Over the years there have been several stories of people swallowed by whales. Most of them fall into the category of “tall tales” probably inspired by the story of Jonah. The most often told of these stories is that of of James Bartley, which appeared in the New York Times in 1891. While the story is probably not true, one detail of the story seemed interesting. It was the description of what the man supposedly looked like when he was cut from the whale.
“During the brief sojourn in the whale's belly, Bartley's skin, where it was exposed to the action of the gastric juices, underwent a striking change. His face and hands were bleached to a deadly whiteness, and the skin was wrinkled giving the man the appearance of having been parboiled ...”
When Jonah came out of the fish, he probably would have looked this way—skin a ghostly pallor and wrinkled skin—like a man returned from the dead. That is exactly what he was. He resembled the walking dead!
Now imagine the effect a man with such an appearance would have in a superstitious city like Nineveh. Here is a walking ghost, fresh from a fish’s belly, walking through their streets shouting that the city would be destroyed in forty days. The whole effect must have been horrifying. No wonder they repented!
Now let’s imagine what it would have been like if Jonah had obeyed the first time. He would arrive in the city as an ordinary, middle class merchant. I seriously doubt it would have had such a devastating effect. More than likely they would have laughed him out of town! Our appearance makes a difference. If we look and act like we have just come from a fresh encounter with God, then more people will think that we actually have!
Jonah’s journey to Nineveh gave proof to what he said. No one would have believed Jonah without his physical appearance and his incredible story. Jonah’s rebellion, disaster, and deliverance did not disqualify him for speaking for God. On the contrary, it made us believe it. His failure and near death became the instrument of his success.
Christianity is unique among religions in that it recognizes the importance of defeat. We do not really live until we die. We are not exalted until we are humbled. If Christ had not died, there would be no resurrection.
His ministry on earth was by all human measurements a failure. It lasted three years, before the Romans crucified Him. But when He rose from the dead, He was like Jonah, displaying on His own body the living symbol of God’s Grace. He even quoted Jonah’s story as the foreshadowing of His. In Luke 11: 30, Jesus said, “For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” His return from the dead, like Jonah’s was God’s declaration of victory.
What was true of Jesus was also true of His disciples. Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ greatest woman disciple, yet she had been a prostitute, infected with seven demons. Paul was a persecutor of Christians and a murderer, yet Jesus made from him His greatest apostle. Peter was a coward and a liar who became the head of the church. Those who fail God at first often become His greatest prizes. Their blemishes become trophies.
The same can be true of us. Our failures, may be transformed by God into trophies of success. When we fail, we may either give up or repeat them over and over, or we can trust God and learn from them.
Failures do not have to be fatal. Look at the example of Abraham Lincoln. In 1832, he lost his job. The same year, he ran for state legislature and lost. In 1833 he went into business, failed, and declared bankruptcy. In 1834, he was elected to the state legislature, but in 1835 his sweetheart died and he had a nervous breakdown, which continued to plague him with severe bouts of depression for the rest of his life. He ran for speaker of the state house of representatives and lost in 1839. In 1845 he ran for congress and lost. Later he won, but in 1848 he lost re-nomination by his own party. In 1849 he ran for land officer and lost. In 1854 he ran for the U S Senate and lost. In 1856 he was defeated for the vice presidential nomination, and in 1858 he again lost a bid for the senate. Yet in 1860 he was elected President of the United States.
How could a man with so many defeats win such a prize? It is not in spite of his defeats, but because of them. Defeat made him who he was. It was not in spite of his time in a fish’s belly that Jonah became great, but because of it. It’s not in spite of your failings that we become Godly but because of them. God only uses people who have first been broken on the wheel of suffering. When suffering refines us, only then can we be trophies of God’s grace.
Defeat can perfect us or defeat can destroy us. Whether or not we become trophies or tragedies has a lot to do with how we react to it later. In Jonah’ story we see some evidence of how Jonah was able to connect with God, who turns his defeat into success.
First, Jonah’s defeats resulted in an attitude of dependence upon God.
Jonah recognized that everything that happened to him came from God. Even so, he did not blame God for his problems. Jonah knew that his trouble was his own doing, but he also realized that God’s hand was behind it all. He never attributed either his failure or his survival to anything but God’s hand.
