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What's the fish in your life? And how can you pray to God about it?

When it comes to effective prayer, there's much to learn from Jonah

I know what it’s like to have God call you to something that you aren’t entirely sure you want to do, to feel the pull from God and walk in the other direction. But I also know the joy that comes from drawing back to God, following God’s lead, and leaning into the plans God has for me.

After heeding God’s call to full-time Christian ministry, I have discovered His gift for boldly bringing biblical clarity to today’s issues, and I’ve been granted the ability to speak to a worldwide audience about the gospel through my ministry, Leading The Way. Here I would like to share with my brothers and sisters in Christ what I have learnt about prayer from Jonah, and how praying as he did, with biblical scriptures, releases the power of our sovereign God. 

I received Christ as my Lord and Savior in 1964, and I was immediately on fire for the Lord. I would go anyplace and tell anyone, even strangers, what Jesus had done for me. About two years after my conversion experience, I sensed that God was calling me into full-time Christian ministry, but I didn’t want that. I had plans, I had goals, and they didn’t include becoming a preacher or a missionary. So, like Jonah, I decided to run from the Lord. I abandoned my faith, stopped witnessing, refused to attend church, stopped praying, and ran from God as fast as I could. 

I’m so grateful that God, in His tender mercy and grace, would not let me go. After about 18 months, He began drawing me back into His loving embrace through my life circumstances. Since then, He has led me on an exciting, thrilling adventure of faith beyond anything I could have imagined in my youth.

Today, I look back on the foolish young man I was and think, Why did I imagine I could escape from God? What if I had remained in a state of rebellion for the rest of my life? Look at all the blessings of knowing and serving Christ I would have missed. To think, I actually feared God’s will for my life. Yet that experience has helped me understand the kind of man Jonah was. I can’t judge Jonah too harshly because I have been in Jonah’s sandals, and I know exactly how it feels to run away from God.

We can read or recite His word, and we can pray God’s thoughts from His word as if they were our own thoughts—we can think God’s thoughts after Him.

Jonah was a prophet in Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II. When God commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh and prophesy against that city because of the wickedness of its people, Jonah refused. He took off for the coast, thinking he could somehow flee from the presence of the Lord. He booked passage on a ship bound for Tarshish. While the ship was at sea, a storm arose. The sailors tried to lighten the ship by dumping their cargo, but they soon suspected that this was no ordinary storm. They determined that the reason for their distress was Jonah.

Jonah admitted that he was to blame for the storm. God was chastening him for his disobedience and his attempt to flee. Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” Jonah said, and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you” (Jonah 1:12).

The sailors didn’t want to drown their passenger. They first tried to row back to shore, but the winds and waves were too fierce. In the end, they prayed to Jonah’s God, asking Him not to hold them accountable for Jonah’s death, and they tossed him into the sea. Instantly, the sea became calm, and the sailors became more fearful than ever. None of their gods could calm the sea as Jonah’s God had done.

What happened next is often interpreted as God’s punishment inflicted on Jonah: he sank into the sea and was swallowed by a great fish. Yes, being swallowed by a fish is an unpleasant and punishing experience. But that fish also saved Jonah’s life. That fish was a sign of God’s love and mercy to Jonah, as well as a sign of God’s displeasure with his rebellious choices.

Praying with God

While Jonah was in the belly of the fish, he prayed. If you have been through a storm in your life, if you have found yourself in the belly of the beast, if you are suffering as a consequence of disobedience or even through no fault of your own, then the prayer of Jonah is for you.

A good friend of mine was a great prayer warrior. People would ask him, How is it possible for you to pray for an hour and more?” He would answer, That’s simple. I don’t do all the talking.”

There are two ways we can let God have His say in our prayers. One way is by pausing and listening for His voice speaking to us in the stillness. Another is by praying the scriptures. We can read or recite His word, and we can pray God’s thoughts from His word as if they were our own thoughts — we can think God’s thoughts after Him. That is what Jonah did.

Out of his watery grave, he prayed the scriptures back to God. Whenever you are in the belly of the beast, and you don’t know how you should pray, pray the scriptures. Pray His promises: Lord, You promised that I can cast all my cares on You, for You care for me. You promised that You would carry my grief and sorrows. You promised to give me joy instead of ashes. You promised that You would never leave me nor forsake me. You told me not to fear, because You are with me. You promised never to give me a spirit of fear but a Spirit of power and love and self-control.”

Have you, like Jonah, forsaken God’s call on your life? Is God trying to get your attention? Then come to Him in a spirit of confession, claiming His promise that if you confess your sins, He is faithful and just to forgive your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness.

Dr Michael Youssef is the founder and president of Leading The Way, and author of Life-Changing Prayers. 

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