Christianity Failure Faith Spirituality Story Suffering

Jonah and The Whale

What I learned about suffering from the story of Jonah and his whale.

Jonah and the Whale, icon by Juliet Venter

My CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education Group) laughed when I started the video I had created for my non-verbal presentation. It began with a picture of a simple silhouette of a large fish, with the shadow of a little stick figure in its tummy. And, because this is CPE, the original was displayed on one of the X-Ray lights in the Pastoral Care office. Apparently it used to be a ward, and a lot of the fittings are still very hospital circa 1950. It turns out to be quite hard to wash a coffee plunger out in a clinical sink. And that’s not the only thing I learned.

But back to my story. They laughed because, ever since we began this course, 19 long weeks ago, back in mid-July, I have used the story of Jonah at every possible moment. There is something deeply resonant for me about the story for both the draining experience of doing CPE, and the experience of hospitalisation.

I’m sure you know the story (you can read the full version here) but, long story short, Jonah heard the word of the Lord to go and preach to the terrifying imperial city of Nineveh. But he had it away on his toes for Tarshish, at the far end of the Mediterranean. A great storm blows up, and eventually he persuades the sailors to throw him overboard. He is swallowed by a whale 1 where he stays for three days and three nights, before the whale deposits him on the beach outside Nineveh, where he, rather crankily, proclaims the word of the Lord with surprising success.

Consider the elements of the story. Jonah flees the “word of the Lord”. When we talk about the word of the Lord, we aren’t just using the image of an old man on a throne issuing instructions to people. Think of God as being somehow implicit in the structure of the universe itself – the condition for there being a universe in the first place. The one who created the whole universe by His word (see Genesis  and John’s Gospel) To the Hebrews, and in the context of this story, God’s word isn’t just some optional lifestyle thing. It has weight. To attempt to avoid God’s word is to attempt to avoid what the universe requires of you. Perhaps we might think of it as being akin to the idea of Fate. If the word of the Lord requires you to go to Nineveh, to Nineveh you are going. Regardless of what other plans you might have.

Brief theological note: I am in no sense saying that God sends trials our way to make some sort of point. I think that if God was in the habit of smiting people who deserved it, neither Mao nor Stalin would have died in their beds. But this does not mean that God is absent. It’s a complex thing to express, so please read on.

Tarshish today (aka Malaga)

In our own lives, there are times when life demands something of you – something that disrupts whatever plans we might have. A couple of examples from my life: unemployment; infertility; the CPE programme. Life wrenches you out of your neat little scheme, uproots you, and deposits you a long, long way from dry land. You thought you knew what was going on – but you discover that you knew nothing at all. I guess the idea also applies to nice things that happen to you (falling in love, getting a great new job), but it seems more resonant when it is something you don’t like, don’t want, and would absolutely avoid if you had any opportunity whatsoever. You don’t want to go to Nineveh – you would much, much rather head off for sunnier weather in Tarshish to enjoy the great beaches and excellent tapas.

But it’s no use, you are embarked on the night journey. You are firmly ensconced in the belly of the whale.

The seais such a resonant symbol. To stand in front of the limitless ocean, to hear it crashing and sighing, with its varied colours and moods. And then to be out amongst it, thrown about by the power of the waves, gradually losing your strength and being sucked down into the depths. And the depths are profoundly mysterious. More people have been to the moon than the bottom of the Mariana Trench for instance. Did you know that Sperm whales dive deep to hunt for Giant Squid? If you’re out on the ocean, you can be very, very quickly out of your depth, out of sight of land, and at the mercy of an utterly alien element. The ancients thought of the land as having been brought up from the primordial depths – order out of chaos. On land, you can breathe, you can set up a house, you can farm. In the depths of the ocean it’s a lot less predictable and stable.

Jonah by Albert Pinkham Ryder
Jonah by Albert Pinkham Ryder

And then, just when Jonah was composing himself for his inevitable death, a whale shows up and swallows him. And he is in the whale for three days and three nights.

For Christians, the resonance with Christ is apparent (though Jesus was in the tomb only two nights). It’s a significant number.

To be in the belly of the whale is to be out of the drivers seat in your life. It is to be in the process of being taken somewhere else – you don’t know where, you don’t know when, and  you really don’t know how. Your journey, which up until now had seemed like it was under your control, is now completely, radically outside your control.  And there isn’t anything you can do about it except to go with it. It will take you where it takes you, and that’s that.

You can see why it felt particularly resonant in a hospital setting. I would talk to people, and they were sometimes in hospital for quite long stays, and there was nothing they could do about it, other than to be patient – as well as being “a” patient. Things are basically out of their hands. They can’t do anything except wait, and do what they are told. Assuming, that is, they want to get better. I guess you could always refuse treatment, discharge themselves against medical advice (filling in the inevitable form for them to wash their hands of you). But that’s to release yourself back into the stormy sea without a whale to your name. Not an advisable activity.

