In P.T. Forsyth’s The Soul of Prayer, he writes, “Prayer is where our thought of God passes into action and becomes more certain than thought.”
This is what I find in Jonah’s prayer—his prayer in the belly of the whale, a.k.a. his quarantine.
In this period of divinely enforced social distancing, where there was no time for a Costco run, Jonah is not going through a daily, religious ritual. This is no rote prayer that has gone no further than the thought of God. There is no time for omphaloskepsis (mystical navel-gazing). He is coming to God with full force, actively pressing in on him. How else could it be?
I am guessing this is how more and more of us are praying these days. Need to be praying. This is the chief aim of prayer–to bring us—our full us—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually—to God.
Jonah knows his only hope is prayer. It’s what we do—must do—in trying seasons. The language of his prayer is full of emotion, reminding me that the best prayers bring passion and energy to God. How long Jonah was in quarantine is anyone’s guess, but I am pretty certain this was not a onetime prayer. This was importunate, persistent, prayer. Scripture tells us God uses unrelenting prayers—“seek, and keep seeking”—to accomplish his will. It’s noteworthy he compares faithful praying to an obstinate widow. As one writer put it, “Some things God cannot give to a person until one has prepared and proved one’s spirit by persistent prayer.”
But even prayers of action and doggedness are not enough. They must go beyond our troubles. Prayer cannot be reduced to our plight.
Eugene Peterson continues to be a mentoring voice for me, and it is clear he spent significant time reflecting on Jonah’s prayer. He discovered that none of it was original. None of Jonah’s words were reduced to Jonah’s preoccupation with his distresses. Too many of our prayers can smell of self-absorption. It turns out Jonah’s prayer is “furnished with the stock vocabulary of the Psalms.” In the day of crisis, Jonah’s prayer turned out to be Word prayed back. It was all derivative.
I am still learning to pray this way. Some years ago, I made this needful shift to using God’s dialect instead of my own. Each morning the Lord ’s Prayer serves as the necessary skeleton. Lots of personal things are filled within each line. As I turn to pray over my future, I have let Jabez’ prayer—“Enlarge my boundary” be my daily prayer. Agur’s prayer that God keep him in the middle—between desperation and becoming too satisfied—informs my daily prayer for God’s provision. Isaiah’s prayer, “Here I am, send me” is the basis of my daily prayer to be available (though I pray with a certain fear). Solomon’s prayer for discernment is the language of my daily prayer for wisdom. Paul’s determination to lay hold of why God laid hold of him reinforces my daily petition to not stop short of my call. And the language of Ephesians 3:30, “Now to him who is able to do exceedingly, abundantly, beyond all we ask or think, according to the power working within us” puts into words the faith I have that God is going to work way beyond my imagination.
And Jonah’s prayer—expresses what I need to say to God today.