The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”
“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”
Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.
I wonder what Jonah expected at the moment of being thrown into the raging waters. He seems at this moment to recognise his responsibility, to know that he is the cause of the storm, so perhaps he expects that, when he is thrown overboard, the storm will end. But what does he expect will happen for him personally? He certainly could not expect what comes next – the part to the story that is so well known that I want to delay it a moment longer before looking at it. He could never have seen that coming, and so I want to pause at this point of uncertainty. I want to freeze on Jonah at the very point when he plunges into the sea: what does he expect at that moment?
He knows, as we saw in yesterday’s passage, that his God is the “God who made the sea and the dry land”. And so no doubt he expects that God has control over the sea as He does over all things. But what does he think will happen when he is thrown at the mercy of this all-powerful God, after having defied and run away from Him? Is Jonah’s only thought one of freeing others from the storm, or does he consider what might happen when he hits the waters and goes under?
Perhaps he doesn’t think that far ahead. One of the effects of anger is that we become unable to think outside the constraints of the thing that has made us angry. The kind of intensified emotion that our brain experiences in times of anger actually shuts off the brain’s ability to contextualise, and so we often find ourselves stuck in a catastrophic present moment, unable to think of elements to the past, the present or the future that might alter or at least ameliorate our responses. Jonah, I suspect, does not think of very much at this moment apart from seeking an end to the storm. He makes it as far as recognising that he needs to face up to God, but there’s no sense that he expects mercy or restoration from God, simply justice: a black and white model of retribution, no doubt the same model that has led him to think that the Assyrians do not deserve forgiveness in the first place.
And so Jonah plummets into the waters, and in a moment the sea is calm. What then? Does he take a breath, relax, and wonder if all might be well? Or does he find himself plunging deeper, moving further out of control even as the waters above the surface become still? Sometimes this is all we can do, to plunge into the abyss, in the hope that we will find God there. Yet this is the very thing that we needed to do in the first place, that we were unwilling to do: to plunge into the chaos of our thinking and instability, with God there to navigate it for us. Instead, we chose anger, resentment, running away. The abyss never left us, even when we tried to silence it or disguise it with rage. Now we have to face it; plunging head-first, we enter the abyss, and find that God has always been there, waiting for us.