Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

August 10, 2014


A new look at the story of Jonah and the whale


            Some of the best stories ever written are scattered through the book popularly known as “the good book.” The Bible contains stories of romance, intrigue, murder, wars, shipwrecks, suicide and adventure.

            Even pagans and agnostics can have fun reading the Bible. You don’t have to believe that it is the greatest book ever written to enjoy its fascinating stories of human struggle, failure and achievement.

            One of my favorite stories is that of Jonah and the whale. That story has had such an impact upon the world that the very word “Jonah” brings us the image of the whale. But when you read the story, no whale is mentioned. Instead it is a “fish” that swallows Jonah.

            Here, though, is where some people stumble. They reason that even if a big fish could swallow a man, the man could not possibly survive the ordeal. They conclude then that this is not a real story, but one like that of Jack and the Bean Stalk. This conclusion does not really bother me, for the significance of Jonah does not hinge on whether you believe that a big fish could swallow a man.

            The Jonah story offers some delightful observations.  The fish obeyed God when Jonah did not. God “commanded” the fish to vomit Jonah out of his belly on land. Jonah, however, was at sea because he was running from God. God had commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh but Jonah ran the other way.

            Running, then, may not be the great exercise that health experts believe it is. It could be hazardous to your future, if not your health, especially if you are running from God.

            The best chuckle Jonah gives us is this: even a fish cannot stomach a backslider for more than three days before it becomes sick of him. I will leave it to you to ask your own pastor if backsliders cause preachers to be nauseated. Or you can draw your own conclusion.

            All chuckles aside, in many ways the story of Jonah is the story of every person. Look at the sequence of events. God called. Jonah ran. Jonah was miserable. God showed mercy. Jonah stopped running and obeyed God. Then things got better for Jonah.

            Is that not much like our own experience? God calls. We run. We are miserable. God shows us mercy. Then, if we are wise, we respond to God’s mercy by obeying him. Otherwise our story is likely to have a sad ending.

            I have often compared my own life to that of Jonah. Not that a big fish ever swallowed me, but for years I stayed busy thinking up excuses for not obeying God.

            God called me to preach when I was in my teens, still in high school. But I doubted. I ran. I tried to write my own ticket in college. But I was miserable. Only when I surrendered to God’s call and stopped running did I find peace. Ever since then I have pleaded for sufficient grace to continue to obey God. In his mercy God gave me a sense of fulfillment about my mission in life.

            Our oldest son Matt heard God call. Like Jonah he ran, and he even ran to the sea. He spent 10 years in the Navy. He saw the world but in no port did he find peace because all those years he was running from God.

            God’s mercy finally overwhelmed Matt’s misery. Like Jonah he gave up and began to obey God. You could have knocked me over with a feather when he told me, “Dad, I think God is calling me to preach.” In my great wisdom I tried to talk him out of it. I told him that God needs Christian men in every arena of life. He listened patiently and then asked, “But, Dad, what if God really is calling me to preach?” I replied, “Then, son, you had better do what God wants you to do.” Matt got busy, completed college  and then entered seminary.

            He finished seminary at age 44. Like Jonah Matt found peace by obeying God. Is Matt a late bloomer? You might think so. Matt says, “I believe I was on God’s time table, right on schedule.”

            Bible stories are useful for much more than Vacation Bible Schools. We can learn from biblical stories much about God and much about ourselves. I reckon that’s why I love the story of Jonah so much. I could identify with Jonah. And I learned a powerful lesson from his story. I learned that I could never have peace with God while running and making excuses – that peace only comes through obeying God.

            When I get to heaven, Jonah will be one of the first fellows I want to chat with. And I want to find out just how big that fish really was! + + +