Sunday Reflections for Those Stuck in a Hard Place (Jonah 2)

We all are familiar with the story of Jonah and “the whale”, and how this Hebrew prophet attempted to escape God’s call to Nineveh but instead found himself in the belly of the fish for three days. The reflections below on that story were written five years ago in a different context in my life, and as I read them today in my current circumstances, I realized how powerful they still are for where I find myself now. It occurred to me that they may be helpful to others who find themselves stuck in a transitional place between the familiar places and the unknown. I share this especially for those of us who find ourselves unemployed, underemployed or at a crucial professional or personal crossroads. I have updated the reflections with current stories, but the notes on the text of Jonah 2 remain the same.

“The basic paradigm of life is that we go up and then go down. We watch as political leaders, corporate executives and Hollywood celebrities ascend the ladder of success only to then fall. We progress through the various stages of education, then get an entry level job, then better jobs, then we coast down into retirement. We fall in love, begin a relationship, it thrives, and then eventually the relationship ends by death if not before then. So there always is some dread of life that looms over even the good times because we feel that we will only ascend to the top in order to begin our descent downward. It’s just a matter of time.

The biblical paradigm for life is just the opposite. The Bible claims that we go down in order to come up. We lose what we are holding to receive something new. We confess failure and sin to be lifted up to life and a new beginning. We die only to live. This is why Jesus said later, “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40). Again, we die to live. We lose to receive. We are buried in baptismal waters so that we might be raised to new life. (Romans 6:4) We go down so that we can come up.

While you are stuck in the belly of your fish, it might appear that you are doing nothing. But that isn’t true. You are making critically important choices. You are choosing whether you are going to waste this experience or use it to turn your life around – to choose to listen and learn from it rather than blame or play the victim. Will you just be stuck in a place you do not want to be, or will you come up to a new life?

How do we rise out of a place of confinement? Not by running, or just more activity. That will never get you out of the belly of the fish. When you are stuck in the belly of a fish, the only thing you can do is to turn it into a prayer room. “I called to The Lord out of my distress, and He answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and You heard my voice.” (Jonah 2:2) As Jonah continues through this prayer from the depths it first seems like he is simply praying about his own situation, “You cast me into the deep . . . all Your waves and billows passed over me . . . the waters closed in over me . . . the deep surrounded me . . . yet You brought up my life from the pit.” (Jonah2:3)

That sure sounds like the prayer of man who was thrown overboard. But on closer observation, we see that those lines are not Jonah’s at all. They are prayers from the Psalms, and in the moment of crisis, those words of worship that he had learned in worship and on Sabbath came back to him. He knew how the biblical story goes. He understood “down to go up”. And because He knew the Word of God, he could rehearse those ancient words and they became living and powerful to him in the present. That is how Scripture functions for us too, and that is why it is important that we bathe ourselves in the Word of God. In the moments when we feel stuck or confused, we can repeat the ancient words, “Yet You brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God.”

That is how the great turn around in life happens. It happens not because we decide to stop moving in the wrong direction. It happens because God turns us around. And the turn around is not horizontal – it isn’t just a matter of changing locations, relationships, or jobs. The turnaround is vertical. We go down and lose a life to come up to a new life.

Jonah knows this is not what is waiting for him when his confinement in the fish is over. So he concludes his prayer with thanksgiving – while he is still in the depths of the fish’s belly. “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will give sacrifice to You.” (Jonah 2:9) I will sacrifice the life I tried to save by running to Tarshish. I will give up my own plans that took me in the wrong direction. “Deliverance belongs to The Lord.” He will lift me up. And the great fish spewed Jonah out upon the ground.

Sometimes when a person is stuck in a hard place where they do not want to be, they ask, “How long, O Lord, until we sing a new song?” We do not know the answer. Most of the time we are stuck for a lot longer than three days. But one of the signals that the time waiting is coming to an end comes when we begin to pray prayers of thanksgiving even from the belly of the fish. When you can say prayers from the depths, then you are free. It is time to go Home.

On Thursday night, I joined with several friends from law school, all who are still employed and doing well. I was the underemployed person among us, so I had a coke and some soup while my friends drank and ate liberally. I couldn’t afford anything more. But as I drove home, I realized that I was as happy as I’ve ever been, and that my hard place actually was starting to feel like the creative place for something new to emerge. I said a prayer of thanks that God was helping me to make it through this hard place because I’m surviving, most days I’m actually happy, and new possibilities are on the horizon. You know you’re getting ready to emerge from the fish belly when you can believe that everything, even this difficult moment, is exactly as it should have been — not bad or good — but always a moment held in the sovereignty of God’s loving hand.

This past week, I shared my struggle with my unemployment with a dear friend, and he responded to me with a poem from Emily Dickinson as she contemplated why God creates hard places:

I shall know why — when Time is over —
And I have ceased to wonder why —
Christ will explain each separate anguish
In the fair schoolroom of the sky —

He will tell me what Peter promised —
And I — for wonder at his woe —
I shall forget the drop of Anguish
That scalds me now — that scalds me now!

You will never get to this place unless you know how the drama of God unfolds. We are brought down to be lifted up to a new life. Salvation won’t be found in Tarshish. Nor will it be found in the plans you have for your life. “Salvation belongs to The Lord.” (Jonah 2:9), and this God specializes in liberating people from the lowest places, even the dead ones.

3 Responses to “Sunday Reflections for Those Stuck in a Hard Place (Jonah 2)”
  1. MLW says:

    Love the line “You know you’re getting ready to emerge from the fish belly when you can believe that everything, even this difficult moment, is exactly as it should have been — not bad or good — but always a moment held in the sovereignty of God’s loving hand.”

    I can always count on you for a good turn of a phrase. Well said, Buddy.

  2. jl says:

    Re: “Sunday Reflections for Those Stuck in a Hard Place (Jonah 2)”

    Hi Todd,

    I “happened” to come across your site this morning while searching for a picture of Jonah. So, I read what you had to say and it ministered to me on so many levels….I just had to say thank you so much for sharing your insights. I am anxious to read more and hope you are doing well.

    Take care and God Bless you BUNCHES!!


  3. toddbouldin says:

    JL, thank you so much for your comment. You made my day, and I’m grateful that I could be a “wounded healer” for you. May you find grace and hope in your hard place too. Todd

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