Cramped. Dark. Disgusting. The pungent odor of gastrointestinal fluids filling what little air existed in that wretched place. And there, by God’s design, sat Jonah, in the stomach of a large fish.
Hot. Dry. Miserable. A scorching east wind flinging sand in the face of anyone who dared traverse that land. And there, by God’s design, sat Jonah, under the midday sun outside the city of Nineveh.
Because I grew up in church, I am incredibly familiar with the story of Jonah. The story of a man getting swallowed by a large fish after attempting to run away from God made for great Sunday School material. Lessons of the magnitude of God, and our inability to escape from His authority, still resonate with me as I studied this story once again. But one question burned in my mind as I contemplated Jonah’s journey. Why did God choose to transport Jonah by fish?
God sent a storm to stop the ship on which Jonah was attempting to flee from His presence, running away from his task of proclaiming judgement on the city of Nineveh. To calm the seas, Jonah recommended the sailors throw him overboard—a suggestion the sailors were hesitant to follow, but to which they eventually acquiesced. As Jonah sunk to his watery grave, God sent a large fish to swallow him and transport him back to land. For three days, Jonah sat in the stomach of a fish, awaiting his eventual expulsion from the creature onto dry land.
While the story is strange enough, it is baffling after realizing an infinitely powerful God could have transported Jonah in an infinite number of ways, many of which would have saved Jonah both time and discomfort. God did not look at a limited array of options to save a sinking man and select the giant sea creature for convenience. For starters, God could have supernaturally transported Jonah from the depths of the sea to the heart on Nineveh in an instant. He could have successfully allowed the sailors to row back to shore, rather than trapping them in the middle of the sea. He could have allowed the ship to arrive in Tarshish, sent an army to attack the city and capture Jonah, and shipped him as a captive back in the direction of Assyria. The list is endless, as God could have allowed the situation to play out in any conceivable manner, yet He deliberately sent the storm to stop the ship, and chose to rescue Jonah from death in an uncomfortable maritime vessel. With an unlimited number of options, God chose the giant fish because it fit within His plan, regardless of Jonah’s comfort.
After contemplating this bizarre choice of vehicle, one lesson becomes clear: God’s mission is not our comfort. If God wanted to intervene for Jonah’s physical comfort, He would have chosen any number of alternative transportation methods. Instead, He chose the method that left Jonah in a dark, disgusting environment for days, as he slowly travelled back to the Middle East, before being vomited onto dry land. Rather than choosing any variety of easy, painless, comfortable transportation methods, God chose one of the most uncomfortable methods of transporting Jonah.
The fact that God’s mission is not our comfort is repeated later in the story. While Jonah sits impatiently outside Nineveh, hoping for God to overthrow the city, the Lord provides him a plant to shade him, easing his discomfort. However, just as quickly as God gave the plant, He sent a worm to kill it. While Jonah sat under the midday sun, God sent a scorching east wind to heighten his discomfort. If God’s mission was Jonah’s comfort, He would have given the plant as a permanent release from the miserable sun; however, God chose to kill the plant because it fit within His plan, regardless of Jonah’s comfort.
Many Christians like to believe God’s ultimate purpose is our comfort. They claim God’s desire is to give us health, wealth, and love, ensuring an easy existence. Failure to procure any of these three areas is believed to be the result of a lack of faith. Yet here is a story of God, in His infinite wisdom and love, deliberately placing a man in uncomfortable situations. While Jonah, in his limited understanding, fixated on his temporary discomfort, God was doing a work in and through Jonah on a grand scale. In both situations, God’s plan is greater than Jonah’s comfort.
As Jonah sat in misery, God was working for the gospel. As Jonah lay uncomfortably in the stomach of a fish, God was moving in Jonah’s heart, restoring the wayward prophet to a place where he could cry out, “Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9b, NASB). As Jonah endured the midday sun and scorching east wind, God was teaching Jonah of His heart for the nations, communicating His passion for all people—regardless of external qualities like one’s nationality—to know Him personally. As Jonah pondered spiritual matters for three days in a dark, undersea environment, God was foreshadowing the glorious good news of the resurrection of Christ, who would likewise spend three days in the heart of the earth before exiting the grave.
At each step, God was actively placing Jonah in positions that furthered the gospel. Not his comfort. Not his health, wealth, or love life. But the gospel. When we fixate on our comfort, believing God should do everything He can to give us an easy life, we fail to see the greater picture—the overarching theme that connects every interaction God has with the world. God’s desire is for all people to know Him personally, and He has chosen His Church to be His hands and feet in His mission to proclaim that gospel to the world. We have the privilege of telling the world of a God who loves them, who died for them, who is coming again to rescue them from sin and death, and who longs for a relationship with them—even if we are placed in uncomfortable situations to tell them so. Let us desire what God desires. Let us align our lives with God’s plan. And let us be comfortable with discomfort, so long as our discomfort advances the gospel to a world that needs it.