In the Belly of the Fish

Jonah's Fish Social Media copyJeanette - April 2013Jonah Series – Week 2
Teaching notes by Jeanette Eby
January 17th, 2016
Scripture Passage: Jonah 2

After being thrown into the sea from his fellow travelers, in order to calm the storm, God provides a “great fish” that swallows Jonah whole. He remains alive in the belly of the fish for 3 days and 3 nights and at what I assume to be towards the end of this time, he cries out to God with a prayer of Thanksgiving.

It’s actually quite gross, imagining being in the belly of a fish for 3 days and nights. It was likely very smelly and damp and cold and full of all kinds of unidentified things. It must have been completely uncomfortable and agonizing. Jonah was in the belly, but he was alive. Before that, he had been drowning in the deep sea and was sure that he was going to die. He describes his plight in the prayer. Jonah was basically in hell, he felt like life was leaving him, and then he “remembered the Lord”. This was likely a process happening within Jonah for a while, in the darkness and silence of the fish’s belly.

To me, the experience of being in the belly of the fish is like the ultimate low point… the ultimate place of darkness where you are clinging to life, but you are barely out of the realm of death. Jonah had previously been drowning in the realm of death. Jonah had a lot of time in that fish, time to come to terms with himself and with God, time for God to work at his heart. In mindfulness meditation, which is quite trendy right now, we willingly enter into silence and solitude. In Jonah’s case, he was swallowed hole and did not choose this time of solitude. But there he was, and what else could he do but pray?

And from that dark place Jonah sang out in Thanksgiving. He received that silence as a gift from God. “To remember” in this passage does not mean merely thinking about God or reminiscing something that is lost; to remember is to speak and to act in faith. This passage from Henri Nouwen’s book With Open Hands describes what the relationship between prayer and silence:

But whenever you do come upon this silence, it seems as though you have received a gift, one which is “promising” in the true sense of the word. It promises new life. It is the silence of peace and prayer, because it brings you back to the One who is leading you. In this silence you lose the feeling of being driven and find that you are a person who can be yourself among other things and other people. Then you realize that you can do many things, not compulsively, but freely. It is the silence of the “poor in spirit”, where you learn to see your life in its proper perspective an find pretenses fading away… (p. 21)

This process that Jonah went through reminds me of the concept of “radical acceptance” and how radical acceptance can help us move forward. My knowledge of radical acceptance comes form some training I received at work, based on Dialectical Behavioural Therapy skills. Regardless of the therapy, the concept makes a lot of sense in this situation. I do believe Jonah experienced radical acceptance and sincerely put himself back on the path that God had paved for him – even though he did not know what the outcome would be.

Radical acceptance means accepting what life throws at you all the way, completely and totally: with your mind, heart, and body. Stop fighting reality and let go of bitterness.

What has to be accepted:

  • Reality is as it is
  • We all have limitations on our future (only realistic limitations need to be accepted)
  • Everything has a cause (including situations leading to pain and suffering)
  • Life can be worth living even through the pain

Why accept reality?

  • Pain and non-acceptance leads to suffering and misery. If you are able to accept your life – including the aspects you don’t like and the painful aspects – you will be able to bear it and reduce suffering.
  • Refusing to accept reality does not change anything. It can keep you stuck in bitterness, anger, sadness, shame and other painful emotions.
  • Pain is an inevitable part of life; we wouldn’t have joy without it.
  • Changing reality requires first accepting reality.

Jonah’s prayer follows the structure of the Psalmic prayer of thanksgiving, expressing distress, petition, deliverance, praise and promise. Towards the end of the prayer, after much expression of distress, Jonah praises God and thanks him for bringing him out of the Pit and promises to be obedient. He speaks of loyalty to God, and of others who worship idols and thus distance themselves from God. Jonah is responding to God’s call and God’s saving grace and he will now go forward and do what he was asked. He has accepted this as his reality – he likely would still be stuck in the belly of the whale without this acceptance and reaching out to God. This acceptance couldn’t have been easy. Jonah doesn’t know what the outcome will be, he is reaching out to God with great hope and trust. Henri Nouwen, in With Open Hands, also writes about prayer and acceptance:

This openness however, does not simply come of itself. It requires a confession that you are limited, dependent, weak, and even sinful. Whenever you pray you profess that you are not God nor want to be God, that you haven’t reached your goal yet, that you will never reach it in this life, that you must constantly stretch out your hands and wait for the gift of life. This attitude is difficult because it makes you vulnerable. (p.26)

So what happens after? God speaks to the fish and the fish vomits Jonah onto dry land. We are with the narrator through this whole process, we are onlookers and we don’t know what God was thinking or what his motives were. We will explore chapters 3 and 4 in the next couple of weeks, but basically Jonah goes and does what God asked, and spoke to the people of Ninevah, and then he was angry and bitter when God forgave them and showed compassion. Jonah had a hard time fulfilling his promise that he made in his prayer. We can look at Jonah as a hypocrite, as someone who said one thing and did another, but aren’t we all hypocrites? I believe that in the darkness of the belly of the fish, and when he came to his moment of radical acceptance, Jonah truly meant what he said. However, once literally spit back out into the world and back on the road, it was really hard to follow through and “to remember”.

In his commentary, Eugene Roop says that “All of us are more like Jonah than we are different from him”. I completely agree. We may go through an extreme time of turmoil and get out of it with a fresh perspective on ourselves and the world. But the world is very hard to navigate and we have so many things, including our own inner pride and fear, pulling us in different directions. Jonah, like all of us, is a person who needs grace and who needs to go through growing pains, and who needs support along the way.

When it comes to how we live in community together, I think we can show each other this grace when some of us say things and don’t follow through, or avoid situations because of fear or pride, or have unwanted emotions that take over our ability to think clearly and be effective. We need each other to forgive and inspire each other. And we need to pray together, because we can always pray no matter where we’re at, whether we are celebrating or whether we are in the belly of the fish. Prayerful psalms and hymns can be so powerful in a community because they can ignite our imaginations to what life could be like, and bring us to a place of acceptance and of hope, if only for a short time. And so we continue to pray and live together in this messy world.

Fish Story: the tale of Jonah