Jonah and the whale is one of the Bible’s great fantastical stories. It’s got drama, it’s got stunts, it’s got a giant fish—it’s practically a Disney movie. To that end, I imagined the famous fish looked something like the enormous whale in Pinocchio and for three days Jonah sat inside its cavernous belly on a wooden raft with a candle and a satchel full of crackers singing, “Got a whale of a tale to tell ya, lads; A whale of a tale or two,” a la Kirk Douglass in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But Jonah’s tale isn’t really a Finding Nemo prequel, it’s a complicated case study about faith versus action and human redemption. It’s also one of the more famous examples of when someone told God “no.”
The story goes that God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, a place known as a “great city.” His instructions were to tell the denizens of said “great city” they’re all wicked and I don’t mean in a “Defying Gravity” sort of way. What’s more, he was supposed to tell them their destruction was imminent. Joel Osteen, he was not. Well, Jonah didn’t want to do any of that so he instead decided to go to Joppa so he could hoppa boat to Tarshish, a place only an Osh-Kosh B Gosh baby could make sound cute.
I have to wonder, what was Jonah’s perspective of God at that point? He knew God well enough to recognize the instructions but he also thought he could outsmart God by traveling in the opposite direction? I feel like he should’ve known better.
God apparently thought so too. Irritated with Jonah’s inability to follow directions, God sent roaring winds over the sea that caused such a violent storm, the men on the boat knew it and everyone on it would soon be toast. I imagined this looked like the storm that wrecked Prince Eric’s ship in The Little Mermaid—the waves rising high into the air, lifting the boat with them. The men on board cried out to their gods and did what they could to lighten the load by throwing excess cargo into the sea, but of course, the problem was actually sound asleep below deck. Eventually, the captain woke Jonah, probably cussed him out, and as a group, the sailors decided it was his fault they were in this predicament. They were correct.
Jonah fessed up to being a Hebrew on the run from God but with the storm only getting worse, the men were less interested in his memoirs and more interested in action. Jonah told the sailors to throw him overboard and by doing so, God would calm the sea. He took ownership of the storm being his fault and that’s to be commended for sure, but where he got the idea being tossed overboard was the solution is beyond me. I assume that’s also a God-thing but again, if he was so connected with the Almighty, why’d he think running was a good option in the first place? It didn’t work for Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride and it wouldn’t work for him. The sailors didn’t care though and gladly threw him over the edge. The waters calmed just as Jonah said they would and the men were like, “Whoa. That God showed up and ours didn’t so I guess we should side with Jonah’s God.”
It’s interesting to me that Jonah’s plight is mirrored exactly in these men on the boat. They tried it their own way before ultimately trusting something bigger was afoot. We see an entire lost-and-then-found, blind-but-now-I-see story arch within the sailors on the boat before we ever even get to Jonah’s Pinocchio episode.
Here’s where the story gets good. Oh yeah, that miracle where God calmed the sea was merely foreplay. The Bible says, “Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” [Jonah 1:17] There’s a lot to unpack in that one sentence.
What must that of felt like? As a kid, I pictured Jonah being dropped right into the fish’s mouth like the Sarlacc on Tatooine in Return of the Jedi. One minute he was asleep on a boat and the next, he was human krill, swallowed by a fish large enough to gulp down a grown man without biting him in half. That’s a scary mental picture. Jonah had to think he was going to die. Wouldn’t you?
On top of that, Jonah was fully aware of his being inside a fish so he was undeniably in a state of psychological shock as he awaited death by digestion. So what did he do? He prayed. I’d like to think I’d do the same should I find myself very much alive in the belly of a fish, but this would never happen to me. My fear of the ocean is so debilitating, I’d never be in a position where that could be a possibility. God would have to get through to me by other means.
In Jonah’s prayer, we get a better picture of what happened pre-fish. He recaps to God how he was hurled into the depths of the seas and how the currents swirled around him. Then, as the waves swept over him, seaweed became wrapped around his head. I don’t like this because it brings to life a very real, very specific, fear of mine.
One summer when I was a kid, my family drove to Tennessee to visit some friends who happened to have a boat and we all thought it was big fun to take it out on the lake for the day. Our swimming back home was mostly relegated to the Rosemeade neighborhood pool during summer evenings when admission was half price, so going out on the lake was a big deal. I loved the wind in my hair. I loved the splash of the lake sewage water in my face. I loved that there were waves, something I’d thought only happened on the ocean. With our life vests on, my siblings, our friends, and I jumped into the lake, paddling around and having a truly great time.
