The Sign of Jonah: What to Do with Christian Despair

I’m concerned that many Christians judge the desperate harshly and, moreover, that they ascribe to God a similar dismissive contempt.

Some time ago a friend at work handed me a promotional copy of a book that had arrived in our office mail. Its title, Children of Jonah: Personal Stories by Survivors of Suicide Attempts, struck her as odd. Like many people, she had never heard anyone suggest, based on a reading of the biblical account of Jonah, that the prophet could have been suicidal. It’s an idea that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Still, on reviewing the Scriptures, one can begin to see how an exegete might get the impression that Jonah’s natural response to pain and frustration was to cry out for death.

How is it, modern Christians may wonder, that a man of God could be so easily driven to thoughts of suicide? Surely, they suppose, to interpret Jonah thus is the result of a misreading. Besides, we who are familiar with God’s Word and filled with the Holy Spirit could never come to such hopelessness, such loss of perspective—could we?

If we acknowledge that Christians can—and many often do—come to such a critical point during their lives in a fallen and persistently sinful world, we must also confront the fear that can sometimes keep the church from honestly owning and fully supporting its members who lose their way. The peril in failing to do so is not only that a struggling soul may go without help from the body of fellow believers but also that the body does not share in that soul’s struggle and appropriate his or her insights.

Tough Love, Tenacious Grace

In Lucy Maude Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables, the melodramatic young protagonist works herself up over something relatively trivial, then wails to her stoic guardian Merilla, “Don’t look at me. I’m in the depths of despair!”

The dour Merilla responds by chastising Anne to hold her tongue and adding a stern, puritanical rationale to the warning: “To despair is to turn your back on God.”

I confess that from early childhood I could identify more easily with the character of Anne, and I recognized in my mother a sanguine, no-nonsense, Merilla-type toughness, completely without sympathy for my melodramatic and often melancholic leanings.

As a youth I was fascinated by death in general and romanticized suicide the way only morose adolescents can. But my mother maintained that anyone who threw away God’s gift of life committed an unpardonable sin—a notion against which I instinctively rebelled. We had long, fruitless discussions on the topic.

I recalled those long-ago conversations when I attended my first Christian Reformed synod in 2000. One bout of passionate deliberations dealt with a report from the Committee for Contact with the Government (Canada) on end-of-life issues, including the question of how the church should view and address suicide. Emotions ran high as delegates responded to the report and suggested amendments to its wording. Among the statements they adopted was a strengthened condemnation of suicide, evoking the Bible and the Heidelberg Catechism.

“The report’s assertion . . . that the Bible does ‘not explicitly condemn those who killed themselves’ is factually accurate,” synod said. “But this statement must not be taken to mean that the Bible condones suicide. Scripture clearly prohibits all wanton destruction of human life. Such destruction includes the willful ending of one’s own life.”

The adopted statement concludes, “Suicide can certainly be forgiven, but Scripture does not condone it.”

The seriousness and sensitivity with which delegates wrestled with the language of their statements impressed me. I -couldn’t help wondering what personal experiences might have shaped the empathy and resolution of the earnest speakers on each side of the debate.

I came away from those discussions thinking that most everyone’s heart was in the right place but that some voices nevertheless rang with an undertone of harshness.

Sometimes, for understandable reasons, we in the church can be rather unforgiving of Christians who fail to persevere—who give up, rebel, or run away from the difficulty of life despite the gospel’s message of hope. I do not doubt that some of this seeming harshness arises from protective fear. For many it must seem imperative that no softening of attitude toward suicide and no understatement of its prohibition be allowed, lest anyone secretly on the brink should topple.

That harsh stance may be another facet of the same compassion it seems to oppose. Then again, I’m concerned that many Christians do judge the desperate harshly and, moreover, that they ascribe to God a similar dismissive contempt.

But Scripture paints a poignant picture of how God reacts to our despair. Rather than turning his back on those who seem to turn their backs on him, our God pursues and perseveres with us. As the story of Jonah points out, even when a person runs from God there is no distance, no darkness, and no depth that can hide the elect from the persistence of grace.

