Monday, October 31, 2016

Prayers from a Shark's Stomach - Jonah 2

Jonah tried to run from the call of God on his life. In his disobedience, he abandoned God’s people and set sail for Tarshish, in modern Lebanon. But God would not let him go. God brought a great storm on the waters. Jonah was cast into the sea, but he did not drown. Instead, a great fish swallowed him. Even so, Jonah lived. 

Both Jonah’s calamity and his salvation came directly from God. The storm was an act of God. The impossible fish was from God too--no ordinary fish would have been big enough to allow him to live in his belly. God was in charge from start to finish.

The story of Jonah is true, but it also has symbolic meaning. When we disobey God, calamity comes. When calamity comes, God preserves us so we can have time to turn our lives around. We may not endure a physical storm, but we all have calamity come to us in one form or another--divorce, bankruptcy, nervous breakdowns, loss of job, loss of health, addictions, failures, and defeats. Our disaster may seem total—like being swallowed by a shark.  But we do not die. God uses our defeat to redirect us towards a greater destiny and a more fruitful manifestation of His will.

Does everyone who gets swallowed by sharks survive? No! Jonah is an exception to the norm. Not everyone who faces catastrophes today survive either. Jonah should have died in that fish’s belly.  We don’t know how he survived, but we know why he survived. He survived because he reached a decision in that fish—a decision that he carried with him when he came out of it. If he had not come to that decision, he would have remained fish food.   When we undergo disaster, we either change or die. That change starts with our relationship to God. 

Jonah 2 is Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish.

Prayer is a direction of thought, feeling and action towards God. When we undergo a calamity, we turn our thoughts to God.

The opposite of prayer is panic. Panic is when our thoughts and emotions direct us, instead of us mastering them. Panic drives us to give up, run away, or strike out at others. You can’t panic and pray at the same time--you either do one or the other. Jonah realized it was no good wasting his emotional energy on needless panic, so he focused that energy in a productive way by turning it into prayer to God.

Jonah’s prayer thoughts focused in three directions—backward in a truthful assessment of life story, upward in a recognition of God’s glory, and forward in thankfulness to his future salvation.
Jonah looked backward.
Proverbs 29: 18 states, “Without vision, the people perish.”  Vision comes from how we tell the story of our lives. The way we interpret the past determines how we live in the present and future. In the midst of disaster, we must examine why things have happened so we can regain our equilibrium and recover our hope.

A testimony is a critical part of a Christian’s spiritual armor. It is not just for telling others about Jesus, but for reminding ourselves of what God has done. Our testimony is the recollection of what God has already done in our lives. 

Jonah in his prayer reveals his interpretation of his recent past. He recognizes that everything that has come upon him came from the hand of God.  God caused the storm. God caused him to be cast into the sea. God sent the fish to swallow him just as he was going down for the last time. Jonah also realized that the only reason he was alive was because of that fantastic fish. What looked like his worst nightmare turned out to be his only salvation.

Every obstacle in your path is God’s obstacle. God has set it there for a reason, to make you stronger and better. Instead of thanking God for this, we either curse Him or doubt Him. If we say God did not create it, then we are inferring that something else did--something more powerful than God. If we say God did create it, and will not provide us a means of coping, then we make God our enemy. But if we recognize that the insurmountable obstacles in our lives are God’s way of changing our direction to a better direction, then we see them as agents of mercy, not means of destruction. The storm and the fish were God’s way of demonstrating how much he loved Jonah. 

Our testimony is the record of God’s work in our lives. Jonah testified to himself that he did not drown. If God had brought him that far, maybe He would bring him a little farther. If God’s hand had brought him safe so far, maybe he would bring him home. That’s what our testimony is—something we tell to ourselves when we are ready to panic and run. Our testimony are the memories that remind us of God’s faithfulness. Putting our testimony in words gives us a tool to fight despair. 

