Jonah: Sorry, Not Sorry

Have you ever heard of the non-apology? Here’s the definition from Google.

Non-Apology: A statement that takes the form of an apology but does not constitute an acknowledgement of responsibility or regret for what has caused offense or upset.

We see the ALL. THE. TIME. in politics and the like. Some politicians are absolute masters at the non-apology. Common examples of the non-apology are statements like “I deeply regret…”, “Mistakes were made…”, “I’m sorry you feel that way…”, or even the prevalent “I’m sorry, but…”


These all take on the form of an apology without, as per the definition, acknowledging responsibility or remorse for one’s own actions.

This article from Cracked explains some of the most common forms of the non-apology and reveals why we fall for them so often. We want to give people the benefit of the doubt. We want to believe that people are sincere and that they are willing to acknowledge fault and move on. We want to see the best in people. That’s how relationships work. There can be no relationship without reconciliation*.

*reconciliation: the restoration of friendly relations


When people offer a non-apology, there is no true reconciliation. The offending party retains all their pride and dignity, often without addressing the very attitudes, words, or actions that caused the offense in the first place. We rely on non-apologies when we are afraid to humble ourselves in order to repair the relationship. Real apologies are seen as weak. The non-apology allows you to keep up the appearance of strength. But there can be no true relationship without humility.

This is all made harder by what I consider to be the worst quote from any book of movie ever. It’s from the novel Love Story, by Erich Segal, and popularized by the 1970s film adaptation by the same name. You may have heard it before. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”


What terrible relationship advice! If I truly love someone, I will apologize the instant I realize I hurt them. I’m not always the best at this – just ask my wife. But I’m trying. I’m not too proud to acknowledge fault or wrongdoing. Sometimes I’ll even apologize in order to make amends when I don’t think I’ve done anything particularly wrong. But I try to be humble enough to see things from the other person’s perspective.

THE NON-APOLOGETIC PROPHET

We are all greedy, self-centered creatures by nature. We all face this internal struggle between looking out for our own interests and wanting what’s best for our social group. We are both highly individualistic AND incredibly social creatures. Any human on his/her own will die. We need each other. Reconciliation should be our highest goal.

This is why I can’t stand the prayer in Jonah 2 – as it pertains to Jonah himself. I really love this prayer for anyone else. You can see in my last post, I recommend the prayer from Jonah 2 for anyone who is struggling emotionally, mentally, physically, or spiritually. It’s a great prayer for re-centering, for reorienting our lives around God. When we feel like we’re drowning and the world is closing in on us, this prayer helps remind us that we’re in God’s hands. God is with us even in the depths of despair.

But for Jonah to pray this prayer really grinds on me, not because of what he says but because of what he doesn’t say. He never once says, “I’m sorry.” This prayer is a non-apology!


Look at it again:

“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.
You hurled me into the depths,
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, Lord my God,
brought my life up from the pit.
“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
turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”
(Jonah 2:2-9)

What does Jonah do? He cries out to God. He acknowledges his helplessness and his distress. He praises God for saving him. He desires to worship and offer sacrifices to God. He pledges to make good on his vows to God.

All good things, but he never once says, “I’m sorry for disobeying and running from you. That was really foolish of me. Please forgive me.”

The argument could be made that the apology is implied, that Jonah really is repentant. One could assume that Jonah’s words own up to his fault, and that there would be no need for sacrifice if he weren’t acknowledging his sinfulness. We could maybe see that confession, forgiveness, and repentance are all implied by God’s salvation.

But I can’t go there. I don’t think Jonah is sorry for what he did. I don’t think he’s repentant. I don’t think he really sees the need for forgiveness, because in his view he didn’t do anything wrong! How do I know this? Because of the rest of the story, but we’ll get to that later.

