A Prayer of Desperation (Jonah 2:1-10)

From inside the fish, Jonah prayed to the Lord his God:

When I was in trouble, Lord,
I prayed to you,
    and you listened to me.
From deep in the world
    of the dead,
I begged for your help,
    and you answered my prayer.

You threw me down
    to the bottom of the sea.
The water was churning
    all around;
I was completely covered
    by your mighty waves.
I thought I was swept away
    from your sight,
never again to see
    your holy temple.

I was almost drowned
by the swirling waters
    that surrounded me.
Seaweed had wrapped
    around my head.
I had sunk down deep
    below the mountains
    beneath the sea.
I knew that forever,
    I would be a prisoner there.

But you, Lord God,
    rescued me from that pit.
When my life was slipping away,
    I remembered you—
and in your holy temple
    you heard my prayer.

All who worship worthless idols
turn from the God
    who offers them mercy.
But with shouts of praise,
I will offer a sacrifice
    to you, my Lord.
I will keep my promise,
because you are the one
    with power to save.

The Lord commanded the fish to vomit up Jonah on the shore. And it did. (Contemporary English Version)

Desperate (adjective):

  1. reckless or dangerous because of despair, hopelessness, or urgency: a desperate prayer for help
  2. having an urgent need, desire: desperate to stay alive in a watery grave
  3. leaving little or no hope; very serious or dangerous: desperately stuck in the belly of a fish
  4. extremely bad; intolerable or shocking: skin being bleached white inside of a stomach
  5. extreme or excessive: swallowed and puked-out by a fish

Out of all the postures of prayer I have taken in my life, and in every prayer of desperation I’ve ever uttered to God, none of my experiences were ever quite like Jonah’s. Curled up in a fetal position inside the belly of a big fish will tend to bring out a desperate plea for help. And desperate prayers are the sort God wants from us.

I am God Most High!
    The only sacrifice I want
is for you to be thankful
    and to keep your word.
Pray to me in time of trouble.
I will rescue you,
    and you will honor me. (Psalm 50:14-15, CEV)

The Lord says, “If you love me
    and truly know who I am,
I will rescue you
    and keep you safe.
When you are in trouble,
    call out to me.
I will answer and be there
    to protect and honor you.
You will live a long life
    and see my saving power.” (Psalm 91:14-16, CEV)

Anyplace of difficulty, adversity, or overwhelming situation, can be transformed from the acid belly of a fish to a womb of possibility and new life.

In running from God, Jonah chose unwisely, and took the path of separation and death. Being swallowed whole by a great fish, and languishing in such a place of sheer isolation, is also a metaphor mirroring the actual circumstance of Jonah’s great separation from everyone, everything, especially God.

Our own fleeing from what we hate, and searching for safety apart from the Lord, only lands us in a place of horror. Jonah got himself so far from everything that he became entombed in a living death. In truth, God is the only safe and sacred place we have, our only secure refuge. We don’t need to run in order to be protected – not when God has our backs.

The turning point is whenever we come to our senses and make the choice to unmask our actual thoughts, feelings, and intentions before the Lord. The change comes whenever we make an honest cry of desperation in prayer. For prayer is the very breath of life; it is our hope.

What do you do when you are in distress?

Prayer elicits mercy from the heart of God. The value of adopting biblical prayers, like the ones in the psalter and Jonah’s prayer, is that frequent use of praying them fills our minds and hearts with words in times of great distress.

Its when we are in overwhelming need that scriptural prayers and familiar passages reawaken us with fresh hope for deliverance and renewal.

Jonah’s dark watery grave became empty when he decided to voice his desperate prayer to God. It’s one thing to pray because you want something; it’s another thing to pray because your very life is on the line.

Living for God is much more than holding to particular doctrines or making pious statements about God. The spiritual life is one in which we open ourselves to new beginnings and new life – going beyond ourselves and connecting with a transcendent God.

We must abandon ourselves to God. We are in no position to negotiate or make deals with the Lord. There needs to be a radical letting go of hatred and bigotry, injustice and unrighteousness, and especially our bent toward wanting things our way.

It is from the empty places of life that we find possibility. It was from the grave of the fish’s belly that set up Jonah’s experience of being vomited out in a spiritual resurrection.

Jonah was in the stomach of a big fish for three days and nights, just as the Son of Man will be deep in the earth for three days and nights. (Matthew 12:40, CEV)

Abandoning the false self, forsaking the old life, and coming to the end of ourselves, puts us in a position to pray desperate prayers which God delights to answer beyond what we can even ask or think.

Most holy and merciful God, I am in your care. Help me know that I need not face my troubles alone. May you grant me consolation in my sorrow, courage in my fear, and healing in the midst of my suffering. Fill me with the grace to accept whatever lies ahead for me; and strengthen my faith. Thank you that I have a living hope, through Jesus Christ my Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.

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