A proud person blames God for his defeats and takes credit for his successes. When things are going badly, we say, “Why is God letting this happen?” When things are going well we say. “Look what I did!” The wise person, however realizes that everything comes from God—successes and defeats as well. A wise person is not a blamer. He recognizes that all that has come to pass has God’s hand in it. When things go well, he doesn’t take the credit, but continues to acknowledge that God is in charge.
All of us have a judgmental streak. This does not necessarily mean judging others, or having a propensity to want to blame someone for everything. When things go wrong we say, “Whose fault is it?” It may be no one’s fault or everyone’s fault. It is not up to us to assess blame or credit in every situation. There is no need to point fingers. Things happen because God allowed it. Out of each situation, God can bring good. We do not need to know his plans, but only to obey what we He has revealed.
Second, Jonah used defeat as an opportunity to change his mind and his actions.
God expects us to use our problems as a learning experience. When Jonah was regurgitated on the Syrian coast, he didn’t try to go to Tarshish again, even though it was not very far away. Instead, he learned to obey God and struck out for Nineveh. He changed his mind about running and journeyed towards the destination that God intended for him all along.
The word “repentance” is often misused and abused. It’s not about feeling guilty or ashamed for our sins. It literally means, “Change your mind.” Look at your situation differently. You don’t have to feel ashamed for your past, just let it go and face in a different direction. It’s not about what you were, but where you are headed. Repentance is looking forward, not backward.
Most people do not learn from their mistakes, but repeat them over and over. Einstein once said that insanity was doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results. We develop a habit of defeat and despair. For Jonah to turn back and go to Tarshish after coming out of that whale would have been insanity. Instead, he went forward and took his place in the world.
Third, Jonah was open about his defeats.
Jonah did not hide his mistakes. He might have hidden them. It’s embarrassing he was so weak or angry that God had to send a fish to swallow him before he would behave right. Pride could have kept him from saying anything. He might have thought (as many do) that admitting our mistakes undermines our witness. He may have reasoned, “If these Ninevites knew my faults, they wouldn’t listen to me.” Pride, shame and fear make liars of us. They make us pretend to be better and more competent than we are. As a result, no one believes us. We are ashamed and afraid so we pretend we are not always good people.
God won’t build His kingdom on a lie. He demands openness and honesty, even in our testimony. Being honest and transparent about our failures gives God an opportunity to shine through our past. Jonah’s fish experience became the basis for an effective ministry.
Fourth, Jonah followed his defeat a renewed effort at obedience.
Jonah could simply have given up. Being three days in a fish’s belly must have been an exhausting experience. Jonah could have used the excuse of post-traumatic stress. He could have argued with anyone that he couldn’t do anything now because he was too emotionally scarred.
But Jonah didn’t rest for long. He got up and went to Nineveh. He got up and tried again.
Lincoln’s life was full of defeats, but it was also a record of continuing effort. He kept coming back. He never stopped after defeat, instead he changed direction.
Imagine the scene of Jonah on the shore. He is laying on the sand, weak and half-starved. He looks horrible. No doubt in his mind all he can think of is a good meal and a dry bed. He wanted to sleep. Part of him would be happy just to lay there and die. But instead, he got up. He took a couple of faltering steps. But which way? North to Nineveh or south to Tarshish and Jerusalem? I can imagine Jonah crawling, then walking down the first path he found, but north, not south. If he went south, no one would ever hear his name. He might be a curiosity, an urban legend like James Bartlett, the whaler who was allegedly swallowed by the whale, but if he went north, he would be the prophet Jonah, whose name would live forever. One way turned him into a curiosity, the other way, he became an instrument of God.
When your history is written, what do you want it to be? Do you want to be a footnote in history, or history itself? Do you want to end your life as a footnote, or God’s instrument? That is a choice you make every day, and especially every time you face defeat and disaster. You have a choice of learning from your mistakes, and trusting and obeying God, or giving up and going home. Make the right choice, and God will use you. Don’t let past defeats dictate your future. Keep going for God’s sake.