Then [the sailors] cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.”
When you are overwhelmed with troubles, how do you pray? If you’ve ever had a near death experience, what prayer have you said in the face of death? It the saying is true that there are no atheists in foxholes, what does foxhole prayer look like? Jonah 1:14 offers a pretty good look: “Please, Lord, do not let us die!” Behind this prayer for protection is a heart reaching out to trust our lives to God who alone has the key to the doorway from life through death into life. Most of us really don’t want to die, especially not today. Yet no one knows the date or time we will die.
When looking into the face of death, what rattles your cage the most? I’ve found that people who love God often do not fear death, especially when they’ve lived their life by faith in God. Peace with the God of everlasting life is an amazing gift to a soul overwhelmed with a nagging dread of death. What people are usually afraid of is the unknown process of dying. What will it feel like? Will it hurt? How long will it take? What happens along the way? How will my loved ones respond? Have I done enough? Have I finished my life’s work? Is there anything left undone? Will I be held accountable for any wrongdoings from my past? These are the kind of questions which make thinking about death messy. An excellent book to help people consider how to be present with someone in the final stages of life, written by two hospice nurses, is Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying, by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelly.
The sailors in our story face death and also face a weighty moral dilemma: Either keep Jonah alive on board the ship and die, or take Jonah’s life (kill him) by throwing him overboard in the storm and live. These sailors are men of integrity wrestling with their conscience. Like most humans, they want to live. They want to return to safe harbor, walk ashore, head home and embrace their wives, kiss their children goodnight, and sleep in peace in their own beds. They also want Jonah to live, declaring him to be “an innocent man”. They know he is running away from God, but still see him as an innocent. Their view of others is generous. They don’t want the guilt of Jonah’s death on their conscience.
No one, not even Macbeth’s wife, wants blood on their hands. Our conscience raises a red flag of caution, telling us to stop and consider the consequences of taking another person’s life. Humans are designed with an inner accountability meter, warning us against taking another person’s life. Of course, like any design, there are ways to deaden, twist, distort or disconnect the wiring. All too often on planet earth, people deaden their consciences and kill other people. Human justice systems wrestle with death, including homicide, murder and manslaughter.
Ultimately, we are all accountable to God, who is the true Judge of our life. These pagan sailors understand this and fear for their souls if they take Jonah’s life. So they cry out to Jonah’s God, with an intense prayer of accountability. “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.”In this prayer, I hear a heart of humility, a heart of reverence for life, and a heart of trust. In humility, they ask “please”. Out of reverence for life, they want to live, but also want Jonah to live. Entrusting their lives to God, they confess: Lord, you have done as you pleased. Brother Lawrence (c. 1614 – 1691), one of my favorite spiritual mentors and author of The Practice of the Presence of God, offers a similar view of prayer: “God is nearer to us than we are aware of. It is not necessary for being with God to be always at church. We may make a prayer chapel of our heart wherein to retire from time to time to converse with Him in meekness, humility, and love.”
Doors of Israel photo collage, by David Robinson, from trip to Israel, March 2010.