The Belly of a Paradox

The author and contemplative priest Thomas Merton wrote, “Every Christian is signed with the sign of Jonas, because we all live by the power of Christ’s resurrection. But I feel my own life is especially sealed with this great sign . . . because like Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.” For Merton, the Christian journey was filled with apparent contradictions, often painful ones.

In Seven Storey Mountain Merton observed, “We cannot arrive at the perfect possession of God in this life, and that is why we are traveling in darkness. But we already possess Him by grace, and therefore in that sense we have arrived and are dwelling in the light.”

“But oh!” Merton added, echoing St. Augustine’s Confessions, “‘How far have I to go to find You in Whom I have already arrived.’”

Such paradoxes are endemic to the contemplations of Reformed Christians as well, especially considering that we who acknowledge our total depravity are called to “be holy” (1 Pet. 1:15-16). Yet while the church makes much of God’s grace toward sinners, we at times express an alarming lack of grace toward those among us who lose faith, fall publicly from grace, or otherwise seem to rebel against the very gospel they once confessed. We naturally encourage one another to give God our best; but we’re often at a loss when we must advise fellow believers what to do with their worst. To suggest that the dark night of the soul has no place in the life of a Christian is neither true nor useful to someone experiencing the agony of such a night.

Driven People

Have you ever felt driven? I don’t mean in the positive sense in which we use the term to describe industrious or deeply committed people but in the herded, scourged, or hounded sense—as in driven to extremes, driven to despair, driven to suicide.

People who have never considered suicide may not identify with those who struggle with extreme hopelessness or self-destructiveness. Neither can they understand how a Christian could express such thoughts and feelings, which so obviously negate the hope of the cross. But, I thank God, we have the sign of Jonah.

I think Jonah felt driven, and sometimes he rebelled against the compelling urgency of God’s grace. When Jonah’s attempt to choose his own direction creates calamity, he asks to be thrown into the sea. And later, when God’s grace seems in conflict with Jonah’s prophecy, Jonah claims, “It is better for me to die than to live.” He repeats this apparent death wish over and over, seemingly whenever God’s actions don’t make sense to him. Jonah protests not only that he has a right to be angry but that “I am angry enough to die!”

But God did not allow Jonah to throw his life away—God’s message was too important, not only for the lost but also for Jonah himself to hear. What was the urgency? God had to remind his reluctant prophet to consider the more than 120,000 people in Nineveh “who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:11).

People without spiritual direction—unable morally to tell right from left—may sometimes behave like cattle, being driven in all directions without a sense of the loving, divine purpose that not only moves them but also dwells among them. The sermon of Jonah is that God is attentive to and active in the lives of God’s creation. The lesson for Jonah was that he could not escape God’s presence, ongoing concern, and loving intervention, even when Jonah attempted to evade God’s will. Jonah felt driven, pushed about by forces he could not control, and at times he despaired, forgetting the truly loving nature and wisdom of that all-powerful force that compelled his response.

Yes, God acts upon us. But God’s desire is to act with us and through us to accomplish his will. Jonah was driven to despair because he felt out of (self) control, and forgot to trust in God’s control and to praise him for it. Jonah remembered for a time, under extreme duress, but promptly forgot again. God must remind him once more as the story ends.

Looking with Eyes of Grace

God did not look away from the sin of Nineveh. He described the people’s wickedness as having “come up before [him]”—it was virtually in his face. But God’s observation of the people’s behavior did not stir in him contempt but great concern. God’s resolution to judge Nineveh grows out of God’s willingness to look upon the city and, instead of turning away, to deal with it.

In like manner, Christians must learn to look on our own who falter—not merely pitying, condemning, or rebuking them, but also recognizing God’s complete sovereignty and God’s capacity to redeem even our sin and brokenness for his glory.

