Evangelistic effectiveness grows out of cramped, dark nights.
Here are the facts: God told Jonah to go share the word with some people he didn’t like. Jonah ran the other direction. He hopped on board a ship to set sail to the far western edge of the Mediterranean for Tarshish, on the sunny shores of Spain.
God went and got him and brought him back. It was not a simple return, though. It was a process. Somewhere in Jonah’s trip, a storm broke out and the sailors threw him overboard because they thought he was the source of the problem (they were right).
God then “appointed a large fish to swallow Jonah” (1:17), presumably a whale shark or a Goliath Grouper. It was probably like when you were a kid riding your bicycle and you were yelling to your friend and had your mouth open and a beetle flew into it. I’m guessing that this might have been the case with the fish. When Jonah hit the water, it may have already had its mouth open and sucked him in like a large piece of accidental debris.
Then Jonah chapter 2 gives an x-ray view of what was going on inside that fish—prayer. And not the kind chock full of negotiations and promises, like, “God, if you get me out of this, I swear I’ll_____”. God had caught Jonah, and stopped his running, squeezing him to the point that he was willing to pray a real and authentic prayer. The man began to recognize God’s ownership and management of the situation—“You cast me into the deep,” he says, even though the sailors had thrown him in. “Your waves and your billows passed over me” (2:3).
Eventually the tone of Jonah’s prayer grows hopeful and celebratory, until he prays “with the voice of thanksgiving,” saying, “salvation belongs to the Lord!” (2:9). At that point the ordeal came to an end. “The Lord spoke to the fish and it vomited him out” (2:10). He was back at Joppa where he started, except unlike before, he was ready to obey. And so he went to Nineveh, where the greatest revival in history occurred with 120,000 people repenting.
One of the scariest things about the Christian life is how blind we can be and not know it. We love to talk about ministry and ministry brands while managing to be disinterested in actual human beings. Back in the nineties, I knew a fellow who got involved in foreign missions to Russia. He was pretty gung-ho.
After some dazzling successes, he came back to the U.S. for a short time. While he was here, someone mentioned to him they had a Russian friend who would like to talk to him. Bottom line was he wasn’t interested in the guy. He seemed to love having a Russian ministry, without necessarily loving Russians. Take away the visibility, branding, notoriety, and packaging of ministry, and sometimes we don’t have a shred of interest in the individual souls we allege to love.
God knows this about us, and he knows what to do about it.
Enter the belly of the fish. God takes us through things in order to turn us into real ministers who are obedient and effective.
These sufferings aren’t necessarily special. The people all around us are going through the very same things we do, except without Christ. When they run into personal crises, they start making changes on the surface of their lives. Get rid of the old spouse and get a new one. Buy a red Ferrari. Quit jobs and hike the Canadian Rockies. Have a kid. Have more kids. Get rid of the kids. The permutations are endless here, and they’re all like moving deck furniture around on the Titanic. It’s not going to help.
That’s where we come in, because we’ve gone through many of these things with Christ.
For instance, for those who are tired, and burned out, Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
For those who suffer the profound hunger and thirst of soul, Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35).
In our hyper-connected culture still packed with loneliness, He said, —“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18). “I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20).
For those deeply broken and disappointed, Jesus said, —“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament…You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20).
For the stressed-out, He promised,—“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27).
And for those who have looked everywhere for purpose, He said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19).
It all comes down to the fact that Jesus is what the world needs, and we have Him. This is not to say we’re exempt from pain and frustration. Hopefully, we ourselves are learning the sufficiency of Christ, and not acting like the world that runs around putting on band-aids, dodging, hiding, faking, when trouble arises.
The gospel is not about a Photoshopped version of you for the rest of the world. When you’re in the fish, forget trying to figure out how to spin it to sound like a winner. Instead, pray those deep searching prayers like Jonah, because that’s when God is equipping you for the sake of others. The Christian who can say, “I went through that,” or, “I’m going through it now, and it hurts terribly,” often establishes instant credibility.
But how do we know in what way others need Christ, at least when it comes to a personal encounter? It doesn’t require any esoteric arts, or psychoanalysis. It doesn’t require us to be world-class conversationalists. We need only listen before we talk.
A buddy of mine invited me to lunch with a friend of his. When we sat down, I asked the friend to share his spiritual life journey. Basically, his punchline was that the awful religious grog he’d been forced to drink all his life had driven him away from Christ.
Have I ever been inside that fish? You bet.
I shared with him my own drug problem—being drug to church, that is—and how I had missed the reality and power of the gospel while growing up in the Bible belt. “Actually, the emptiness of religion drove me to Christ,” I said.
Did our disillusioned lunch friend get saved? No. No dramatic turn-arounds, no sudden light from heaven. But then that’s not my job, anyway. That part of evangelism belongs to God. Conversion, new birth, regeneration—all of it is a miracle far beyond me or you or Billy Graham. It’s the Holy Spirit’s business.
Our business is to share the gospel, the unique story of Christ:
“For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).
But when this story crosses paths with our life, affecting us and owning us, it becomes our story as well.
Tell it often.