Then a fish skimmed my foot.
There are moments when your life is chopped in two like B.C. and A.D.; when the person you were shifts to being the person you have become. From the moment that fish skimmed my foot—it’s fishy scales glazing my shins—I would never be the same. It was my Jaws. It was the moment when I lost my innocence, when the open water became a foe. There was an animated show that aired on Saturday mornings in the early ‘90s called The Pirates of Dark Water. In it, an elf and a talking winged monkey tried to stop a dark, black part of the ocean from devouring the planet. That’s what lakes became to me; places that were dark, volatile, and where creatures hell-bent on my destruction lay in wait.
When audiences first saw Jaws, they decided to forgo the beach because the movie had put a the fear of nature into them. By the time I saw Jaws, I was old enough to know the shark wasn’t real, but when that fish of undetermined size skimmed past my foot, I kicked and splashed my way back onto the boat and never looked back.
It’s not that I didn’t try to overcome my fear of the lake. As an intern in New York, I spent a weekend at a log cabin on Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey and during the day, we kayaked up the inlet and took turns jumping off the dock into the lake. Forgetting my fears in a haze of sugar-fueled adrenaline, I jumped into the water like my other friends. I wasn’t thinking I needed to tuck my feet under me as I jumped, so when I pierced the water and sank straight to the bottom, my feet landed on the lake floor among the plants and guck. I panicked as if the Creature from the Black Lagoon itself was grabbing at my heels. I pawed and clawed my way through the water and when my face emerged from the lake’s dark waters, I vowed that would never happen again. I inspected my ankles for Creature marks and when I found none, I dried off and shut myself away in the cabin to watch I Love Lucy.
All of that to say, Jonah’s rather calm and measured prayer from inside a fish are to be commended. He told God he would make good on the original plan if he survived this and on top of that, he’d do so with a heart full of gratitude. After three days, God commanded the fish to spit Jonah onto dry land and I have to say, this picture, however redemptive a moment it is for Jonah, is not a pretty one. Fish guts and seaweed and pruny fingers—pruny everything I guess—and lots of fish vomit. God reminded him of what he prayed—that he would make good on God’s original plan—and for the second time, told him to go to Nineveh. This time, Jonah went.
Once he arrived in Ninevah, Jonah walked the streets proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” [Jonah 3:4] He basically became the dude who shouts at people on the subway that the rapture is coming on a specific date but in a weird twist, the Ninevites actually believed him. The news was such a big deal it made it all the way to the king who also believed him. In a really picturesque storybook-ending, the Ninevites turned from their evil ways and because they did, God spared them from the impending destruction.
This is something you’d imagine would thrill Jonah after all he’d been through to get there—nobody died and God was happy (an anomaly among so many of the Bible’s stories)—but instead, it sent him spiraling. He threw a prayer-centric temper tantrum in which he told God he’d rather be dead than see these people alive. That’s right. He’d rather be dead than live in a world where God spared the Ninevites.
“You promised the destruction of these people!”
I changed my mind.
“That’s not fair!”
It is to the Ninevites.
“But I came all this way!”
It’s not only about you, Jonah.
It was perfectly fine for God to spare his life just days earlier, but when it came to the ninnies in Nineveh—the people he believed to be wicked—sparing them was the last straw. Also, the irony of Jonah first telling God no and then God telling Jonah no is a solid full-circle moment.
In a huff, Jonah set up a shelter outside the city and waited to see what happened. Well, nothing happened, but God made a plant grow to give Jonah shade so that was cool. But that night, God sent a worm to eat the plant so when the sun rose, heat blazed down on Jonah’s head to the point where he felt faint. This pissed him off at God, again, and he prayer-pleaded for death.
God told Jonah, “Wake up. You’re so concerned about this shady plant dying but you had nothing to do with its growth or its welfare. Why then should you care if I let the 120,000 human ninnies in Nineveh live now that they’ve seen the light?” Jonah needed to let go and let God. He also needed to know not everything was about him and these people’s lives and livelihoods didn’t affect him in the slightest.
But God sent Jonah there to tell them their days were numbered so isn’t Jonah’s confusion somewhat justified?
