In previous blog posts, I have sung the praises of the prophet Jonah. In terms of the sheer numbers of converts who heeded his words, he’s likely the most successful prophet in the Old Testament. His offer to sacrifice himself to save unbelievers foreshadows Christ’s own sacrifice. And even his attempt to run away from God betrayed enormous faith in a God who is “gracious… and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). (Recall that Jonah ran away because he didn’t want God to show mercy on the hated Ninevites, as he believed God would ultimately do—because that’s exactly the sort of God that God is!)
Alas, in today’s post I must offer mostly criticism (with compassion). After God “hurled a great wind upon the sea” (Jonah 1:4), whose resulting tempest threatens the lives of the ship’s crew, the Bible says, in v. 5, “Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep.”
This reminds us of another sleeper, in another boat, in the midst of another life-threatening storm—see Mark 4:35-41—yet how different are Jesus and Jonah! Jesus sleeps because of his confidence in his Father’s abiding care; Jonah because he’s depressed, he’s hopeless, and he’s given up on life.
Enter the captain, a pagan whose righteousness, in its own way, outshines Jonah’s: “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”
Again, the captain doesn’t yet know Yahweh, the God of Israel. He doesn’t yet know that Jonah’s God is “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (v. 9). But since Yahweh is the God in whom Jonah believes, why on earth isn’t Jonah praying to him? Why isn’t he asking God to rescue him and the ship’s passengers and crew from this storm? Does Jonah not believe that God will “give a thought” to them—the same God of whom David asked, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4)
“What do you mean?” indeed!
Jonah has a responsibility to pray—on his own behalf but also on behalf of people whose own gods are powerless. They need Jonah to save their lives and, more importantly, their souls. Ultimately, Jonah’s witness and example would accomplish exactly that. (See v. 16.) But in the meantime, how dare he sleep when he could be praying!
Years ago, a former pastor and theology professor named Ryan Bell made headlines by announcing that he was taking a year off from being a Christian; that he would live self-consciously as an atheist for one year—no prayer, no church, no Bible-reading. Well—surprise, surprise—one year later he was an atheist… with a book deal. I blogged about it at the time. But I appreciated Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig’s words from his Reasonable Faith podcast:
This is madness spiritually speaking, to think that you can sincerely embark on disbelieving in God and living out consistently the consequences of atheism. What about all these people that God would have had him pray for during that year? What about the people in the church community of which he is supposed to be a member that he should have been serving and helping during that year? What this means is that he will not be exercising his spiritual gifts in the context of the local body of believers. So it will be impaired by the improper functioning of that body. This is spiritually disastrous.
Do you hear that? Dr. Craig’s concern, like the captain in Jonah’s story, is first for the welfare of the people with whom Bell is living. He owes them his prayers and the use of his spiritual gifts. His “living as an atheist” for a year doesn’t just affect him, after all; it affects his brothers and sisters in Christ—not to mention the people in his community who don’t yet know Christ.
Or doesn’t it? Do we really believe that things like prayer and spiritual gifts make a difference in our lives and the lives of others?
If so, perhaps the captain’s words apply to us: “What do you mean, you sleeper?”