Faith Stories: Jonah’s Slimy Mess
A Personal Reflection on Jonah 1:17 – 2:10
This summer the children’s Sunday school classes did a lesson about the story of Jonah in the belly of the fish. I had previously assured my class we would make slime my next Sunday teaching – the activity planned before the lesson known – and we decided the slime could represent what Jonah was in when he was spat out of the fish. Now that’s some tactile imagery!
While thinking about that and reading the Scripture something hit me.
Even in our lowest, loneliest moments; in our most overwhelming places and shame-filled spaces; in the dirtiest, stinkiest, darkest, most hopeless spots of our lives, God remains with us, knowing us, loving us. Did you get that? He is present, He knows us and He loves us anyway. When the rough waters of conviction prompted Jonah to go overboard, Jonah put himself in that turbulent, watery expanse, that dangerous, desolate place, and only God’s intervention could save Jonah from himself and his self-inflicted predicament.
Jonah, a singular man swallowed whole by a beast of the depths, stewed and lamented in slimy muck with nowhere else to go; the fish’s gut his sanctuary. Being swallowed up by miraculous, fishy saving grace was Jonah’s best case scenario. All we know of the three days and three nights Jonah spent in the belly of that great fish is that he prayed.
How frightening, this helpless state. Imagine being alone in the belly of that fish, the preferred alternative, the better choice, given the options afforded by consequences of failing to trust and obey. God’s merciful providence is undoubtedly the way out. It is always present, even if not recognized as such, or smelly or slimy or not very pretty: it is the opportunity to receive the discipline of Abba in His wise judgment and reconcile back to Him, as opposed to inevitable sinking into the depths of certain death in the middle of the vast, deep sea, seemingly outside of God’s presence, a shameful consequence of one’s own defiance.
Repentant Jonah began his prayer in the belly of the fish with a heart of distress. He experienced the very real consequence of his disobedience, but in looking to God his life was lifted up from the pit.
Our loving, unfailing, attentive Father readily provided Jonah a means out of the depths by way of the fish that consumed him. Jonah turned back to God with a renewed heart of humility and a renewed spirit to do the work God again asked him to do – that which he had previously avoided so desperately. That gross, nasty place was his saving grace. So now I’m thinking: Maybe my gross places are rooms for saving grace to dwell, too.
Truly, it is best to just own our slime and recall the consequences of being consumed by it, lest we forget and be consumed again. And, of course, give it to God.
In prayer, the perspective of Jonah’s heart changed. Isn’t it amazing how God changes us in sweet prayer? Ah, the sickening grief of being lost and alone dissipates, replaced with the awareness of being sweetly sought and found! The joy of hope alive again, even in the slime! What intimate miracles God weaves in our hearts and lives from the time we drop to knees to the time of rising renewed in his power!
Mindful of God’s loving correction, and while in the same nasty space, Jonah grew hopeful, praising God for deliverance and surrendering, once again, as a sacrifice for God’s good and perfect purpose with the resolve to trust and obey. Deliverance and freedom were given to him as God brought him up from the depths, saving him as the fish vomited him out onto dry land. I can just see it – Jonah, standing there on the shore, saturated in muck and gloriously free! Jonah is restored, called and entrusted to God’s service once again! Prayer changed the tone of his heart from selfishness to selflessness and prompted him to turn back to God.
At least in that moment.
And then he was defiant again. And again. And God corrected him again and again. Rightfully, the book of Jonah closes with God’s instruction, and the reader is not made aware of how Jonah responded, whether or not he repented (again).
I’ve gleaned that while our humanity – fear, insecurity, anxiety, selfishness-will never fail to bring us to a place of consequence birthed from defiance, God will never fail to be loving Father and teacher of wisdom, mercifully patient of our anger and frustration. This is truth. Never should we dare to mistake God’s kindness for weakness! But from time to time in our humanity we will most rightfully stand to be corrected. Our Father’s tough, parental love will always convict the heart needing correction. We only need look to the Father and receive the lesson.
How did Jonah respond in the end? As human we can surely count on him, and us, to be obedient one moment and defiant the next. Such is the human condition, juxtaposed against the unfailing, assured, consistent nature of Loving God. So we repent and turn back to God, again and again, and we are forgiven again and again, as we strive to return to the pursuit of service and self-denial, to trust and obey, and to be made trustworthy. Even while we are inconsistent and unreliable, moody and temperamental, spoiled and ungrateful, our loving, patient Abba is the same as He has always been, today and every day. Yes! We can find our faith, even in the slime. Faith found will surely see us through. Again and again and again.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.