By Nathan Peterson

Diving into Jonah—In-the-Belly Waiting

I don’t like waiting. At all. If nothing else, COVID’s taught me that much.

I’m not talking about the casual “I can’t wait for the next Mandalorian episode” waiting. I’m talking about the much more intense, layer-upon-layer waiting season we’re all in right now.

We’re waiting for the day when we can go back to school and work for real, when we’ll actually have to start wearing something other than sweatpants and pajamas 24/7. We’re waiting for the day when we can see friends and family without coordinating social distancing guidelines and COVID tests. We’re waiting for lifelong dreams and deep desires to finally come true. On a more systemic level, we’re waiting for reconciliation and healing and harmony to come, for the brokenness and divisions in our world to finally be redeemed.

Of the many instances of waiting we see in Scripture, one sticks out to me right now. Picture sitting in the belly of a big ol’ fish. In the dark. For three days. As the son of a hardcore fisherman, I’ve been around fish a lot. The smell alone would be horrible . . . not to mention having no clue about what’s going on, where you’re headed, or when your time marinating in a whale-blubber-lined taxi would end.

Suffice it to say, it seems like more than a few connections can be made between our situation and Jonah’s in-the-belly waiting.

What’s Done in the Waiting

When I think of waiting, I imagine sitting in a doctor’s office. Maybe looking at a magazine or my phone. But not really doing much. After all, waiting feels like the opposite of doing, right?

Ultimately, I’ve discovered that there are things we can do in the waiting. Look at Jonah. He doesn’t wait to make it back to the temple in Jerusalem to worship God. He starts praising him in the gut of a fish!

But I, with shouts of grateful praise,

will sacrifice to you.

What I have vowed I will make good.

I will say, “Salvation comes from the LORD.” (Jon 2:9)

We should also keep praising God. Even when things aren’t tidy, even when life feels like a mess, even when we don’t feel like it. I know that can be very, very hard to do. And in our own strength, we can’t. But we can pray, asking Jesus to renew our hope that we might taste and see that he is good and worship him in the middle of the struggle (Ps 34:8).

One reason why I think Jonah ultimately turns to worship is the fact that he can’t walk away from his problems. There’s literally nowhere he can go. I’ve definitely had my share of moments feeling like that throughout this pandemic: a restlessness that binge-watching or walks around the neighborhood can’t cure.

While that’s an awful feeling, this intense waiting season—calling it a crucible doesn’t feel like too strong of a word somedays—provides a unique opportunity. When we’re in the crucible, under intense pressure, things that may have gone long dormant within us tend to bubble up. Deep wounds and entrenched sins that we ignored before in the “old normal” are now exposed.

Being confronted with these ugly realities is not fun. But it provides an opportunity for deeper healing. If not right now, in this crucible of waiting, when will we deal with these sins and wounds? As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains.”

I truly believe that Jesus longs to heal us, to see us have life and have it to the full (Jn 10:10). Yet too often we doubt that he can, or we try to bury the deep hurts and sins in our lives. But the first step in healing and growth is acknowledging these things. Again, it’s not easy. But Jesus will be with us every step of the way and bestows courage upon us to face our deepest struggles. (If you don’t know where to start, look for an InterVarsity chapter near you, for a community who can come alongside you.)

The Better Jonah

Jonah did change during those three days in the fish. How could he not? He goes from running away from God to obeying his call. But he does so grudgingly. The last we see of Jonah, he still can’t wait to see God destroy Nineveh.

Ultimately, our in-the-belly season is going to end too. When? I have no idea or what it will look like exactly. But the question is how will we use this time, how will we respond to this waiting?

We can do it Jonah’s way: emerging from this season a little bit changed, a little more willing to follow God, but crusty with all kinds of bitterness and resentments still clinging to us.

Or we can follow another’s example: Jesus, the better Jonah. When the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign, he said:

A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Mt 12:39–40)

Jesus didn’t look forward to the trials in store for him anymore than Jonah enjoyed being half-digested. He asked God to take them away if possible (Mt 26:39). But knowing what death on the cross and waiting in the grave for three days would accomplish, knowing what was at stake, Jesus did wait. And then the long wait was finally over. Jesus rose, victorious, and the world has never, never been the same!

So there’s our choice. We can hold onto our plans and how they’ve been so distorted and messed up. Or we can remember what’s at stake in this waiting season, submit to God’s transformation, and emerge from this season as stronger, more faithful followers of the better Jonah.

It’s not easy. It’ll take time. But I know which way I want to choose. It’s worth the wait.

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Nathan served as a writer for InterVarsity for five and a half years. He currently works for a ministry serving adults with disabilities. He enjoys writing and drawing and staying in shape.

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