Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.
There’s a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth that has particularly held on to me since I first read it 20 years ago. It comes at the point when Macbeth decides that the only way to allay his tortured conscience is to simply accept that he must continue as he has started:
I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
It might seem an odd quote to mention here, and a disturbing one at that. But I’ve always seen Macbeth as a play much more about mental illness than about murder, and there are many resonances with what Macbeth says here and, say, anxiety or anger. There’s physically a point when we are consumed by either emotion so quickly and decisively that it would be far harder to calm down than to simply let the feeling run its course. And indeed this is how our bodies sometimes respond; if we fail to breathe properly for long enough while in panic, our bodies eventually shut down so that we have time to reset. Or sometimes when we are angry it takes something dramatic, like punching a wall or having someone react strongly back at us, to make us “snap out of it”.
As with anxiety and anger, so with ignoring God. We begin on a path of huffish indifference, and then it continues until, even in the midst of a storm, we don’t think to pray. And it takes something monumental to get our attention, to break through our indolence and pride.
So it is with Jonah. Again, the scene that awaits us is so familiar that we tend to rush towards it. The children’s Bibles that I read my sons often do: Jonah is in the fish, they seem to say; let’s quickly make him pray and then get out of the fish and do the right thing at last. But that’s not how it goes, at least not how it feels for Jonah, who like Jesus must remain in the tomb for three days before returning to the land of the living. And who knows at which point in the three days Jonah starts to pray; but this, significantly, is the first time in the whole book that Jonah talks to God. The book begins with God talking to Jonah, but at no point in the first chapter does Jonah himself talk to God. Only when God has sent a life-threatening storm and then a giant fish to swallow him does Jonah pray.
It shouldn’t have taken a storm. It shouldn’t have required Jonah to be thrown into the water. It definitely should not have warranted much time at all inside the fish’s belly. But Jonah, like me, takes a long time to shake out of his rage against God and turn towards God instead. Why? Because he, like me, would much rather call the shots than be called to join in what God is doing.
This is why we need Advent, and why I am taking such a circuitous route to get there. Because what God has done in Jesus is so counterintuitive, so contrary to what we would demand of God in our pride, that, if we are to have any chance of seeing God’s work for what it is and participating in it as we should, we’re going to need to learn to listen to God in the midst of our rage. Praise God that He sends storms and whales. Praise God that He has come himself into this rage of being flesh.