I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Jonah and the Whale.

As a child, reading my full-color illustrated book of Bible stories, I was most interested in how Jonah got in the whale and what it might have been like for him sitting in the whale’s belly for three days. I never questioned the veracity of the story because, after all, if God can create a universe, God can certainly arrange for an errant Jonah to have a time-out in a most unusual place.

As I grew older, I thought more about how Jonah, the reluctant prophet, ended up in trouble because he tried to run away from God, and I often thought my life was going in a similar direction. If I didn’t stop disobeying what I knew God was telling me to do, or not to do, I could end up underwater myself.

As a college student, reading the classics, I found myself wondering if Jonah ever felt like Francis Thompson, the English poet who wrote the exquisite poem, The Hound of Heaven, which describes an unrelenting God pursuing  a soul seeking to hide itself as a hound relentlessly follows a hare.

As an adult I have learned that there is more to the story than a man running from God and ending up in the belly of a big fish.  The essential element of the story is the “why.”

God had a job for Jonah to do – to preach repentance to the Ninevites, whose reputation for evil was known to God. Jonah didn’t want to be that prophet, so he ran from God and tried to sail away to Tarshish.  While he slept in the hold of the ship, a storm arose, and the seas threatened to capsize the boat.

The sailors figured out that Jonah was fleeing from his God, so to appease God, they threw him overboard and the storm ceased. But God saved Jonah by providing a big fish which swallowed him and kept him safe for three days – the length of time it took Jonah to repent for running away.

God hears Jonah’s prayers and commands the fish to spit Jonah up on the shore so Jonah can finally undertake the task God asked of him – go to Ninevah and preach to the Ninevites so they change their ways and turn back to God. 

Jonah preached and the Ninevites listened. Everyone, including the King, fasted, put on sackcloth and ashes and repented.  Scripture says, “When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.”

And Jonah was angry. His reaction was essentially, “I knew this was going to happen!” Jonah admits to God this was the “why,” the reason he ran away from God in the first place. He didn’t want God to forgive these enemies of Israel.

Jonah responds to God, “O Lord, is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled at first toward Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of punishment. So now, Lord, please take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.”

God simply asks, “Are you right to be angry?”

Reflecting on my own life, I realize I had to learn the difference between being angry at someone’s bad behavior and being angry at the thought of God treating them with mercy and forgiveness should they repent.

There are times when I am like Jonah, not yet ready to forgive. But with God following on my heels, I may get there eventually.

Mary Clifford Morrell is the author of “Things My Father Taught Me About Love,” and “Let Go and Live: Reclaiming your life by releasing your emotional clutter,” both available as ebooks on Amazon.com.