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When You Fall or Feel Like a Failure, Remember Jonah

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Editor’s note: This is part two of a series of reflections on the Book of Jonah. Read part one – Am I My Enemies’ Keeper?

My brother and I were raised by our grandmother, Genevieve. On more than one occasion she told me and Derrell that falling down was a part of life. She told us that there was nothing bad about failing or falling down. What’s most important is not that you fell, but that you were willing to get back up, fix your mistake, and try again. In addition to regularly helping us get up and dust ourselves off, she would encourage us to never let our mistakes hold us hostage. She would tell us that our past mistakes did not have control of our futures.

In a sense, in Jonah 2, the book’s title character is on the way to learning this same lesson. The protagonist dealt head on with the fact that he had sinned when God called him to deliver a message to the inhabitants of Nineveh. By refusing to go to that city, he had fallen short, made a mistake, or whatever way we want to put it, and he had to deal with the consequences of not getting things right. But, before it was all said and done, Jonah was reminded of God’s love towards him, even though Jonah had failed.

In Jonah 1, God gave Jonah a simple task: preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. The problem was that Nineveh was home to the mortal enemies of Jonah’s people. Jonah didn’t want to see the people of Nineveh repent and receive God’s grace. He wanted them to suffer and die for everything wrong they had done to the children of Israel. So, instead of going to Nineveh as God had commanded, he boarded a vessel that was going in the opposite direction of Nineveh.

Before any of us pass judgment on Jonah, if we all were to be honest, we could probably acknowledge that Jonah acted as many of us would if we were given such a task by God. We would put ourselves in the position of judge and jury and determine that our ought against a person or group of people was more important than their livelihood. They would not be given the opportunity to offer forgiveness for their sins that we hold tight to. Like Jonah, we too would have likely gone in the opposite direction. And we would have felt righteous about doing it.

But Jonah’s sense of justice was misplaced. God’s ability to love and forgive was not focused solely on Israel. It also included their enemies. The problem was that Jonah couldn’t accept a God who could have a change of heart. He couldn’t accept God’s conception of justice. Jonah’s conception of justice resembled what modern Christians have called a good works philosophy, where deliverance must be merited by the cumulated actions of a lifetime.

For Jonah, Nineveh was the symbol of all that was evil in the world and representative of all the people who opposed God. Thinking that any repentance from the people of Nineveh would likely be short-lived, Jonah couldn’t picture himself participating in such a traitorous act. So, Jonah does what he thinks is best, and tries to run in the opposite direction. But Jonah couldn’t flee from God’s will and he eventually found himself sinking to the bottom of the sea after he was thrown from a ship during a tremendous storm. The saving grace of the ordeal was that his descent to a murky grave was prevented by a great fish that swallowed him.

What we read in Jonah chapter 2 is a psalm that describes his thoughts after finding himself in the belly of this great fish. As is true of many of the traditional psalms that we read, this psalm is a plea for God’s mercy and grace, and a praise for God’s eventual deliverance. Jonah found himself in a place of literal and figurative darkness where he couldn’t save himself. He found himself in darkness that was rightly deserved. It’s written from a place of fear, pain, acknowledging sin, and repentance. It’s a confession acknowledging that he may die because he hadn’t done what God wanted him to do. Because he went against God’s wishes, he literally and figuratively was descending to his death. But he knew that God had the ability to mercifully deliver him.

(Photo: Soragrit Wongsa/Unsplash)

Have you ever found yourself in darkness that was well-deserved? I don’t ask this question to point a finger at you. I ask it as a way for us to be truthful with ourselves. Every dreary day isn’t someone else’s fault. Every trial that we face in life isn’t someone else’s doing. Sometimes we are the reason we are where we are.

It’s hard for me not to think that Jonah realized this and had this as an underlying component of his prayer. It’s also hard for me not to think that Jonah could see this predicament as more than just a punishment for refusing to follow God’s direction. I imagine he could also see it as his potential salvation. If that was his thought, he was right.

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Three days after being swallowed by the great fish, he received the sign that God had heard his prayers of repentance and petition. God was not still angry at him, and, although he had fallen, it was time for him to get back up. The great fish eventually released him onto dry land where Jonah could literally breathe a sigh of relief. Jonah was given a second chance. But Jonah was not in the clear. God turned around and gave him the same commandment that sent him running in the first place. God has work for Jonah to do and God will not give up on Jonah being His vessel of salvation for the Ninevites.

I see parallels between Jonah’s experience and the challenges we try to navigate in our daily lives. Like Jonah, we will fall. We will sin, miss God’s holy mark, and make mistakes. When we fall, fail, and mess up, we may feel like we are descending to the depths, the dark places in life. But that’s not always a dreadful thing. Descending can be part of the process God uses to get us where God is trying to send us. That’s part of the irony of the grace that is shown to ragamuffins like you and me. Although it is a good thing when we do as we should the first time, God is still able to use us, and sometimes even more so, after we have fallen down.

God’s grace is found in our perfect, obedient days, as well as in the days when God interrupts us and asks us to do things we just don’t understand. May our days be filled with fresh discoveries of faith that involve not just ourselves and those we love, but involve those whom we don’t necessarily love but would benefit from experiencing God’s love as we have. Amen.


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    Written by Terrell Carter

    Terrell Carter is assistant professor and director of contextualized learning at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, and pastor of Webster Groves Baptist Church. He is the author of multiple books, including the forthcoming volume Healing Racial Divides: Finding Strength in Diversity (Chalice Press). You can follow him on Twitter @tcarterstl.