christianity is the seemingly universal deficiency of grateful hearts. When you think about who you are and what you have, there should be an evident and authentic response of gratitude. Here is how Jonah said it:
When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you (Jonah 2:7-9).
God never decrees a humiliation for which there is not a corresponding exaltation. – John Oswalt
It might be good to rewind the tape to remind yourself where Jonah was when he talked about his gratitude to God. He was in the belly of a big fat fish. Pretty cool, aye? Okay, maybe pretty cool is not the best way to say it. How about, “Pretty profound, aye?” When life is strangling you, what comes out of your mouth? After a few days in the belly of your trouble, how quickly do you regain your spiritual equilibrium so that praise, gratitude, and thanksgiving begin to flow out of your heart? It may be good to think about the gospel at this point. God decreed humiliation for His dear Son (Ephesians 1:3-10). But He did not do this without decreeing His exaltation (Philippians 2:8-9).
At some level of your confessional heart, you know God will correct all wrongs. You will overcome the evil in this world (John 16:33). You also know there is a divine purpose in the troubles He allows into your life (Genesis 50:20). The problem is not so much what you know (your confession). Still, the key is how you practically live out your theology (your function) when life is going haywire, and you cannot perceive God (Job 23:8-10). The problem with a thankless heart is that it reveals poor practical theology—how you think about and live out God in your daily life, and nothing will tell the truth about your heart better than being in deep water.
We can trust Him even when we can’t trace Him. – John Newton
If our thanksgiving is rooted in our experience, our gratitude will be the equivalent of a roller coaster ride. Some days, we will be up and grateful; others will be down and grumbling. If our gratitude is more about what we get or do not get, our gratitude will center on ourselves. Circumstance-centered gratitude is about the person. It asks, what have you done for me lately, God? If our difficulties do not govern our thanksgiving, our gratitude is God-centered. This practical application of the Doctrine of God (Theology) will steady us through any storm He brings our way. Give some props to our old friend Job here. Though he may have stumbled through forty-two chapters of unremitting difficulty, with a few mistakes along the way, he was not utterly out-of-step with the Lord.
And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong (Job 1:21-22).
We see this at the beginning of the calamity God brought into his life. His eye was not on what God gave or took away from him. He focused his heart on the holy name of the Lord God. Genuine, biblical thanksgiving is more about who God is than what He has done for us. Our deepest and most authentic gratitude fixes itself on the character of God. Gratitude based solely on experience is like someone repenting because someone caught him. But if a person repents because he is ashamed and broken before a holy God, he has a repentance that leads to life (2 Corinthians 7:10).
It is probably not genuine if his repentance is more about changing his situational difficulty or gaining acceptance from his preferred people group. I am bringing repentance into this discussion because if we do not have authentic gratitude, especially when we are in trouble, we must repent right now. We must change. We see genuine gratitude and sincere repentance in Jonah’s life. He was grateful to God while he was in the belly of a whale. And he repented to God even though his circumstances did not change: he still had to go to Nineveh. We cannot control our gratitude by our circumstances. Jonah was grateful while in the whale. Repentance cannot be a trick to change our circumstances. Jonah still had to do what God called him to do.
“But I with the voice of thanksgiving (gratitude) will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay (repentance). Salvation belongs to the LORD!” And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land (Jonah 2:9-10).
The remedy for both gratitude and repentance is a grand vision and theological understanding of who God is. A more extensive view of God that has authentically affected our souls will make us genuinely grateful and ready to repent. The question for us is whether we adequately and theologically steward the trouble God has brought into our lives. As you see in the story of Jonah, there are at least two good reasons the fish swallowed him. His gratitude needed to be rooted in God, and his repentance needed to be rooted in God. If our troubles do not teach us how to be grateful and repent appropriately, we may be missing the point of our troubles.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).