I don’t think the point of the journey was the destruction of Nineveh, rather, it was to prove how no matter what was in their past, God cared about their future. God didn’t send Jonah to ensure their demise, he sent Jonah to ignite change among them. Also, Jonah could have looked at the situation far more existentially and seen that parts of those people were destroyed—it wasn’t the breath in their lungs but the wrongs in their behavior—but he couldn’t see their redemption in progress.
Anne Lamott quotes her friend Tom in her book Bird by Bird who said, “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Oh how true this is.
Today, when people are more divided than any other time in modern history, it’s easy to believe God hates large swaths of humanity on basis of how they vote or who they support. I am including myself in that mix. I know God has never hated anyone but when I see the way certain people react or don’t react to what’s going on in our world, I too find myself responding like Jonah. “That’s not right! Get ‘em!” But that’s not who God is. God isn’t a God of retaliation. God is a God of redemption and that redemption is available to us in ways both big and small.
When my drama teams at church became too large for me to direct on my own, I gathered a handful of high school juniors and seniors to help me out. I was a sophomore in college and didn’t have enough time or hands or brains and I needed assistant directors. Since micromanaging is one of my spiritual gifts (like compassion and stress-eating), giving up control to someone else took more faith than I’d ever had to employ before; lots and lots of mustard seeds.
The new youth pastor, who I’ll call Pastor Chris, set some ground rules for my student directors as was his prerogative as the leader of the group. Principle among these rules, he mandated these students had to be involved with all factions of the youth program, not just my drama teams. That meant being at any and all prayer services, youth group outings, and diligent Sunday School attendance. While that may sound very controlling, these kids were already involved with everything at church so the rule was more of a formality. I plainly laid out the expectations and they agreed to them.
Each week during rehearsal, I checked on them as pertained to the rules. I’d been tipped off by Pastor Chris that they weren’t attending all of the events they were supposed to so I reminded them that in order to remain in leadership, they had to show up.
After a summer of performing together, traveling to a national competition, and weeks of prep work for the next season, I was called Pastor Chris’ office on a Sunday afternoon. Under the guise of having a joint planning session for the direction of the drama teams, I was instead accused of using the drama teams as a way to discourage students from attending Sunday School. (Trust me, it was every bit as ridiculous to hear in person as it is to read.)
“I don’t understand,” I said. “I didn’t do that.”
“Well they aren’t showing up and that’s a part of the deal we made for them to be a student leader.”
“Yes I know. Have you asked them about it?”
“It’s up to you to ensure they follow the rules and since they aren’t doing that, we are relieving you of your position as drama director,” he said. He also told me they were more interested in drama team rehearsal than they were in the Wednesday night services, something he accused me of fostering within them. I don’t know why he thought I had the ability to change their minds as pertained to aspects of the church—I wasn’t Taylor Swift, I didn’t have that sort of squad power—but had I not been so shell-shocked by his accusation, I might’ve quipped, “Well, that should tell you something.”
Hours earlier, I shared my heart with my student directors, outlined my hopes for the upcoming year, and we began learning the new material. We were excited and inspired but in the span of a half hour meeting set up under false pretenses, the program I’d spent nearly a decade building fell out from under me. Because of Sunday School. It was quick, like a samurai beheading an opponent with a sword, and it was instantly over. He even told me some of the adult leaders came to my defense but others thought it was best I be let go so he listened to them instead. That part hurt more than anything else.
Calmly, I said, “You’ve chosen to do this for reasons that aren’t true. It’s one thing if you don’t care to hear my side but from the sound of it, you haven’t heard from the teenagers either. I can’t change your mind, but you need to understand, this is going to really upset them.”
I knew the teenagers. This was our jam. This was what we did. We imagined and created together. We worked and problem solved together. We learned to be teammates and leaders together. Now, they had no idea what was about to hit them. After he prayed “over me”—something pastors do mostly as an exercise in getting the last word—ten years of work and heart and dedication at my church came to an abrupt end.
To put this hurt into perspective, this was the church where I’d been dedicated as a newborn, where I’d been baptized as a young teenager, and where I’d spent a year of my life working full time. I’d grown up in this program and now, ten years later, led it. That day, the first real defining chapter of my life came to a close. That’s a heavy, profound, disorienting loss.
So I cried the ugliest of cries. I cried in my car where my tears made my steering wheel wet. I cried at the dinner table as I told my parents. I cried as I had to tell my sister who had just become one of my student leaders and then she cried with me. As the adult youth group leaders who’d spoken up on my behalf emailed to say they were sorry about what happened, I cried some more. I spent days in tears and weeks feeling numb and homeless. I’d become untethered from what had been my foundation for my entire life and that floating didn’t feel like freedom, it felt like failure.
