Grace in Whale Slime

Monday, January 19, 2009

The story of Jonah, in the Old Testament, is probably one of the most over-used and tired Bible stories in Christian educational settings.  I have often wondered why a disproportionately large number of curricula and children’s books focus on good old Jonah, despite his tiny sliver in the canon.  (Ditto for Noah’s ark; is that story really that spiritually significant that every Sunday school kid must be exposed to it year after year?  But I digress.)

So I rolled my eyes when our middle school youth group curriculum for last week was about Jonah.  But I was determined to make the best of it.  Although the curriculum was a little unfocused and rather sloppy, I wanted to communicate to the kids a gem from Jonah: When we find ourselves in a bad situation (e.g., swimming in whale slime), perhaps God is using that situation to send us in the right direction–just like what happened to Jonah.

As I was trying to convey this important point, I asked the youth why God would do such a gross thing to Jonah by making a great fish swallow him?  One youth astutely answered, “So that Jonah would change his mind and go to Nineveh, like God told him to in the beginning.”  Good answer.  Just what I was looking for.

But then came a deeper answer that opened the door from simple morality to true grace.  “Jonah is lucky that God didn’t just kill him,” said a youth.  “That’s the smartest answer I’ve ever heard!” I exclaimed, while still trying to affirm the first youth, whose answer was right, too.

Why did God make Jonah live in whale slime for 3 days and 3 nights?  Grace.  Jonah’s disobedience merited death, but God was not done with Jonah and preserved him in order to accomplish his will through him.  In fact, if we look more carefully at the wording of the Bible, it tells us that “the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah” (Jonah 1:17 TNIV).  Provided.  Instead of letting him perish in the waters, God supplied an escape–even if the accommodations were less than ideal.  And that was grace.

And it reminds me of the way God deals with us, too.  We may look at Jonah as a special instance of someone who disobeyed God’s clear directive.  But everybody tries to carve out their own path, some with reference to God’s call and some in direct opposition to God’s call.  And our disobedience deserves separation from God and punishment.

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 TNIV).  Despite our rebellion, Jesus still gave up his life for us, providing grace to preserve us.  To paraphrase my insightful youth, we’re lucky that God doesn’t just kill us.  But instead he has provided a way out, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So Jonah apparently still has something to say to us after all.

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2 thoughts on “Grace in Whale Slime

  1. Duane,

    I know, I know. “Lucky” is not the right term, but, for the middle school youth, it is roughly analogous. He got the concept, so I guess we’ll work on semantics next year when he’s in our confirmation class.

    Thanks!

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