It was extremely important for the church of my youth to prove that every single miracle in the Bible be proven as an historical and scientific fact. A literal seven day creation, the plagues on Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, Joshua making the sun stand still, the Hebrew children surviving the fiery furnace, and of course, there was the story of “Jonah and the Whale.”
As the story goes, Jonah was a rebellious prophet who would not follow God’s instructions. In an attempt to escape his vocation, he boarded a ship and took to the sea. He quickly found himself thrown overboard and then swallowed whole by a whale of the deep. Dear Jonah spent the next three days in the cramped quarters of the behemoth’s belly.
Being one of those biblical stories that defied logical explanation, my pastor would return to the tale time and time again to make sure, I assume, that the congregation had not been bluffed into disbelief by the humanists and Darwinians who assaulted our faith. To bolster that faith, he would tell this backhanded story.
It seems a young girl was talking to her science teacher about whales when the teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human being. The little girl protested, stating that the prophet Jonah had indeed been swallowed by a whale. The teacher reiterated that such a thing was impossible.
So the little girl said, “When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah.” The teacher, a bit brusque, asked the girl, “Well, what if Jonah went to hell?” The little girl replied, “Then you will have to ask him.” This punch line was always met by hysterical laughter, derision aimed at those who dared not believe the validity and veracity of Jonah’s story.
Pardon the pun, but the whale in Jonah’s story is too often a red herring. We get all tangled up in the scientific plausibility of such an act taking place, and miss the point of the whole story. Jonah’s tale is not a scientific treatise. It is a story about God’s relentless, patient, persistent, and sometimes hard grace. Hard grace: What is it that, exactly?
Hard grace is Jonah in the belly of the whale. How is that grace? If that big fish had not arrived to gobble down Jonah, he would have drowned in the depths of the sea. The whale was not Jonah’s undoing. It was his salvation. The belly of that whale became the incubator – indeed a painful, disgusting, cramped incubator – in which mercy took root, rescued and transformed him. That is hard grace, and Jonah is not the only one to experience such a thing.
God’s mercy often comes to us by painful means. Heaven’s love can wear a disguise. The circumstances that lead to our transformation are sometimes delivered in strange packaging. Hard grace arrives at our doorsteps as sickness, financial collapse, divorce, betrayal, bankruptcy, addiction, injustice, self-inflicted wounds, foolish decisions and personal rebellion.
Hard grace is all those things that God allows into our lives that deconstruct us. Yet, our deconstruction is not our destruction. It is for the merciful purpose of our transformations and remaking. We are not left to drown in the trouble of our own making. God’s ferocious mercy does not abandon us, but comes to us in the strange and disguised goodness of a hungry whale and gobbles us down; providing a place to learn, grow, change, and get on with the life God has for us. It hurts us, yes, but hard grace never harms us.
I wish this kind of hard, transformative grace could be taught, for it would save us all much agony, but it can’t be. Hard grace can only be experienced. But once it is experienced, and we never wish for a repeat performance, mind you, we become changed people. As Julian of Norwich said, “There is the fall and then there is the recovery. Both are the mercy of God.” Such mercy is the greatest miracle of all.