The book of prophet Jonah is often considered to be more or less a children’s book. Perhaps due to its content or the length of it… In any case, however, this book still remains God’s Word to us, and the least we can do is pay attention to what it says. For the rest God will use His Spirit to work in us through it.
Now you are probably asking yourself “But what can this book teach me on prayer?” At first glance soma may say “Little!” A careful reading of the text, however, will reveal to you that nearly half of the time of the story Jonah spends in prayer or talking to God. The second and fourth chapters of the book describe two prayers which are very important to learn from, and at the same time – very different from each other.
Jonah’s first prayer from chapter 2 is filled with praise and thanksgiving to God. It is a prayer which is honest and recognizes God’s might – a prayer that would encourage you and me in difficult times. And, perhaps, if now you are not finding yourself close to God then you probably wish you could have Jonah’s faith so that you can pray in such a way. This prayer is also the praises of a man who has survived because of God’s grace and will alone.
The second prayer, the one from chapter 4 of the book is very different. This prayer is not lifted up to God after a miraculous survival, but after “Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry” (Jonah 4:1, NIV). And what he was displeased and angry about was God’s intervention. This conversation between Jonah and God is actually a superficial attempt to pray. In comparison to the first prayer this one is so much shorter, without any adoration, thanksgiving or praise. This time the prophet does not recognize God’s intervention – he is just displeased and very angry because God has not done what Jonah wanted. And this anger must have been so strong that Jonah did not want to live any longer, which in itself is a very strong contrast to the first prayer where he was thanking God for saving his life.
Now you’re asking “Ok, so what’s the lesson?” The answer of this question lays in the comparison between Jonah and you. Most Christians turn to God when in need or wanting something. For most of us, also, the following statement is true: It is much easier to ask and receive things than it is for us to fulfill our promises and sacrifice for the sake of others. Unfortunately, such an attitude easil becomes a part of our prayers. When we are in a tough situation or need something – we pray honestly, with faith and with hope… And in most cases we do remember to thank God for all he has given us and done for us – hoping that this will also help us to have more faith about the current situation. There actually isn’t much wrong in all of that. After all, Jesus himself said “Ask and it will be given to you… for everyone who asks receives” (Matthew 7:7,8, NIV). Yet, this is far from the complete Gospel, it’s complete teaching. This isn’t describing quite fully all which Jesus lived out for us to take as an example. Jesus also sacrificed himself so that all people (including these who hate him!) might have access to God’s salvation should they choose it. His Word is also constantly teaching us to not stop giving…
Very often God will place people and situations on our way for whom we ought to sacrifice from what we already have. For some this means giving up financial or other material resources, while for others it concerns pride, selfishness, envy. Often God wold also place in our hearts a prayer for those whom we call “our enemies.” Even in His Word to us he teaches us to love those who hate us (Matthew 5:43-48). Unfortunately, often this call for prayer and action is neglected. Sometimes because of pure hard-headedness, other times because of our own unwillingness to forgive the ones who hurt us. Yet, neither of us has ever had a case of not praying for someone out of love.
So, what is the result of the comparison of you with Jonah? How do you pray when you are in need? Even more important, how do you pray when you see that God’s will is the exact opposite of your own? What do you do when God calls you to help the people whom you actually despise? The lesson one can learn from Jonah’s story is that God will not abandon the people around you just because you don’t find them worthy of His grace for one reason or another. At the same time, your own hard-headedness against God’s will cannot lead you to any better that it did for Jonah – “for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3, NIV).
Do not just pass by God’s Word for you! Maybe before you go on to your regular prayer, next time you ought to first pray that He may help you to pray according to His will, honestly and out of love for all people… Do not let anger lead you just as Jonah did!