But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights. From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. (Jonah 1:17-2:1)
There is a popular book series that depicts prayer as a way to strengthen angels in their battle against demons. As people pray, the angels literally become empowered, as if prayer itself were directly responsible for an angel's strength. I remember reading it, many years ago, and it did prompt me to get on my knees. I didn't want any feeble angels guarding me.
The only problem is that this reduces prayer to magic. It makes the prayer itself seem powerful, not God. I have, for many years, had this conception of prayer—that it is about asking for something when I'm in trouble and all my efforts to fix things have ended in failure. I then say some words and cross my fingers. Maybe God comes through and things work out, but more often they don't.
I went through a disappointing series of events in my life and approached prayer this way. When I didn't get the answer I wanted, I began to grow bitter. If you are real, I thought, why don't you show yourself? If prayer is about getting something from God and things don't work out the way that you want, it leaves you with the impression that he's too busy to care. It may cause you to wonder if he's there at all.
That's not prayer. Not really. Prayer is the deepest work of the human spirit, and it is not about manipulating God to do what we want. It is not magic. Prayer is the place where we commune with God. It is a moment when we set aside the things that are distracting us and bow before him. It starts with submission to his sovereignty and acknowledging who he is. It means being willing to set aside what you want, if it is not his will.
The story of Jonah is the story of a man who is running from God. He doesn't want what God wants. You don't see him in prayer; quite the opposite. He doesn't want to go to Nineveh and, if anything, is hoping that they are judged and punished by God. If he were interested in sharing God's heart, he would be in prayer from the beginning. Prayer is the place where we humble ourselves and ask for his will to be done, not ours. It's the opposite of how we typically use prayer.
He gets on a boat to head as far from Nineveh as possible, and God brings a storm upon them. The pagan sailors ask him to pray to his God to stop the storm, but even then he doesn't pray. Not until he is thrown overboard, and is swallowed by a whale. I am not sure how long Jonah floats around in there before he submits. I wonder what he's doing in there, if not praying. (I also wonder what he's eating, but I guess that would have to be whatever the whale was eating.) Then he figures it out.
Jonah prays to the Lord his God from inside the fish (Jonah 2:1). Something happened. Jonah came to accept that he is the servant, and God is God. He had to be broken first. If you continue reading the story, you can see that Jonah's heart is changed. His heart has agreed with the Lord's plans. When he is coughed up, he does what the Lord commands, and it does bring the Ninevites to repentance, which was the Lord's plan all along.
Prayer sometimes comes at desperate moments, but it is always with the understanding that God knows what is best. We are asked to bring our petition before him, but more importantly, to submit to his will. It may not be what we ask. If that's the case, we are the ones who need to change. We pray that his will be done, not ours. If you do, you will change. You will long for the things he wants. And you will find that your prayers will be answered.