I’m working on the renovation of a children’s hospital lobby, and in our creative bliss, my coworker and I included a giant sculptural whale in the design. Wally the Whale is about 5 feet wide, 6 feet tall, and 18 feet long. Children who visit the updated lobby will be able to travel through a tunnel that leads all the way from Wally’s belly to his tail. I’ve spent the past several weeks trying to figure out how on earth we’re going to build this whale we promised our client.
I’ve also had to consider what kids will see as they walk through the tunnel. The hospital is one of the scariest places you can be, as an adult or a child, and being in the belly of a whale isn’t too much better. So how do you turn a terrifying situation into an experience full of wonder, excitement, and awe? How do you find peace in the belly of a whale?
Jonah spent three days and nights in the belly of a whale (“great fish” if you’d like to stick with the biblical phrase). That’s a long time! Three days and nights are especially long if you’re only half-conscious and don’t know what’s coming next. I’ve navigated the small but complicated construction set we’re using for the hospital lobby. Anyone who has passed my desk over the past month or so has probably heard me mumbling, “What have I gotten myself into?”
I imagine Jonah said the same thing when he woke up and realized he was in a fish.
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We don’t know how Jonah spent his time in the whale, but we do know he prayed one of the most epic prayers in the Old Testament. In his prayer, Jonah reveals he almost drowned after being thrown into the sea. When he cried out in distress, as he was losing consciousness, it was the whale that saved him. For Jonah, the whale represented hope, mercy, and salvation. It wasn’t pretty, and it sure didn’t smell good, but that great fish was an answer to prayer.
Now we get to the good part of the story. Jonah is vomited up by the whale, and then he sets out to Nineveh. He completes his preaching assignment, and instead of going home after his epic adventure, he hangs around to watch the destruction of his enemies. When he realizes God had compassion toward the Ninevites and would not destroy them, Jonah becomes angry. He becomes so upset that he tells God he wants to die. Talk about being dramatic!
This part always makes me laugh. Just three days ago, Jonah was sitting inside of a fish thanking God for sparing his life. Now he’s upset because God showed that same compassion and mercy to people Jonah hated. Can you imagine Jonah stomping around the place with the biggest attitude talking about how he wants to die? And God is just like, “Why you mad?”
And that’s it. That’s how the story ends. We have no idea what happens to Jonah. The ending of the book may be amusing, but it’s also extremely frustrating and slightly alarming.
I’d like to think I would’ve been cool with God sparing the Ninevites. But am I being honest with myself? Am I really any better than Jonah?
We’ve all had whale experiences — times we were in a deadly situation of our own making and God saved us in the nick of time. However, the answer to our cry of distress comes in the form of a whale — a place that’s dark, noisy, smelly, and lonely. That’s when it’s important to remember complete deliverance often comes in stages, and the One who used a whale to save you will also prevent you from being digested.
So when complete deliverance comes, what do we take from the belly of the whale? How does it change us?
Our whale experiences should inspire us to extend the same grace we have received to others who need it. Instead, we often lean back in our pews and complain because God hasn’t given those who don’t know Him what we think they deserve. Are we, like Jonah, so arrogant to think only we deserve God’s love and compassion?
Jonah believed salvation was only for Israelites, and sometimes I wonder if we unconsciously believe salvation is only for Adventists. Do our whale experiences inform how we treat other Christians who don’t look like us, eat like us, or believe exactly what we do? Do we get angry or jealous because God loves, accepts, and uses them too?
The book of Jonah is only four chapters long, but the lessons are endless. It’s easy to laugh at the prophet, but I’m sure if we look long and hard enough in the mirror, we’ll see a bit of Jonah in ourselves, too. So during your next whale experience, look around. Like the kids who will travel through Wally, I hope you’ll see tiny lights of hope, be in awe of the one of a kind experience, and emerge as a changed person from the belly of the whale.