I wish I could say I have always been a great man of prayer. The truth is that prayer was one of those things I grew up with: You’re a Christian, so you pray. But challenging situations in recent years had made my understanding of prayer crumble beneath me, and I began to want to understand it better. It’s difficult to define what prayer is precisely. One anonymous author states, “Prayer’s ultimate goal—if, indeed, it has others—is to close the gap between us and God.”
But more specifically, What does prayer do? To gain perspective, let’s look into the life of a character in this drama we call the Bible, Jonah. His story is well known. Jonah was a prophet who lived around 700 B.C. God commissions him to walk into the capital city of Assyria, Israel’s archenemy, to declare its destruction.
Without a word, Jonah gets on a boat and heads not to Nineveh, but to Tarshish. Most biblical historians indicate that Tarshish was in Spain, more than 2,000 miles west of Nineveh. Jonah is literally running to the ends of his known world!
God provides a violent storm to remind Jonah of his mission. As a last resort, the sailors agree to toss Jonah overboard because Jonah insists he is the problem. The storm subsides as Jonah sinks to the bottom and is swallowed by a large fish that is his cocoon for the next three days. A reluctant, rebellious Jonah enters that fish, but something dramatic happens inside it—the beginning of a metamorphosis, a transformation.
We pick up the story in Jonah 2:1: “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 the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, “I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.” The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord’” (NIV).
A reluctant but revived Jonah utters a prayer, a heartfelt plea with God, that marks the beginning of his transformation.
There are three remarkable qualities in Jonah’s supplication, three ways that our prayers can lead to personal transformation.
First, he knows who he is talking to
In Jonah 1:8, as the violent storm is raging, the sailors begin to interrogate Jonah: “‘Who is responsible for making all this trouble for us?... From what people are you?’” Jonah replies, “‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.’”
To understand the transformation we must understand the transformer. Jonah might be angry and confused, but he has not lost sight of who God is. As he begins his prayer, he knows that he is approaching the Sovereign God: “From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.”
If our prayers have become weak, ineffective, or ritualistic, it might be because we have forgotten who we are talking to. In an effort to remove fear, we have emphasized Abba, the “Heavenly Daddy” to the detriment of the other side of the coin. The writer of Hebrews ends Chapter 12 saying, “Our God is a consuming fire.”
What if the president of your country chose five people at random to come into his executive office, one by one for 15 minutes, and you were one of them? You are told that during this time alone with him you can say or ask anything!
As you enter, would you quickly say, “Mr. President, thank you for keeping our country safe and the economy running well. Continue to watch over all of us and please ensure that there will be enough money in the social security fund for my retirement. Goodby”?
Just change some words, address them to God, and you’ll hear many of our prayers in this fast-paced world. Some of us have lost sight of the reality of God, who is both Abba and consuming fire.
A friend of Martin Luther’s once recalled: “I overheard him in prayer…It was with so much reverence, as if he were speaking to God, yet with so much confidence as if he were speaking to his friend.” Another author penned these words, “If we would only stop to realize that in this privileged moment of prayer, the Creator of the Universe is willing to listen to us, to talk with us, to grant us His undivided attention for as long as we desire, our spiritual lives would be transformed.”
Jonah knows who he is talking to, enough so that he prays in the past tense even though he’s still in the pit!
Second, in praying, he is honest with God
There are several forms of the word prayer in Hebrew, with various connotations. Among them is palal, used in Jonah 2:1, whose primary definition is “to intervene, to throw oneself in the middle of.” The same Hebrew word is used when the Israelites beg Moses to pray that God remove the deadly serpents.
This is an intense form of prayer. Someone once said, “Every Christian should pray at least one violent prayer every day,” and this is exactly the type of prayer that Jonah prayed. He enters into a brutally honest dialogue with God, throwing himself at His mercy, confessing that he deserves to be hurled into a stormy sea, and that he believes himself banished from God’s sight. He even talks about being wrapped up in sticky, stinky seaweed!
In a passage from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is having a crisis of conscience. Here are his words (along with his grammar): “I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come….It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him [speaking of God]. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right…. deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—-I found that out.”
Jonah had lived a lie to this point, but in a moment of catharsis, he bares his soul in honest dialogue with God.
Third, he commits himself to a course of action
This is my favorite part of this prayer. Remember Jonah 2:9, “What I have vowed I will make good.” Jonah ends his prayer by committing himself to a course of action. He does not put the ball in God’s court, hoping for an answer. I have trouble with the mentality that says because it is impossible to live up to standards of the law, I must pray, “God I am nothing, I can do nothing, so I ask you to do it.” At times, there is merit and biblical support for that sort of prayer, but too often it is just an excuse. We slump into the complacency of waiting for God to act, conveniently getting us off the hook. We say, “God, I’ve prayed, you know where to find me! Amen.”
Jonah is taking proactive steps to redirect his life: “Lord, I know who I am and who I want to be. I’m taking the first step in that direction.” These are not token steps to ensure an answered prayer; they are fundamental shifts in thinking that result in transformed actions. That is one of the most powerful effects of prayer!
Jonah, son of Amittai, rebellious, confused, and frightened is now alive, focused, and fearless, and he’s still swimming around in the belly of a fish! Nineteenth century author George Meredith said it plainly, “Who rises from prayer a better man, his prayer is answered.”
I am not saying there is instantaneous and permanent transformation. Jonah commits and follows through, but then blows it again. His understanding of God’s character and of his own mission is still limited. When the Ninevites believe and repent, Jonah gets angry, thinking both he and God will now look weak because destruction will not come. Transformation is both a daily choice and the work of a lifetime.
According to God’s Word and Jonah’s testimony, if you feel distressed, buried alive, doubtful, dissatisfied with who you are with your spiritual life, you have access to a vehicle that can move you to a new place. Prayer is your transportation to transformation.
Costin Jordache is a member of the pastoral staff and director for media ministries at the Loma Linda University Church in Loma Linda, California, U.S.A., where he produces a variety of television and digital media projects. His email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.