Sign of Jonah
Suffering is evil and wrong, isn’t it? The price we’ve been paying since Adam blew it in the garden? A sign of God’s disapproval, that something is wrong in our lives, that we need to repent and pray for God’s relief. How we view suffering has a lot to do with how much it hurts. I was taught to view suffering as evil, but what if I was misinformed?
Jesus makes a cryptic statement that you don’t hear many pastors or priests discussing these days. When people were asking Jesus for a sign to prove his power came from God, he tells them they will get no sign but the Sign of Jonah. How to understand? Jonah is the Hebrew prophet swallowed by a big fish while trying to escape God’s command to save a city and people he hated as enemies of Israel. After three days and nights in the fish, Jonah reluctantly goes to them. The people repent, saving the city, but Jonah sulks outside the city walls praying for death. The story ends with God asking whether Jonah is doing well to be angry, and why shouldn’t God—and he—pity these people who “do not know their right hand from their left?”
Jonah’s descent into the belly of the beast is the same as Jesus’ descent into the tomb. The sign of Jonah is the same as Jesus telling all who would follow him to pick up their crosses daily, to fall to the ground like planted grain, to die to our existence as human seeds in order to grow into fruitful human plants. But dying in any form is not pleasant. Only great suffering and great love have the power to strip away the defenses and illusions meant to keep us safe, but also keep us apart.
Suffering a death to everything we think keeps us safely in control is the necessary suffering that precedes our ability to begin to love as God loves—even those we don’t like, the enemy. If we allow, suffering leads to greater love, just as love always leads back to suffering.
Suffering is half of the only Way to the Father.
We don’t get to see Jonah’s response, so God’s question remains open to him and all of us down through the millennia. Will we accept the necessary suffering life presents to open us to a love we won’t see until we do?