From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said:
‘In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.
“How are you?” must be one of the most frequently asked questions in the English language, although I doubt it is often answered honestly. “I’m fine.” “I’m great, thank you.” These are a few of the immediate stock responses we often give.
In many respects, this is probably for the best. If we gave free rein to our subconscious, we might blurt out all kinds of dark thoughts: from our crippling fear of death to a pathological thirst for revenge.
At this point in our story, Jonah is perhaps providing a very honest answer to this question. Interestingly, he is not doing it using his own words, but by stitching together different Psalms. In the verses above there are echoes of Psalms 18 and 120. This patch-quilt of verses comes about not because Jonah cannot remember his Bible properly, but because he knows it so well it becomes a means by which he can give full expression to his feelings.
When I initially encountered the Psalms, I expected to discover a series of beautiful, yet restrained, poems to God. They are however rough and often decidedly angry, venting at length against enemies and other perceived threats. This however is precisely what makes them so powerful.
The Psalms give full expression to the highs and lows of the human experience, often disclosing feelings we might not even recognise in ourselves. Gone is the blandish language we spend most of our lives hiding behind, replaced with these unvarnished expressions of truth and hurt. This is precisely the language Jonah needs as he sinks to his lowest point, both physically and figuratively.
Many struggle with prayer, convinced that they should experience some heightened sense of holiness. It is as if they are trying to present their ‘best’ selves to God. Prayer however involves opening up our whole selves. As Jonah says, “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me…”