But what if you don’t have a testimony?  What if you cannot think of a way to interpret your story as God’s deliverance? That is where other people can help you. When others tell their testimony, it gives us reason to believe. 

Look at the stories of others.  Jonah testified to what God can do even when you are lost at sea.  Daniel testified to what God can do in a den of lions. Joseph testified what God can do when you are abandoned in a pit and sold into slavery. Mary Magdalene testified to what God can do when you have seven demons in you. Look at the testimony of others and know that God is still in charge. 
Jonah looked upward.

Seeing what God has done in the past leads us to focus on the present. Eastern religions have a word for this--mindfulness. Mindfulness is accepting the present as it is without fear or worry.  It is appreciating the now without waiting for things to get better. It is approaching today with thankfulness and appreciation. 

Jonah didn’t wait till he got on land to start thanking God. He thanked God for his current situation, because he isn’t dead.

We need to be mindful of the blessings we have now, and not judge our lives by where we were or where we want to be. Living too much in the past or future will make us miserable.

I had a friend who had been in the oil business in Texas. In those days, he had a salary that was many times what I made as a minister. He had one child, I had three. His wife did not have to work. His son went to a wealthy private school. But he lost his job and moved to take a job with half the salary. It was still more than what I made. Yet he came to me for counseling, because he was afraid he would not be able to keep his son in a private school and his wife might have to get a job. He was sincerely miserable because he had less than he used to, which was still more than most people. He could not thank God for the abundance he had today. This is the opposite of mindfulness. When we focus on what we don’t have instead of what we have, then we get depressed. But thanking for what we have brings us contentment. 

Jonah didn’t whine about being stuck in a shark’s stomach, but he gave thanks that he wasn’t dead. His mind focused on the present, that God had preserved his life. 

Jonah also recognized that he was better off than most people who were not in the digestive tract of a shark. He prayed, Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. He pitied those whose faith was misplaced. Jonah knew that if he died in the fish’s stomach, he was still more blessed than those who followed vain idols, because he was going to heaven and they were not.  
Don’t envy the rich and popular. They will go to their graves and die in sin. We will die in the Lord, and whatever happens to us is more blessed than what happens to the lost.

Richard Wurmbrandt was a Romanian pastor who was kept for eighteen years in a Soviet prison for preaching the Gospel. When he was first arrested his torturers would play a game with him where they would put a gun to his head and count down from ten, threatening to kill him, just to see how he would react. The first time they tried it, Wumbrandt realized that in ten seconds, he would be with Jesus and a look of ecstasy came over his face. He shouted, “Go ahead, I’m ready.” He came to pity his torturers, because he knew that in God’s eyes, he was far better off than they were. 

I wish all of us could see people the way Jonah did—that we are better off in a fish’s belly with God, than in a mansion without Him.  

Jonah looked forward.

      Jonah repented of his running from God.  Repentance is not a feeling of remorse, nor is it detailed recollection of past wrongs, but it is a decision about the future. Repentance is a decision to change our direction in life.  Repentance is not tied to our feelings of guilt, but to our experience of hope.  It is saying, “I am not the man I was. I can be better.”

Jonah realized if God was keeping him alive in that fish, then he must have a plan for his life. It was not God’s will that he would die in the fish, but that he would survive and do something with his life.
We were created to do something for Christ, not to die in despair. God has a plan for us, which includes making a difference in life. We all do something different, but as long as we are alive, He can still use us.  

My mentor in the ministry was a man named Dr. Robert Marshburn. When he was about my age, he suffered a massive heart attack, and almost died.  He recovered, though and went on to enjoy several productive years of ministry.  Dr. Marshburn told me that he was lying in the bed feeling fretful and anxious. Then a verse came to him that became his life verse from that point on—Jeremiah 29: 11, “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” That heart attack was his Jonah experience. Whether it’s a heart attack or a shark attack, we all come to a point of decision whether or not we will embrace God’s salvation or perish in despair.

God has a plan and a purpose for your life. Embrace that purpose and trust in Him. 

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