THROWING SHADE AND #HUMBLEBRAG

What makes it worse is that Jonah even uses this prayer to throw shade at the pagan sailors who tossed him overboard. “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.” That’s a direct slam against those sailors who cried out to their little-g gods during the storm. Jonah doesn’t even know that the entire crew converted to becoming worshipers of YHWH while he’s drowning in the sea to avoid the very same God.

And no good non-apology is complete without a humblebrag at the end! “But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you.” Yeah, sure Jonah. You’re assuming a lot. Guess what? While you’re in the bowels of a fish, the sailors you just slammed are actually making vows and sacrificing to YHWH.

I love the prayer in Jonah 2 for anyone except Jonah. Coming from Jonah, it’s like the pie from The Help, if you know what it mean…

Do you know what really turns people away from God’s love for them, Jonah? A calloused, unrepentant heart that denies the need for forgiveness. Those who cannot acknowledge their own sin are not only lying to themselves, but they are making God out to be a liar. Jesus had a word for people like you, Jonah – “Hypocrite.” You want the salvation from God without repentance. You want God’s mercy without showing mercy to others. You expect grace for yourself and judgment for others.

JONAH IS…ME

And you’ve got to know that when I address those issues to Jonah, I’m really talking to a mirror.

Because as much as I can’t stand Jonah, I see so much of him in myself. That’s the brilliance of this book. That’s why this shouldn’t just be relegated to the realm of children’s Bible stories. That’s why we need to take our time with this story and really dive into it. On a surface level reading of Jonah 2, it can seem like Jonah’s really turned a corner. But he hasn’t.

Jonah is that person who shows up to worship Sunday after Sunday, who sings the songs and takes communion, who leads prayers, who even preaches on occasion, but still struggles to have any empathy for those who aren’t just like him. Jonah sings “Oh, how I love Jesus,” but then badmouths immigrants. Jonah takes communion, the body and blood of Christ, but then scoffs at movements like Black Lives Matter. Jonah says a hearty “Amen!” when the preacher makes a point about God’s salvation, but refuses to tip the overworked waitress because service was a little too slow.

Jonah is a hypocrite. Jonah is a prophet of God who doesn’t understand God at all. Jonah is an unrepentant sinner. Jonah is a racist hyper-nationalist who thinks in stereotypes and 280 characters. Jonah is more concerned about being right than about reconciliation.

But before we get too harsh with Jonah, we’ve go to realize this story is like the story told by Nathan to King David. If we aren’t careful, we can get worked up and angry just to have it thrown back at us that “You are the man. You are Jonah!”

So I apologize if anyone was made uncomfortable by this. I regret any offense that may have been caused. And I’m sorry, but we’ve all got to take a good hard look at ourselves in the story of Jonah.

Jonah: Head Above Water

When we left off, our rebellious prophet was recruiting the pagan Gentile sailors to assist him in committing suicide.

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” (Jonah 1:12)

But the sailors didn’t buy into this crazy scheme and tried for Plan A.2 – row to shore. But they couldn’t. God/the storm wouldn’t let them. Jonah tried to force God’s hand in overthrowing the Assyrians by running from the mission. Now God is forcing the sailors’ hands to throw Jonah overboard – Jonah’s idea, not God’s, just so we’re clear. God never asked this of Jonah.

Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm…Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:15, 17)

FINALLY! Here’s the fish! Now we get to pull out the flannel graph board and sick a kneeling/fetal-position Jonah onto a cutaway felt image of a whale fish. We get to sing the songs and put in the Veggie Tales movie!

This is where so many of us stop with the story of Jonah. It’s always David and Goliath, Daniel and the Lion’s Den, Jonah and the Whale Fish. But the story of Jonah is not about a big fish. The story of Jonah is about a God who is big with a big plan. The fish is mentioned in a whopping 3 verses – 1:17; 2:1; and 2:10. That’s it. And the whole fish scene isn’t even the most impressive miracle of the story. But we’ll get to that later.

