Floundering around in the water, sinking like a stone, Jonah suddenly found himself inside a huge fish praying to God for help. What else could he have done?
‘Help!’ That’s where you start. You don’t begin by trying to work out exactly how God might want to be addressed – ‘I beseech thee, almighty God, creator of the universe …’ You don’t begin by reviewing your own unworthiness and the various sins you’ve committed since you drifted away. There are times when urgency totally eclipses formality.
You may be wondering, ‘How am I going to come back to God? The implications are frightening, and I don’t know if I can face them.’ Like Jonah, you might feel, ‘If I come back to God, I will have to face up to doing what he was telling me to do.’
But don’t let that deter you. Be honest with yourself and tell God exactly how you feel. Tell him, ‘I’m afraid of what you might ask of me, but I want to get back into your will. Help me, Lord.’
‘Help!’ is a cry God will not ignore. You could be restored to God as you read these words. Why don’t you cry to him for help even now, at this very moment?
God is Sovereign
Jonah acknowledged that God was behind everything that was happening to him. ‘You hurled me into the deep,’ he said. ‘All your waves and breakers swept over me’ (Jonah 2:3). He knew that he was God’s captive, that God had been pursuing him.
When we become children of God, we are never free agents again. We are never finally at the mercy of circumstance. We have been bought with a price; we belong to God; we are in his hand. He is our new master and we are his captives.
In his letter to Philemon, Paul didn’t begin, ‘Paul, a prisoner of the Roman guard …’ He wrote, ‘Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus’ (Philem. 1:1). In his letter to the Romans, he didn’t say, ‘Try hard to be slaves of God.’ He said, ‘[you] have become slaves to righteousness … [you] have become slaves to God’ (Rom. 6:18, 22).
The fact is that as a Christian, you’re Christ’s slave. That’s why you feel so desperately uncomfortable when you stray from the will of God. Something in your heart says, ‘You really shouldn’t be doing this.’ The voice belongs to your new owner. He troubles your conscience. It’s hard going.
I once knew a man who drifted far away from God. He got into an adulterous relationship and refused to face up to his rebellion. Then one day he had a heart attack. Lying in the ambulance, he overheard the paramedics saying, ‘I don’t know if he’ll still be alive by the time we get him to the hospital.’ As he lay there, helpless, he cried out, ‘God save me!’ Though backslidden, like Jonah, he knew enough about God and his mercy to call on him again.
As he continued his prayer, Jonah said, ‘You have expelled me from your sight’ (Jonah 2:4). Jonah felt as though he had been forsaken.
‘Banished,’ the New International Version translates it. Imagine a medieval knight discovered in a plot against the king. He stands before the king who passes sentence, ‘You’re banished from the land.’ Slowly, the full horror of banishment dawns on him. That’s how Jonah felt – not just judged but banished, outside, away from where he ought to be. He didn’t argue against his sentence. On the contrary, he acknowledged the justice of it.
‘There is no attribute more comforting to his children than that of God’s Sovereignty. Under the most adverse circumstances, in the most severe trials, they believe that Sovereignty has ordained their afflictions, that Sovereignty overrules them, and that Sovereignty will sanctify them all. There is nothing for which the children ought more earnestly to contend than the doctrine of their Master over all creation – the Kingship of God over all the works of his own hands – the Throne of God and his right to sit upon that Throne.’
C.H. Spurgeon, Sermon on Matthew 20:15.