Jonah is a biographical account of a man who is deeply religious, but far from God. This book gives the reader various aspects to a life that is religious, but spiritually dysfunctional. In chapter 1, we discover one aspect to a dysfunctionally religious person. Like Jonah, people like this have a category in their heads labeled “those people.” Jonah is a racist and ethnocentrist. Jonah demonstrates it’s possible to be deeply religious, but possess an incredibly condescending view of other people.

Chapter 2 provides further details about people who may be religious, but far from God and we see those details in the timing and nature of Jonah’s prayer.

The prayer life of a religious rebel…

1) Heats up only during times of distress

In the context of the flow of the story, why is Jonah calling on God now? Chapter 1 makes it explicitly clear, Jonah is trying to run away from God. So, Jonah, why are you remembering God now? Just a little while ago you were trying to get away from him. Why not spend some quality time with God in prayer after you receive the instructions from God to go to Nineveh? Why not ask for God’s help as you go to Nineveh? Why are you asking for God’s help now? 

He’s lost control of the situation and lacks the power to change it. He needs God to do that for him. Jonah is a religious man living in rebellion against God. A religious rebel’s prayer life heats up only during times of distress.

If you want to conduct a very convicting litmus test of whether you are on the religion-gospel spectrum, look at your prayer life. If your prayer life heats up only during times of distress when you desperately need God to do something for you, you are following in Jonah’s footsteps. A religious person’s prayer life heats up only during times of distress, because when I can’t control things, I need God to do something for me. 

The prayer life of a religious rebel…

2) Is consumed with alleviating personal pain

When you stop to look at each phrase of Jonah’s prayer, much of it is consumed with describing his predicament. 

“The currents swirled about me…”
“all your waves and breakers swept over me”
“The engulfing waters threatened me”
“To the roots of the mountains I sank down”

He even takes the time to mention seaweed wrapped around his head. He’s preoccupied with his predicament and with the pain of it. Nothing in his prayer indicates he’s searching for the reason for his predicament. From God’s perspective, there’s a purpose behind Jonah’s hardship. Jonah is blind to that. And not only is blind to it, he’s not asking to know what that is. He’s not looking beyond flailing about in the sea. His prayer is consumed with his circumstances and finding alleviation from his pain. He’s not discerning what God is trying to show him through his pain.

This is quintessential of religious prayer. We pray for deliverance from the pain, but don’t often ask God to show us what he’s trying to get us to see in and through the pain. 

The prayer life of a religious rebel…

3) Omits searching for and confessing personal sin

There are a lot of pastors and scholars that see Jonah’s prayer in ch. 2 as an example of genuine confession and repentance. I’m not trying to pick a fight with them. I just don’t see it. Primarily because there’s something conspicuously missing. Jonah never mentions his disobedience. He’s running from God. He is in open defiance of a clear command from God. He never mentions that in his prayer. There is absolutely no soul-searching or self-examination going on here. That’s characteristic of religious prayer.

Let me give you an example of a prayer that has soul-searching and self-examination in it that stands in contrast to Jonah’s prayer:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps. 139:23-24).

Jonah isn’t asking God to search his heart, know his thoughts, and examine him for grievous ways. Jonah’s prayer is not genuine confession. It’s the prayer of a religious rebel.

These three characteristics typify religious prayer. The prayer life of a religious rebel heats up only during times of distress; is it consumed with alleviating pain; and it omits self-examination. Why? Why are these the characteristics of religious prayer? 

Imagine a stereotypical plot line, and a very simplistic plot line, of a story wherein a beautiful woman falls in love with a very wealthy, but ordinary looking man. They get married. Throughout their marriage, she manages her behavior in such a way to maximize the financial perks of being the wife of a wealthy man. She figures out what she needs to do in order open up her husband’s financial spigot. When he’s turned it off to a trickle, she cozies up to him. When it’s wide open, she hardly ever interacts with him. Why this vacillation? She didn’t marry him to get him. She married him for his money. She manages her relationship with him in such a way as to maximize the reason she married him.

A religious person marries God for his money; to get a comfortable life; to get God to bless them. When a religious person’s life is going well, there’s little to no prayer life. When life is going well, I don’t need God to do anything for me. When the wealthy husband has given his wife full reign over the bank accounts and credit cards, there’s no need to interact with him more than is necessary to keep things open financially. When the blessings dry up and I can’t fix it myself, my prayer life kicks into gear, and my prayers are consumed with alleviating the pain, getting the blessings flowing again, all the while still ignoring the condition of my relationship with God himself because I married him for what he can give me not because I find him intrinsically beautiful.

Because Jonah chapter 2 is almost entirely a prayer, it affords us an opportunity to examine our prayer lives. What does yours look like? Do you have longs stretches of private prayer where you’re not asking God to do something for you, but instead you’re praising him for his character and the kind of God he is? Do you have some sweet times of prayer where you’re more consumed with what God has done in Scripture and praising him in prayer for that than you are consumed with your current life circumstances and asking him to fix those?

Let me offer one practical takeaway. If you want to cultivate a rich and deep prayer life, use the Psalms as your prayer. Work through one a day and use them as your prayer to God.

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