How do you think about the trouble in your life? I counsel a lot of Christians who have a lot of trouble in their lives. In a way, they are modern-day representations of Jonah–they are being swallowed up by their difficulties.
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One of the things I want to communicate to my “friends-in-trouble” is how they need a bigger vision of who God is, especially when life is going bad. Anything God does to you or allows to happen to you is because He loves you.
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 3rd-grade teacher tells you the story of Jonah and the whale. It sounds cool, doesn’t it? You go home and tell your mommy about the story of the man swallowed by a giant fish.
Your mom begins to tell you how great God is and what He can do. She also says Jonah was a Christian. You dismiss the fact 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 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
When the Storm Chases You
Now let us step into your future. You are no longer eight years old or in a third grade Sunday school class. 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. Your safe little world where God was big and trouble was small has turned into a war between two worlds and God now seems distant. The question I’m asking you is, “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. 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 Jonah can do. He is going down. He is going way down.
The relational and redeeming God of Israel appointed a fish to swallow Jonah. Think about that for a moment. Our great and loving God willfully picked out a fish 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. You do not have to protect Him.
If you believe it was because Jonah sinned, you will want to swim cautiously in those theological waters. You may get yourself entangled in your own doctrinal seaweed. Perchance God did it because Jonah sinned, that makes us a candidate for fish food too. We are just like Jonah–born in sin and guilty of sin. (See John 8:7; James 2:10)
Do not play the sin card too quickly. Sin is not the only reason God will take you down (or, in this case, swallow you up). You must think more deeply and more reflectively about what is going on in this story.
The danger of assigning sin as the reason for 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.”
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Bad Things And God’s Loves
Portraying God as a legalistic parent is a horrible thing to say about Him. It is shortsighted and does not give any consideration to 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 entirely 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 you based on your performance.
Not only are the thoughts that God punishes you every time you sin uncharitable toward His character; if it were true, we all would have been sent to hell a long time ago. Even our good works are stinking works (Isaiah 64:6). Who can stand before a holy God? We must have a deeper reflection about God, trouble, and how it relates to us.
Even though God prepared a big fat fish for Jonah, it did not diminish His great big love for his servant one iota. There is no other way to think about God if you are a Christian. You can never say there is a moment in your Christian life where God does not love you.
There is a real biblical tension here: God loves you, and God will prepare trouble for you. Somehow your theology has to accommodate both of these things. If it does not, you will drown in despair and discouragement.
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
There have been times in my life where circumstances seemed to be closing in on me, and I was so discouraged that the core truth of God’s love was forgotten. Has there ever been a time in your life where you thought maybe God did not love you and Christianity was not real?
A Biblical Response to Trouble
At this point in this chapter, I want to suggest something that may come across as strikingly odd. What if you only had the stuff you were thankful for in the last 48 hours? What if God only gave you the things you have expressed gratitude for receiving?
The point of the thought is diagnostic. Its intent is 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?
- If grumbling was zero and gratitude was ten, where would you be on the scale?
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
It might be good to rewind the tape again to remind yourself where he 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 quick do you regain your spiritual equilibrium so that praise, gratitude, and thanksgiving begin to flow out of your heart?
A Theology of Thanksgiving
God never decrees a humiliation for which there is not a corresponding exaltation. – John Oswalt
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 also decreeing His exaltation (Philippians 2:8-9).
At some level of your confessional heart, you know God will correct all wrongs, and 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), but how you practically live out your theology (your function) when life is going haywire, and God cannot be perceived (Job 23:8-10).
We can trust Him even when we can’t trace Him. – John Newton
The problem with a thankless heart is it reveals poor practical theology–how you think about and live out God in your day-to-day life. And nothing will tell the truth about your heart better than being in deep water.
Gratitude Grounded In God
If your thanksgiving is rooted in your experience, your gratitude will be the equivalent of a roller coaster ride. Some days you will be up and grateful and other days you will be down and grumbling. If your gratitude is more about what you get or do not get, your gratitude is self-centered. Circumstance-centered gratitude is about the person. It asks, what have you done for me lately, God?
If your thanksgiving is not governed by your difficulties, your gratitude is God-centered. This kind of practical application of the Doctrine of God (Theology) will steady you through any storm that He brings your way.
Give some props to our old friend Job here. Though he may have stumbled through forty-two chapters of unremitting difficulty and a few mistakes, he was not completely out-of-step with the Lord.
We see this at the beginning of the calamity that God brought into his life. His “eye” was not on what God gave him or what God took away from him. He focused his heart on one thing: the holy name of the Lord God.
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 1:22-23
Genuine, biblical thanksgiving is more about who God is than what He has done for you. Your deepest and most authentic gratitude fixes itself on the character of God.
Gratitude based solely on experience is like a person who repents because someone caught him. But if a person repents because he is ashamed and broken before a holy God, then he has a repentance that leads to life (2 Corinthians 7:10).
If his repentance is more about changing his situational difficulty or gaining acceptance from his preferred people group, it is probably not real.
The reason I am bringing repentance into this discussion is because if you do not have authentic gratitude, especially when you are in trouble, you must repent right now. You must change.
You see authentic 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.
- You cannot control your gratitude by your circumstances. Jonah was grateful while in the whale.
- Repentance cannot be a trick to change your circumstances. Jonah still had to do what God called him to do.
The remedy for both gratitude and repentance is a grand vision and theological understanding of who God is. A bigger view of God that has authentically affected your soul will make you genuinely grateful and ready to authentically repent. Listen to Jonah.
“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 question for you is whether you are adequately and theologically stewarding the trouble God has brought into your life. 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.
- His repentance needed to be rooted in God.
If your trouble does not teach you how to be grateful and how to repent properly, you may be missing the point of your trouble.
Call to Action
- Are you a grateful person when trouble comes into your life? What does your answer reveal about your theology?
- Is your repentance motivated by a desire to know God better or to change your circumstances? What does your answer reveal about your theology?
- Based on this chapter, what is the primary point of your trouble and how is that changing you?
Also published on Medium.