When Jonah opted for a cruise instead of obeying God’s command to go to Ninevah, he found himself at the depths of the sea. In the belly of a fish. The story of the obstinate prophet is comical on one hand and arresting on the other. We all remember the great fish of the sea large enough to ingest a whole man, and we can imagine the horror of being encased in the gurgling smelly gut of a sea monster. (Jonah:1-2) What we can’t imagine, until we read about Jonah, is at what lengths God will go to give grace. All the way to the bottom of the sea, and farther.
Ultimately, at the end of all his resources, Jonah has an epiphany, changes his attitude and prays. In spite of his fear, distress, and misery, Jonah acknowledges that God is with him and hears his cries. With thanksgiving he promises to sacrifice what he must to do what God wants.
“And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon dry land.” (Jonah 2:10)
Undeserving, disobedient, rebellious Jonah was drenched in messy redeeming grace. He was saved from the sea to bring God’s word to a lost people.
I love this short story because it celebrates God’s relentless grace not only to a pouting prophet but also to a land of naughty people.
Tim Keller wrote, “No human being is so good they don’t need grace, or so bad they won’t be given grace.”
Lately I’ve been wondering where grace is for the good person. Where is God's saving, merciful, peaceful grace for the haggard man standing on the street corner with a cardboard sign, the family whose child is killed by a drunk driver, and, closer to home, my friend in the last drawn out stages of cancer while his wife of merely five years, still trusting Jesus, holds his hand and gives him water with a Q-tip? If God is bountiful in grace and offers it abundantly to those who have chosen to turn from Him, where is His grace in the pain and suffering of innocent, righteous, and devoted Believers?
Paul may have thrown these same questions, albeit with more eloquence, to the Giver of Grace when he was afflicted with a debilitating physical, emotional, or abusive problem that kept him from becoming more effective in his call to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles (II Corinthians 12: 7-10). He must have been frustrated and disappointed, maybe devastated at first, when he imagined his whole ministry falling apart. Where was God’s grace when this fully chosen, sacrificial, righteous man-of-God was stopped in his tracks by a thorn?
I can relate to how Paul may have felt. I once had a ministry focused on faith and fitness in which my physical stamina and strength played a big part. Since I was older than most fitness instructors at the time and had once been fairly sedentary and overweight, my empathy and energy resonated with many people suffering from lists of poor habits and lost hopes. My encouragement to have faith in the plan God made for each one of us to be “prosperous and in good health” restored new hope and healthy lifestyles for many clients.
When rheumatoid arthritis made its painful way into my joints I was rendered miserable and immobile most of the time. I had to leave behind my active lifestyle and fitness ministry, and I railed at God the whole way. It just did not make sense. My mantra, “Movement is life” seemed to be a cruel joke. Where was the grace in this?
God had words with Paul and I am so grateful for them. He basically told the ailing Apostle to stop complaining and get on with his work. It was just that Paul’s work was going to be different now, bathed in God’s grace.
“…My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.” (II Corinthians 12:9)
Paul’s affliction became his strength because he had to depend on God to continue his ministry. Now, because of his reliance on God and gratitude for the ability given to him to continue to address the churches of Europe, his passionate messages were real, humble, and empathetic. Jesus Christ from the Cross was given the glory, not Paul’s appointment, credentials, or eloquence.
After decades of pain, surgeries, and deformities, I, too, learned to trust God’s plan. The confidence I once had on my image as a Fitness Guru changed to humble gratitude for just being able to move. My mantra took on a more important truth, one that I could share from experience: movement is what God gave us to live abundantly in His Kingdom, no matter how fit we are. Where at first I despaired my disabling disease, God poured grace on my hardened heart, giving me a fresh message to share and a supernatural joy that even helps me laugh at my crooked hands.
Until we really get grace, we cannot live the life God, in His sovereignty, has chosen for us. Yet, His grace comes in different ways than we expect and usually comes when we are under water feeling like a fish has swallowed us. The life and work God calls us to is always much different that our plans, dreams, or visions. Many times it carries us through hardship, suffering, pain, even grief – the refining sacrifices Jesus made at the Cross so that we would know we are never alone in our afflictions.
With God’s grace, Paul said, “Therefore I will boast the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest on me.”
So, this is grace – the power of Christ resting upon us during our greatest need. We don’t have to strive in our weakness to be stronger, calmer, or better. Grace calls us to rest in Christ as He gives the power to face what had before seemed impossible.
“Salvation belongs to the Lord.” (Jonah 2:9) Jonah declares, just before he is lifted from the sea. This, too, is our promise.
The choices are God’s and the reasons are His alone. The grace He gives is sufficient for the rebellious and especially the righteous. His undeserved favor is enough – the perfect amount of kindness going beyond what is deserved. This grace is the power of Christ resting on us to cover our weaknesses, keeping us secure and at peace with Him. Grace pulls us from great seas of doubt and despair to a place of trust in the goodness of our Sovereign God.