Swallowed-up Salvation

jonah_by_henryz-d390e3mRecently I was reading my daughter a bedtime story and came across something I hadn’t really thought about before. And yes, bedtime stories are awesome.

Of course most of us know this story: Jonah and the “big fish.” Don’t worry, I’m not going to take sides in the “Whale vs. Great Fish” debate. I’m not really sure that matters. But what does matter is that God used something that Jonah thought was surely his demise to save him.

Let’s review the story: God calls Jonah to go to Ninevah and preach a message of repentance. Now, Ninevah isn’t exactly Disneyland. It’s a rough place known for it’s rampant sin and debauchery. Jonah didn’t exactly jump with excitement at the idea of going to Ninevah and calling these people out in their sin. Who knows what may happen to him? So he did what many of us would probably do: he ran away.

Ever done that? Sensed God calling you one way and head (quickly) in the opposite direction? Yeah, that never happens to me either…

So on the way to Tarshish (the opposite direction as Ninevah), a really nasty storm pops up and the good ship and crew are in peril. The crew starts to throw cargo over the side to lighten the load. Jonah is (amazingly) sleeping during this whole thing, until he’s awaked by the ship’s captain asking him to pray to his “god” to calm the storm and save them (apparently these weren’t all good, God-fearing men on board…plus they were desperate so prayers to any god would do).

The men casts lots (Kinda like rolling dice to find out something about someone. Isn’t that weird? It seems to happen a lot in the Bible…and it usually works! Go figure…) and they determine that Jonah is the one causing the turmoil. He tells them if they throw him overboard the storm will stop and they will be saved. At first they don’t buy it. But after all their efforts have failed, they pray a quick “God forgive us” and throw ol’ Jonah into the violent sea. Immediately the waves subside and the storm stops. (Side note: the passage implies that these guys fear God after this incident, and who wouldn’t? Imagine throwing a guy into the water and the giant wave pool just shuts down. That’d get my attention.)

Now here’s where the story gets interesting. The next verse says “the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). I just love how matter-of-fact that is. Yeah, no big deal, just hanging in the belly of a fish…for three days and three nights. But just take a second and think about what must have been going through Jonah’s head.

He had just walked the plank off the side of a ship into a giant sea-sized jacuzzi. He’s gotta be thinking, “Well, now I’ve done it. I disobeyed God and now I’m going to die.” And I’m sure his assessment of the situation didn’t change much when a HUGE fish swallows him whole. At that point he’s thinking it’s over for sure. (Ever thought that? “I’ve messed up one too many times. Now I’m done for.” Not so with God.)

But what does the verse tell us? It tells us that God provided a great fish to swallow him. The thing that he thought was his death sentence was the saving hand of a loving (and patient) God. Not only was this dark fish belly a great place for Jonah to do some thinking and praying (which is what led him to the sequel: Call to Ninevah: Part 2 – and this time he got the point and said yes to God), but it may have been the only way he could have made it back to shore safely. I’m guessing Jonah didn’t do much long-distance swimming before he made the trip.

So the insight is this: Sometimes the things we think are the end are just the beginning. The things we’re sure will kill us can end up saving us. The darkness we face, the things that are cramped, smelly, and a little bit scary, end up being the things we needed most. Sure it’s cheesy, but God is interested in our growth more than our comfort. And fish-belly doesn’t sound very comfortable (Unless Jonah could speak whale).

So take heart if you’re in a tough spot. Hold on to what you know is true of God. He is providing a way to save you in ways you may not understand.


The Danger of Figurative Faith

In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, chapter 43 verse 2, it says this:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

Now most Christians read these words and are encouraged by them, despite having little actual experience with rivers, fires, or floods. But we get it, right? It doesn’t have to be actual fire. The “fires” are the difficulties we face with our boss at work, or the problems in our personal struggle with sin…right? Well…yes that’s right. But if we aren’t careful, the “translation” that we have to do with verses like this can be a little misleading.

I think most of us understand verses like this to be applicable to our lives in a figurative sense, not a literal one. We let the words roll of our tongue without really weighing what they mean. But it would be wise to be careful here or we may forget that figurative isn’t the same as fake. The “figurative” realities of scripture are as real as the screen you’re reading this on. Maybe even more real…

There’s a popular song that many churches are singing right now by Hillsong United called “Oceans.” It’s a beautiful song that speaks of the way that God leads us out to walk on the waters and trust in him. Many people (myself included) sing this song at the top of their lungs with hands lifted high. But this beautiful metaphor falls under the same category of the passage from Isaiah. If we aren’t careful we may be guilty of treating the truth casually.

So let’s think about this: what does it really mean to ask God to call you to step out in faith, to walk where your own feet would fail? Remember Peter? Do you think it wasn’t scary when Jesus called him to step out of the boat and walk on the stormy water?
I imagine it was terrifying! And yet in our minds we tend to think only about how cool it would have been to defy the laws of physics.

Or what does it mean to pass through the water and the fire? Does that sound fun to you? Deep water has always frightened me, and fire that isn’t in a fireplace has a will of its own. I don’t think I’d enjoy passing through either. How many of us take risks like that on purpose, and what’s more, how many of us actually trust that God will carry us through? That takes more than understanding or agreeing with a metaphor.

I don’t know about you, but I know that I have been guilty of praying prayers like “God please grow my faith” and of singing songs like “Oceans” without really knowing what I’m asking for. I have this disease which makes me incredibly envious of people who have gone through hard things (people with a Ph.D, brain cancer survivors, olympic athletes) because of the benefits that they enjoy. It takes me a minute to stop and consider that those benefits cost them dearly.

Am I willing to pay that same price in order to reap the benefits?

Most of the time the answer is no, I’m just looking for my free “go-to-the-front-of-the-line-without-doing-the-work” pass.

Sometimes we tend to think that everything will be pleasant and easy because we confuse God’s love for us with nothing being hard. But that’s simply the wrong way to think. That reasoning will lead us to immediately question God’s love when things go wrong.
Did you notice that the verse says “the fire shall not consume you”? That doesn’t mean it won’t be scary as heck.

So maybe you are in the fire. Fire takes on many forms, and the Bible is very clear that it proves our character and the quality of our kingdom work (1 Cor. 3:13). Maybe you’re in the flood, barely able to keep your head above water. But if you’ve sung “Oceans” and meant it, just know that the fire is what you’ve asked for, because by the fire your faith is grown. You can’t learn to swim in the kiddie pool.

There’s another song that I love by a girl named Ginny Owens called “If You Want Me To.” One of the lines that sticks with me is

“You never said it would be easy,
You only said I’d never go alone.”

That’s the source of our comfort. Life isn’t always easy, but God is always with us.
You can take that to the bank:

“Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

– Jesus