The other thing about being in the belly of a whale is that it is dark. It is away from the light of the sun, the archetype of life and joy and good times. That’s why it is such a powerful image of melancholy, low mood, the dark night of the soul. Everything that used to give you light and life and hope is very distant to you. Everyone else is out achieving goals, laughing and celebrating on your stupid Facebook feed, and you are stuck here in this stupid fish-smelling whale-belly. Nothing pleasurable to be had, unless you like the smell of decaying fish. It feels destructive, meaningless, tragic. At least it would feel tragic if you had any energy left to feel anything much apart from completely overwhelmed.

However, there are other, deeply ironic, aspects to the dark. When you sow a seed in the earth, it is buried underground, a long way from the light. When a foetus is waiting patiently in her or his mother’s womb, it is, presumably, dark in there. There is an aspect of fecundity in the surrounding darkness – and an aspect of  transformation. It’s where seed turns into wheat, where ova and sperm turn into human beings. And, for Jonah, it is where his life turns around.

Suffering changes you. I think I might even go so far as to say that if it hasn’t changed you, it isn’t suffering. (I’ll refer you to some research around that further down.) It can change you for better, or for worse. But no-one gets out of the whale unchanged.

It’s a strange, mysterious sort of process. So much else in life is more linear. Operationalised. You want to learn to program a computer, so you buy a Java textbook. You want to learn a musical instrument, so you go and find a teacher and work through the well defined levels. You put in the hours, do the work, and, a few years later, you find you can play the saxophone. So much of our life is like that – linear, predictable, sane. But the transformation of suffering – the dark, ironic “blessing” of suffering – is more like being a plant. The seed doesn’t have opinions about how things are going to go. There are processes at work, and you just have to go with them. Jonah doesn’t know where the whale is going, he just has to sit in the dark .

Having said that, we are not in fact seeds. We do have agency. It might be very limited, but there is always choice. Here is the world, and currently it blows chunks. If nothing else, all I can choose is my attitude, my stance towards the world. As holocaust survivor and psychotherapist Victor Frankl wrote:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Yunus (Jonah) and the 'whale' Rashid al-Din
Yunus (Jonah) and the ‘whale’ Rashid al-Din

To my mind, the most surprising thing about traumatic suffering, the sort of suffering you endure if you have survived an appalling accident, is that it can lead to spiritual growth. Transformation can occur. There is good research to back this up in the area of “posttraumatic growth”2 . Far from destroying and embittering people, suffering can lead to spiritual growth. What does it mean to “suffer” in this way? It is the collapse of the assumptive world in which we all inhabit.  This has three aspects.

The first is that the world is a meaningful and coherent whole and not a basket of coincidences. The second is that the world is benevolent toward us and not inclined to do us harm. The third is that I am a person worthy of care and love. 2In terms of the Jonah story: you’re in the ocean, a long way from everything stable and predictable. Your world has been turned upside down – and now you have been swallowed by a giant fish, and you’re stuck in the dark, all alone.

One of the suggestions of the research is that it depends what you do with this fact. As expressed above, it’s a funny sort of work. It’s not linear, or easy to explain. Contemporary German theologian Dorothy Soelle 3 talks about three stages of suffering. Firstly, the inarticulate. You are wordlessly stuck in the whale. Then the what she calls the “psalmic”. You express your suffering and grief through words and actions of lamentation. You rend your garments, throw ash in your hair, express it liturgically and ritually. And then, when you are ready, the third stage is that you do something about it.

In Jonah’s case, his “psalmic” stage is almost literally expressed as a psalm. Surprisingly, given the circumstances, he raises a hymn of praise to God.

‘I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
You cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.

Jonah  2:2-3

The Prophet Jonah - James Tissot
The Prophet Jonah – James Tissot

You may very well not feel like expressing praise to God. You may well have very hard words to address to the one who is the maker, redeemer, and sustainer of all. And that is absolutely, perfectly alright and appropriate. God is big enough to take it. The psalms are full of people railing against God. It was only after Jonah did “the work” of grief that he was spat out of the whale, and found himself reluctantly marooned on the Nineveh foreshore.  He was somewhat transformed by the experience. But, reassuringly, he was still the same person: resentful, reluctant, cranky. He hadn’t been transformed into a saint who could float a few inches above worldly concerns. But, nonetheless, he was changed. And, as Dorothee Soelle might point out, he got busy with the task God  – life had assigned him.


I’ve had this blog for a couple of years now. A little while ago I was browsing through my stats and I noticed that by far and away the most popular thing I have ever written was a post entitled Existential Doubt and Suffering. If you have found this post interesting, you might enjoy that one.

Just FYI: We are doing (or, depending on when you read this, did) a session on this at Cafechurch in November 2017


1: Yes, I know the text says “fish” but no-one knew the difference until five minutes ago, and the ancient Hebrews certainly neither knew, nor would they have cared. Don’t be such a boring pedant 🙂

2: Start with this:  Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun, “Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence,” Psychological Inquiry 15, no. 1 (2004),

3: Dorothy Soelle Suffering Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1975

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

2 replies on “Jonah and The Whale”

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