When Pastor Chris informed my student leaders of his decision, it didn’t go well. They were quiet in the meeting but once outside the church, they cussed and screamed and stomped and cried; all things they would’ve probably learned not to do in the Sunday School classes I allegedly dissuaded them from attending. I received frantic phone calls from confused teenagers and I cried all over again as I told them it was all going to work out somehow.
What does any of this have to do with Jonah?
Stay with me.
My assistant directors’ frustration and confusion spread quickly to the other students and parents so a couple weeks later, I was given the opportunity to address them directly. A few dozen of my drama team students, some of their parents, and Pastor Chris gathered in a living room after church on a Sunday afternoon. I felt like I was on trial as I sat alone in the center of the room so I offered Pastor Chris the chance to tell his students why he’d made this decision. He declined and said I should do it which was pretty cowardly. Feeling defeated, I relayed word-for-word the wrongs of which I’d been accused.
I spoke slowly and calmly, trying my hardest not to ugly cry in front of all of them, but before I could finish each sentence, the teenagers began to tear into Pastor Chris with all the delicacy of a chimpanzee on a birthday cake. One-by-one, they shot down every accusation made against me, affirmed who I was as a leader, and took Pastor Chris to task for removing me without bothering to ask them if what he’d heard was true.
“He told us every week to go to Sunday School. Every single week,” one girl said.
“Why didn’t you ask us about it?”
“Yeah, all he ever talks about is Sunday School,” said another. (Some things never change I guess.)
None of this changed the outcome of course. The young pastor had done what he set out to do—he proved he was a big man on campus and got the fresh start he wanted—but that day proved to be the start of my redemption. It redeemed me in an immediate way because my students—my friends—spoke up for me. Like the slow clap at the end of every football movie, they stood up for me and for the truth.
I’ve relived that moment over and over and still today, I can remember every detail of that afternoon. From where each student was sitting to the color of the carpet and how Pastor Chris sheepishly slunk out of the house when it was over, it’s a moment that sits suspended like a picture in a frame. Those teenagers ignited the beginning sparks of redemption in me that day.
Again, what does this have to do with Jonah?
The obvious Sunday School takeaway from Jonah’s story is to do what God tells us the first time; to not take detours of our own design and thus suffer the consequences of following a road that wasn’t outlined for us. It’s a lesson taught via an implausible miracle where a whale swallowed a man whole to provide him a timeout for being disobedient. As kids, we didn’t enjoy timeouts so this message was crystal clear. As a teenager, I was introduced to the fact Jesus refers to Jonah’s plight as a representation of his own death, three days in the tomb, and resurrection. That added a layer of heavy symbolic importance on top of the “obey God the first time” message we learned in childhood.
But Jonah’s wasn’t the only redemption in this story. It’s in the back half—the human half of the story—where we find the everyday redemption.
Consider the plight of Ninevites. Theirs was a redemption on an epic scale; a redemption that literally saved their lives. No, Jonah didn’t like when God defended them and quite frankly, I’m sure Pastor Chris wasn’t enthused when my students defended me either, but just as God redeemed the Ninevites through Jonah’s words and then defended them to Jonah, God did the same for me through the words of my students.
Nearly two years after that meeting, I went to see a large group of my friends and family who’d joined a new church down the highway. They were the ones who’d stood up for me on that fateful day and it was healing to watch them in their drama rehearsal. Seeing them happy with new friends and a new place to hang felt right and restorative.
I left the church I’d always known and the program I’d spent so much of my life building but what I found on the other side was a human understanding of God’s ongoing redemption. It’s happening in all of us. Both the hurter and the hurt are in need of redemption and there’s plenty to be found for both. None of us have it entirely right. We all need to be redeemed on a near-daily basis for our actions, our words, our tweets, and a million other things. But luckily for us, redemption is an ongoing act. It doesn’t have to be on a grand scale with storms and whales and “great cities.” It can be our everyday. Jonah didn’t have it all together but was redeemed and restored, so were the Ninevites, and while I don’t know where Pastor Chris is today, I do know he’s being redeemed and restored just like you and me. Because that’s what Jonah’s story tells us. Redemption is for everyone.
This whale of a tale can be found in the book of Jonah.
So what’s this all about? Read my introduction to the Sunday School for Sinners and Saints project here.
Illustrations by freepik.com