By Deacon Daniel Malyon
“I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, And He answered me.” Seeing Jonah | By Deacon Daniel Malyon.
This week the Church observed the fast of the Ninevites, remembering God’s forewarning of their destruction sent through Jonah, and their fasting in repentance. Though our fast is one of repentance ourselves, and the focus should be on this, the reading of the book of Jonah also gives us the message of the example of Jonah himself and his transformation from ruing from God, to eventual wilful acceptance of His will.
In this way, the short book of Jonah is a great example for us of the journey of Metanoia, through his turbulent journey of inward change from self-centredness to a sense of acceptance, however maintaining a sense of recognition of the ineffable nature of God. Through exploring instances of his journey, we will see how this message can be applied in our own journeys and how we are to respond accordingly.
We begin Jonah’s story with his original call by God and are told that he is called by God to proclaim the destruction of Nineveh to the Ninevites and his reaction is not as we would expect from a Prophet, as “Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” (Jonah 1:3). Now this would seem strange to anyone reading the Prophets, however to the fathers and Saint of the early Church this is not in ignorance but in his recognition of his humanity.
St Methodius writes of this, explaining how, Jonah “fled from being seen naked of immortality, having lost through sin his confidence in the Deity.” This places Jonah in the same situation as many of us, who witness the providence of God in our own lives only to flee from it for fear of our own weakness or guilt of our own sin.
An example of this elsewhere in scripture is the rich young man, who asks Christ how to inherit eternal life, and when told, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matthew 19:21) responds by walking away. He does not do this in ignorance of God but in recognition of his own inability to engage in the task.
For many, this is a daily occurrence when faced with the obligations of our faith, whether they be ones of belief or praxis, and though we do not literally flee on a boat we flee spiritual for fear of being unable to fulfil the demands and the fear of falling from this faith, which Jonah himself admits later, ““I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:9)
However, as we often find out like Jonah, there is no fleeing from God. In the case of Jonah, he experiences this through the storm, in our lives we tend to discover this through the various struggles we suffer with, finding solace in faith when we could not find it before. Following his removal from the ship to escape God’s wrath, Jonah is swallowed by a large fish for three days and three nights, as a foreshadowing of Christ, and it is there that he accepts the need for God and his will regardless of how we may struggle.
This is expressed through the famous prayer of Jonah in chapter 2, which includes the line, “When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; And my prayer went up to You, Into Your holy temple.” (Jonah 2:7). The prayer recounts his struggle by poetic means and the manner by which he realises his salvation in each case, pleading with God to be rescued. In the same manner we are often called to a realisation of faith during times of struggle and called to humility in this way.
This realisation of the need to grow in our faith and not seek to escape from it is warned of my many of the fathers, including saints such as St Pakhomius who warned, “Do not be negligent, letting the days pass by till unexpectedly they come looking for you and you arrive at the straits of your anguish.” Therefore we come to see Jonah’s struggle in the big fish as our own in our daily lives, often waiting until the final moment to come to the realisation of our weakness, being forced to humility through this powerlessness.
A third instance in the life of Jonah which we can draw some commonality with is his arrival at Nineveh, having become assured in his faith. We are told that following God’s next call of hm he, “So arose and went to Nineveh… a three-day journey in extent.” (Jonah 3:3) Contrasting this with the first chapter we see that his time in the big fish, and God’s act in saving his life, has completely changed Jonah. This is a common theme we recognise in both scripture and in life, in which God warns us of the consequences of actions and leads us to metanoia.
St Irenaeus sees this as a part of our growth in our faith, stating in his text Against Heresies that, “did God permit man to be swallowed up by the great whale, who was the author of transgression, not that he should perish altogether when so engulphed; but, arranging and preparing the plan of salvation.” In the same manner Jonah is an example of how one can be impacted by the allowance of struggle.
In our lives we experience this often, straying from faith or from prayer only to find that through experiencing the consequences of our actions we are called back to growth in faith and become stronger in it. Whether this be through braving the fast or the inward change that comes from obedience to one’s priest’s advice following confession, it allows us to grow and mature in our spiritual lives as well as in other aspects by applying these to our outlooks.
As Jonah did in the start of this third chapter, we can learn to grow from our struggles and adapt our thinking and spiritual lives to accept our situations and grow through them and in our love of God and his will.
Yet, like with so many things, Jonah is again humbled at the end of this chapter when God sees the repentance of the Ninevites and they are saved. Like with his situation inside the fish, he witnesses God’s providence in the face of repentance. St John Chrysostom explains this by stating how “when God makes a threat concerning our sins, He makes the threat beforehand so that we may be sobered by fear.” The same message applies to both Jonah and the Ninevites here since both were called to metanoia and repented. However, like so many of us, Jonah was left with a sense of confusion at the will of God having believed himself to understand following his experiences.
Therefore he became frustrated that his own efforts in coming to Nineveh did not bear the fruit that he had expected, stating, “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!” (Jonah 4:3). Whether this was due to fear of being accused of lying or simply a sense of injustice is debated by the fathers however we see his response as being one similar to many of us who believe our efforts have not led to the fruit we expected and therefore feel discouraged in our faith, yet the Lord explains this to Jonah in a way which can relate to us also.
Having wished death and been saved, and then bemoaned God’s destruction of the plant now keeping him in shade, God explains, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not laboured, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city…” (Jonah 4:10-11) In this the Lord expresses to Jonah how justice must be recognised in all matters and not simply based on ones own personal will, saving Jonah and Nineveh both being equal.
Therefore like Jonah we are all called to recognise and accept that our own achievements and those of others are to be understood in the context of God’s wider plan and therefore not curse or become complacent when they are not followed by the outcome or finale which we had wished. This makes both Jonah’s struggle to understand God and God’s revelation of his divine justice a mirror to our own struggles with expectations.
In these examples we see that Jonah’s own struggles are entirely like our own. He experiences the struggles of faith and with the failure to comprehend how his expectations of his spiritual growth do not match the reality. In the same way he experiences growth as we do, following the facing of trials in his life. Therefore as we reflect on the Nineveh fast and our readings of Jonah and his experiences we should reflect on how we can grow in faith and avoid the pitfalls of Jonah in this.
By: Deacon Daniel Malyon | A Deacon of St Paul’s Ministry and St Mary & Pope Kyrillos VI Church. United Kingdom ~ Coptic Diocese of London.
Delivered to you by COPTICNN™ | Coptic News Network on 2021-02-26 from London, England
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