The Storm Inside

For the sea grew more and more tempestuous

As Jonah flees the presence of the Lord, and sails in the opposite direction of Ninevah, God sends a great storm after him.

The tempest is unrelenting and causes terror to all the guys on board so finally Jonah tells them it’s all his fault and they better just toss him into the sea to save themselves.

Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.

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A big fish comes and swallows him up and for three days and three nights Jonah sits there in the belly before he is eventually spit back out on to dry land.  Finally he goes to tell those wicked Ninevites to repent of their awful ways. They do, and their lives are spared.

The end?

Like all bible stories, we can make this one so neat and tidy and sanitized.

But last week as I spent every morning reading and praying through this odd little story in the middle of the minor prophets, I was struck by how untidy it actually is and I was overwhelmed with pity for Jonah.

The story is pretty linear, but through it all Jonah is ONE. HOT. MESS.  not to mention an emotional roller coaster (finally, a biblical character I can relate to!!!)

Early on in the narrative we see relief when the storm stops after Jonah gets thrown in the water…

So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging

 

…but if you read all the way to the end we find Jonah out of the city, overlooking Ninevah and SEETHING with anger that the Lord would relent and not punish such an evil city. He quite literally cannot handle God’s compassion toward an undeserving people.  It was in the moments reading this part of the story and identifying a little too much with how pissed off he was, that I realized that the storm had not actually ceased.

Not only had it not ceased, but in fact the storm was never out there over the sea.  Not really.

The storm, the real storm in this story, is raging inside Jonah’s heart.

At the beginning he is fleeing the very presence of Yaweh.  That’s nothing new, we see Adam and Eve do the same thing after their disobedience.  But regardless of whether it is from sin and shame, fear, or anger – a soul fleeing the presence of the Lord is an unsettled, tempestuous, and raging storm.  

In the belly of the fish and in Jonah’s prayer, even amidst his praising and thanksgiving, we see evidence of great despair.

For the sea grew more and more tempestuous.

Jonah’s storm keeps growing and growing and growing, even after he is obedient to God’s instructions.

Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.  Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.

So God asks him this question that has pierced my own heart…

Do you do well to be angry?

Well, I guess Jonah thought he did do well to be angry, because he plops down with a view of the city so that he could sit in judgement of Ninevah since God obviously wasn’t going to do it.

I swear I can almost hear him muttering under his breath and feel his anger – his heart pounding and mind racing and teeth clenching.

I can hear those mutterings and feel those things because I have had the same storm in my heart.

However, because our great God cares just as much about  Jonah’s heart as he does about the whole city of Ninevah, He keeps pursuing.  He provides, and then immediately takes away, a shade plant to help demonstrate both His almighty authority and His tender mercy.

Now the Lord God appointed a plant[b]and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.  But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint

But once again, Jonah is just not having it, and becomes livid when his shade tree shrivels up.

So, again God says these words to him:

Do you do well to be angry?

Jonah plays no games with his response,

Yes, I do well to be angry, ANGRY ENOUGH TO DIE!

For the sea grew more and more tempestuous

I am really (I mean REALLY) good at identifying the storms around me.  I can pick out sinful Ninevites from a mile away, I can have laser beam focus on disaster around me and pinpoint precisely who is at fault.

But really, just like the billowing waves garner all the attention of Jonah’s story – all these exterior storms can draw my attention away from the real problems God wants to address.

Those outside storms are easier, in someways, to tackle.  I mean, I’m sure it took some guts, but at least Jonah knew exactly what to do to get the storm to stop on the boat. Just throw me in and the storm will stop! The wind and the waves inside, however, are insidious and confusing and stronger than any hurricane.

In the Gospels when there is a great storm for Jesus to calm, it is paralleled with the confusion, hardness of heart, and lack of faith in the disciples.   Jesus can easily calm the sea, but what about their hearts?  What about the storms inside?

These storms grow from wounds and fear and shame and disbelief and have deep, deep roots and a strong grip on all of us.

The things within that cause me to flee the Lord,  to despair, and to seethe with self-righteous anger are not easily calmed.  There is rarely a quick fix, especially when I am convinced the storm is out there somewhere, not in my own heart and mind.

My only hope is the tender, steadfast and ongoing work of the Holy Spirit who will not rest until my hearts is His.   God has no desire for a robotic, Stepford prophet to do his bidding. Rather, our intimate and compassionate Creator desires a prophet whose heart is whole and worshipful and soft and loved.

While this is indeed a story of God’s mercy and prerogative to save a sinful city, it is also a story of God’s compassion and prerogative to save a a sinful man as He pursues with storms and whales and scorching east winds so that Jonah can truly see and know and love the God whom he serves.

I pray all the time for the storms out there – for God to intervene and save and change! Amen!  But God is faithful to minister both tenderly and expertly to me.  And sometimes that looks like sending a storm out there for me, so that I can more clearly see the one within.

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My afternoon art:  Jonah’s Perspective
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