“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.’”
And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. (Jonah 2:8-10)
When I was growing up, we had a tradition at Thanksgiving where everyone had to take a turn to reflect on the year and share what they were thankful for. I was self-absorbed, as a teenager; when it came my turn, I often had to scramble to think of something. When you're intent on your own plans and dreams, the idea of thankfulness is far off—a distant emotion, in comparison to all the things you don't have and want so desperately. It implies a reliance on someone else, or at least a recognition of something more important than what you can get for yourself. To be thankful you have to see the big picture and not take things for granted.
We miss the big picture when we think this life is all about us. If we are narrowly focused on our own dreams, we find meaning in unimportant things and miss what matters. Growing up in a home with parents who care for you is something we miss, as teenagers. In the years since my dad left to be with the Lord, I have become increasingly thankful for who he was in my life. Sometimes people give so much to us but we don't see it, because we're too focused on ourselves. He didn't need my thanks, he wasn't in it for that. But he deserved it. I am more than a little ashamed of my selfishness, growing up, but it's something we all struggle with.
Being thankful means a number of things. It means humility, for a start. You have to recognize that you are not the center of the universe, and that you are heir to many privileges in life. Life itself is a gift, and with it comes the opportunity to offer our thankfulness to the God who made us. In order to do that, you have to see yourself as less, and him as greater. He is above all things, and is worthy of praise and thanksgiving. As his children, we exist because of his love and his provision for us. We need to look up and see ourselves as a part of something so much greater if we want to experience all the riches of his love.
Jonah found himself in quite a predicament, swallowed by a fish on his way to a life of his own preference. He had the opinion that his desires were the most important thing in life, and that God was someone to be ignored. He didn't want to proclaim salvation to a nation of sinful idolators, probably because he was worried how that might work out for him. The Ninevites were a brutal and dangerous people, and might not appreciate the suggestion that they were being judged. But it's idolatry of another kind, when we think that our preference matters more than God's. It's a misunderstanding of who we are, and who he is, as the Lord above all circumstances of life.
Riding around inside a fish for a few days would be a wake-up call for anyone. Sometimes we need that, to get our attention focused on something bigger than ourselves. Hardship and pain can be like that—the chance to make some changes for the better. We don't always view them that way, but there can be thankfulness in suffering, if it causes us to focus on God's plan. It's an opportunity to get our values adjusted to the big picture, and make some changes for the better. It's a chance to be thankful for the blessings we have long taken for granted.
Jonah's response is to offer a sacrifice, which is a sign that his perspective has changed. It's not all about him any longer. A sacrifice means he is focused on God. It's the opposite of idolatry, where we focus our attention on something other than God. In today's world, it's not small statues of gods but ourselves, typically. We are self-centered people. When we end up in the belly of a fish, so to speak, the correct attitude is to focus on God, and give a shout of gratitude, like Jonah did. We offer God the sacrifice of our lives, and experience his salvation. Freedom from self is part of the new life that Christ offers us. Focusing on ourselves, like any idol, separates us from the experience of God's love (Jonah 2:8).
Even when our circumstances are not everything we want, they are an opportunity to be thankful, to offer up a sacrifice, and fix our eyes on the Author of our salvation. To keep our vows and to serve the one who is above all. To remember, it's not all about us. When we have our chance, at tonight's Thanksgiving meal, let's praise God for his goodness, faithfulness and love.