This principle of “godly looking” works not only for individual people but for the entire body of Christ. God, who is sovereign over the whole body, can redeem even those parts we would like to obliterate, deny, or turn away from, and God is able to bring out of those broken parts more good than we could ever imagine. Our shame over our depravity should not prevent us from facing, acknowledging, and confessing it. How else are we ever to repent?

We need to look with the eyes of grace when we face the mirror as well. After all, despair comes from a distorted view of ourselves and our situation. The suicidal urge, the self-destructive urge, the urge to despair—these may all result from the misconception that we are so bound to the things that cause us pain that we have no hope of an identity or existence apart from them.

If I despair of overcoming sin on my own, I may want to destroy myself to destroy the sin. Or perhaps I have a disease or mental illness that is so intrusive that it changes my behavior and personality, and I have to take medication to control it. Hating the disease, I may come to hate myself because I cannot see myself separate from the disease or the constant need to control its effects. Or perhaps I see in my past a record of failures so consistent that reason dictates that my future will include more of the same. I may become in my own mind not merely someone who has failed and may likely fail again, but a failure.

Yet our God understands that we are not our illnesses, we are not our failures, we are not our addictions or our sins. For instance, I am not my depression, and God has no problem making that distinction. God knows who I am, on or off my medication, because God is in touch with the spirit he created and sustains in me. And in this fallen existence, if I must struggle against my wayward flesh or against chemical imbalance or chemical dependency, if I must suffer with an ongoing desire to indulge self-destructive urges or idolatry of any kind, God does not reject me because of my struggle. Rather, God is with me in that struggle, for God loves what I am, who I am in him, quite apart from what I do or what my condition does to me. And God knows that God in me and I in him are greater than the thorn in my flesh.

Weakness in Perspective

Understandably, there are practical instances in which people struggling with an addiction or other stronghold must emphasize the concept of recovery over that of deliverance. Not everyone can confess that God has removed his or her temptation. Though I do believe that some people may be healed completely of the desire to drink alcohol, gamble, do drugs, or more, I think these are exceptional cases.

Most of us, rather than having our weaknesses disappear, must rely on strength from God and ongoing encouragement from God’s Word and God’s people to get us through recurring times of trial. And God’s grace is sufficient; it is only when we stop believing that it is sufficient and ascribe more power to our weaknesses than to almighty God that we let go of the hand that is always ready to bear us up. It is a sad form of idolatry that, unchecked, always leads to loss and destruction. As Jonah remembered during his descent, “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs” (2:8).

We work against our own victory when we identify with our weaknesses instead of with the source of our strength. When we confess negativity (untruth) about ourselves instead of our Scripture-promised ability to overcome through Christ, and when we allow ourselves to feel worthless because our victory is not yet manifest, we exalt ourselves against the knowledge of God, who knows us intimately yet judges us worthy of redemption.

However much grace we extend to others, we are prideful when we fail to extend that same grace to ourselves. Pride allows us to buy into a lie of the enemy when we decide that we are beyond redemption or unworthy of it. If we truly believe we have been saved by God’s grace, then God has called us clean and we have no business to call ourselves unclean.

The sign of Jonah is not only a symbol of Christ’s literal death and resurrection, prefiguring our resurrection from spiritual death to new life in Christ. It’s also a symbol of the Lord’s presence and perseverance with us throughout our lives, throughout all our trials, even throughout our passage through the valley of the shadow of death. It’s the sign of a God who, while sovereign over us, suffers with us through our sin, our sorrows, and our ongoing sanctification by God’s Holy Spirit.

“Fear not,” this God says through his prophet Isaiah, “for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you” (Isa. 43:1-3).

When we feel driven by forces beyond our control, whether these are external circumstances or internal struggles, we must remember the promise of Scripture that “God is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13, NRSV). If in our distress we respond as Jonah did, with remembrance of God, repentance, thanksgiving, and recommitment to the call of grace, God will help us find our way back, again and again, from the depths—even from the belly of despair.

About the Author

Jennifer M. Parker is a freelance writer based in Jackson, Miss.

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