JONAH’S PRAYER

Can you imagine drowning in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea? Drowning is one of the top fears among humans. A lot of people are hesitant to swim or get in a large body of water for fear of drowning. What a terrible way to die! I get panicky just thinking about it.

Jonah wanted to die. It wasn’t a heroic self-sacrifice to save the lives of the sailors. It was a selfish get-out-of-mission-work-free card. It was a last ditch effort to run from God. It wasn’t martyrdom, it was suicide.

So God gave him a taste of what Jonah said he wanted. Sometimes the worst thing God can do is to give us what we want. Look at this prayer of Jonah’s that we have recorded in chapter 2.

“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.
You hurled me into the depths,
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.”
(Jonah 2:2-6a)

Maybe we have a hard time feeling sorry for Jonah, but I think we’ve all been there. Maybe you haven’t had the physical experience of drowning, but most of us have felt like we’re drowning figuratively – from stress, depression, broken relationships, pressure from school or work, the demands of everyday life that keep adding up. Maybe you’ve felt like you were drowning under the weight of some sin that has pulled you down – addictions, anger, lies, etc.

Every sin has a consequence. Sometimes we bring them on ourselves, and we have to face the natural consequences of our own dumb choices. Other times we have to pay for our actions through punishment or retribution. Or maybe we’re suffering under the consequences of generational/societal sin that we really didn’t have anything to do with, but we’re still negatively affected by it.

Every sin has a consequence.

I’ll say this. I don’t think God causes bad things to happen. But I believe God allows bad things to happen as a wakeup call. God didn’t cause Jonah to be thrown overboard. But God used this experience of drowning as a wakeup call to this rebellious prophet. God definitely got Jonah’s attention. It only took a trip to literal rock bottom. But for some people, like Jonah and like the younger brother in the Story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), that’s what it takes for them to come to their senses.

UNEXPECTED SALVATION

FINALLY the prophet of God actually prays to God – the first time in the whole book so far. Even when the sailors were crying out to their own gods and urged Jonah to do the same, Jonah kept silent. Jonah refused to even utter a word in prayer to God until his life was on the line. And when he finally decides to pray, what does he talk about?

He thanks God for saving him. He recounts his terrifying experience of drowning, sinking down to the “roots of the mountains.” The imagery Jonah uses to describe his underwater experience is quite similar to how other writers and poets describe Sheol, aka the grave or realm of the dead. Jonah is coming to terms with the reality of his watery grave.

But not so fast. What’s that? A giant mouth opening in my direction and sucking me in like a spaghetti noodle!

“But you, Lord my God,
brought my life up from the pit.
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
turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”
(Jonah 2:6b-9)

The punishment was the near death experience as he was sinking into the salt water. The salvation came in the form of fish guts. The “great fish” was God’s chosen means of salvation for his runaway prophet.

What a weird story.

And what a testament to the fact that God’s modus operandi for saving people is constantly changing. I’m glad this story never caught on in religious rituals. “In order to experience God’s salvation you must be swallowed and vomited up by a fish.”

PRAYING FROM ROCK BOTTOM

Anyway, God saves Jonah. Jonah at least has the decency to acknowledge his need for God and his utter helplessness apart from God.

When you feel like you’re drowning – by sin, by stress, by life – this is a great prayer to go to. Read it. Reflect on it. Make it your own. We all have been at rock bottom before. We all know what it’s like to desperately cry out to God. This prayer in Jonah 2 is a great way to find the words if you don’t have them.

In fact, a song came out recently by Avril Lavigne. I hadn’t heard anything from her in years. Turns out she was battling Lyme Disease, an absolutely debilitating illness. In an interview she recalled a time in the hospital when the disease affected her lungs in such a way that it literally felt like she was drowning in that hospital bed. She fought through the disease, and is in a much better place now. But her first single released is called “Head Above Water.” The first time I heard it, I thought this is straight from Jonah’s prayer. If you haven’t heard it, check it out. It’s amazing.

More posts in the Jonah series: