Lessons from Jonah on the “Why’s?” of Life

Why is for problems that can be solved.
Yes is for mysteries in which we become involved.
– David Richo

In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I found myself in a troubling conversation with students and colleagues about the death and devastation caused by those events. The conversation turned, understandably, to the question of how God could allow such a thing to happen. How, asked one young student, could it be possible that more than 25,000 people were suddenly, mercilessly slaughtered?

The student then began to put the events into a Biblical context, referring to several accounts in the Hebrew Bible in which whole cities were threatened and then spared by the intervention of God. One of the most famous of these is recounted in the book of Jonah. Many people are familiar with the part of the story in which Jonah ends up in the belly of a whale. There is much more, however, to the story.

The tale begins as God commands Jonah to be a prophet to the people of the city of Nineveh, telling them on God’s behalf that they must repent from their wickedness or be destroyed. Jonah baulks at the idea, and in an attempt to escape his new duties, sets out to sea with a crew of strangers on a small ship.

God, however, is wise to Jonah’s plans and calls forth a terrible storm. When his shipmates realize they are about to die because of Jonah, they agree to toss him into the sea hoping to calm things down. The plan works, and the storm abates, but then Jonah is swallowed alive by a giant fish (traditionally assumed to be a whale) whose belly becomes Jonah’s home for three days and three nights. Finally, Jonah repents, agrees to do God’s work, and is spewed out of the whale’s belly, making his way back to shore.

Next in the story, Jonah heads off to Nineveh and begins to preach the message of repentance to the people. To his complete surprise and dismay, the king is so impressed, he immediately calls for all in the city to enter into a period of fasting and prayer to God. Seeing this response, God relents and spares the city.  My conversation partner drew our group’s attention to this story because he wanted to know why the people of Tokyo did not get such a break.

Unable to let go of his question after we parted, I later read through the whole store, and realized there’s more to the story of Jonah that is worth pondering. When God saves the city, Jonah angrily complains to God that his time has been wasted. He argues that God never really intended to destroy the city because, afterall, God is “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Tired, confused, and overwhelmed with it all, Jonah asks God to take his life “for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Now, it seems to me we’ve all had Jonah moments when faced with life’s unexpected events. We’ve all hurled angry questions at God in moments of crisis, large and small. In the story, however, God’s only response to Jonah is, “It is right for you to be angry?”

The story continues. Jonah stomps out of the city and sets up a booth for himself, sitting down to see what will happen next. God then arranges for a bush to grow up next to Jonah to provide him more shade.  Experiencing more comfort than he has in days, Jonah once again becomes happy with God.

The next day, however, dawns hot and dry. Within a short time, a worm gets into the bush and kills it, leaving Jonah exposed to the heat. Once again, Jonah complains that his situation is so miserable, “It is better for me to die than to live.” And God again replies, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”

In the story, God goes on to compare Jonah’s concern about the dead bush with God’s concern for the people of Nineveh. The story then ends, leaving us to ponder the idea that God truly does hold concern for all humans. However, I think the story has even more layers to it.

First of all, the story for me is about two kinds of realities we face in life: the things over which we have some control, and the things over which we do not have control. In the story, Jonah is invited by God to show concern for the people of Nineveh, and to get involved in their plight. Jonah clearly would prefer not to do that. Perhaps, though, compassion for our neighbor is one of the “givens’ of life. It somehow has a role in the larger scheme of things, even though in the moment that might not be clear. To enter into this reality, we may not, like Jonah, be required to stand on a street corner preaching repentance, but we can smile and engage in polite conversation with the homeless person asking for money we pass on the street corner, even if we do not intend to give them money. Some gifts are priceless.

Jonah also did not have control over the coming or going of the bush. He was very happy when it was there, and miserable when it was not.  This part of the story reminds me of the book by David Richo, The Five Things We Cannot Change…and the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them. Among the five things Richo talks about in the book is the “unavoidable given” that “Life is not always fair.” Another given that seems to fit Jonah’s situation, and also that of the people of Japan, is that, “Pain is part of life.”

In reflecting on how to cope with these givens, Richo suggests that we need to distinquish between an immature religious response, and a mature religious response. Richo tries to place the hard givens of life into a broader context, and says, “A mature religious consciousness offers skillful means to face up to life’s givens boldly and even cheerfully. Mature religion honors this life here and now as an exciting evolutionary challenge, as enormously significant, and as the right place and time for the fulfillment of our destiny precisely through the givens.”

He points to the example of Jesus as a model for the unconditional acceptance of the givens of life. He refers to a description of Jesus found in the writings of St. Paul: “In him there was only Yes.” (p. 83)

In the end, Richo helps us to remember who and what we are: creatures who live within a mystery greater than we can comprehend. He writes:

A mature religious consciousness welcomes us to the mysteries in life’s uncompromising facts….The givens of life are the most long-standing mysteries in human history. Mature religions do not explain them away but honor the mystery by letting it remain somewhat unexplained (p. 85)

According to Biblical scholars, the book of Jonah may date as far back as 2,800 years ago. Then, as now, humans struggled with the fact that our lives present us with events that we cannot comprehend. In the face of such events, if we put our focus on being upset over the things over which we have no control, we can, like Jonah, become depressed to the point of wanting to throw away our lives.

This brings me back to the events in Japan, and the conversation I was having about them with a group of students and colleagues. At the time, I knew I could only admit that I have no answer to the “why” question in that event. I readily admitted that we live in a mystery, further complicated by the question of our attempt to believe in the God that Jonah believed in, one who is living and merciful.

For me, it is hard to believe in God at all if my only choices are to believe in one who stands by idle while so many people lose their lives, or one who actually causes such devastation, punishing both the innocent and guilty. Instead, at the time of our conversation, I found myself turning to the images of the resilient and compassionate people of Japan and other countries in response to that tragedy. There is a lesson there for me, not only about God, but about us.

Of importance to me here is our human capacity to experience grief, empathy and compassion in the face of loss. As Richo says, “The most precious realities of human life are beyond our grasp but within the mystery of our hearts.” (p. 85)

After having to admit to my conversation partners that we live in a mystery, and are at a loss when it comes to an answer to the “Why” for Japan, I said that for me the important thing in such a moment is to focus on the Biblical stories of healing. Many stories within the Bible, especially the stories of the life of Jesus, are about healing.

So for me, whether it is an event on the scale of the Japanese tsunami or something smaller and closer to home, the question now is not “Why?”, but “How can I help?” I suspect, based on the Biblical narratives, that God’s response is similar.

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