This morning, I have a short poem to get us started,
I threw a party, a party for one;
A party that no one could have undone;
A party where nothing went my way;
But then again, I planned it that way.
I planned to be miserable, let no one forget;
I threw a tantrum, a sulk, and a hissy-fit;
I wailed and I moaned, I grumbled and groaned;
And all of it while I was sitting alone.
No one was invited, no one else was there;
As I shouted, and screamed, and pulled out my hair;
My own little gathering, I’d never be tardy;
My own personal, miserable, good for nothing,
While I’m certain no one has heard this poem, I am willing to believe that everyone here has either felt this way or knows someone who has. When things don’t go our way or the way we think they should go, we tend to feel a certain amount of anger, disappointment, resentment, any number of negative emotions. Most of the time, we can be mature enough to put these feelings in their place, see the reality of the situation, and move on with life. But sometimes, we find ourselves sitting down with a bit of metaphorical stale cake and flat cola on a torn picnic blanket and we let the pity party begin.
For most of us, this is a rare thing, but for some, this is the way they deal with life. Didn’t get the new job? Hand me a slice of stale cake. Didn’t end up with the person you wanted to spend your life with? Pour me a glass of that stale cola. Didn’t get to do/be/experience whatever it was, whenever it happened? Guest list you, table for one. Fire up the jug band for another round of Gloom, Despair, and Agony, Oh Me!
In philosophy, it is called the Appeal to Pity or Playing on/for Emotion, the idea that because we feel a certain way about the situation it must be right, or we wouldn’t feel that way. Essentially, I feel bad, so this must be bad, only a pity party is worse because it is more than a fleeting thought. It is an ongoing state of mind, and over time, can become a way of looking at the world. We begin to see things going wrong in our life with a sort of the universe is against me mindset. We start to expect that people should feel sorry for us and take on a victim/persecuted mentality, where those people are always trying to make my life hard.
Jonah’s Pity Party
As we make our way into chapter two of Jonah’s story, we find the fleeing prophet no longer fleeing. Whatever you would like to call the thing that swallowed Jonah – whale, big fish, sea monster – it has him captive. The story says that Jonah was in the beast for three days and three nights, three being a very important number in the Hebrew culture. We see the importance of the number three in the the story of Moses, as Moses would travel three days from Pharoah to out of the Egyptian ruler’s presence and into God’s presence. We see it later in the Gospels as the time Jesus was in the tomb and even later in Paul’s writing when he speaks of the three things that are the greatest begin faith, hope and love. It is believed that three of something may not be an exact number but a Jewish way of describing the length of time it takes to travel away from people and to God’s presence for worship. In other words, saying three days is saying it will take this long for Jonah to get his act together and return to God.
And most of the text in chapter two is about Jonah reconciling with God but I don’t think all of it is repentance and thanksgiving. In his prayer, Jonah also adds a few things.
…out of the belly of Sheol (the place of death and abandonment from God) I cried…You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?’ The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever…
Now, I think we could look at this as though Jonah is doing two things here. First, he could be recognizing what has happened and be recounting it, something common in this kind of psalm. Frequently, the writers of psalms would go through a list of God’s acts as a justification for why they praise God. The psalm in chapter two is very similar to that kind of psalm. We could see this as a desperate prayer by a desperate man who wants to connect with God.
But I also see something else here, something that fits in with the character of Jonah we have seen and something we will see more of later in the story. I think you can also read this as Jonah whining about his situation. As we said last week, Jonah did not want to go to these people. Jonah did not want them to hear a message of repentance and forgiveness. Jonah wants God to hate them and smite them and generally wipe them off the planet. So, even though Jonah is praying a prayer of thanksgiving, I think he is also whining about having to inevitably go through with the mission to Nineveh. He talks in his prayer about being sent to Sheol, the Hebrew place of the dead, where the dead reside outside the presence of God in a sort of lifeless half-life. He blames God: you cast me into the deep (not the sailors); your waves and your billows passed over me; I am driven (by you God) from your sight and your Temple. This is Jonah’s pity party and I think narrative goes something like this.
I’m a prophet of God and a good prophet. I did everything right, told the king what God wanted and God blessed the country. Then, everything fell apart and the kingdom was destroyed and the people who were my friends were taken off to Assyria. Then God told me to go tell the Assyrians that they are doing evil so they can have a chance to repent but I don’t want them to repent. I want them to die, die and go away and not be anywhere anymore. They made my people suffer so I tried to go as far away from God as I could, and I got on a boat and went away from Nineveh. God didn’t want me to go away so God sent a storm and the sailors got scared and it was my fault that there was storm because God was mad at me for not doing what I’m supposed to do and they threw me in the ocean and then a sea monster ate me and now I’m gonna die in a sea monster and God doesn’t like me anymore.
Pain and difficulty can be a good teacher. Pain keep us from hearing the lesson. “When the pain is our own, it’s difficult to learn from it. We’re too close. But when the pain is someone else’s, like Jonah’s, perhaps he can be our teacher.”
I think we can see the damage this kind of pain can cause. Sure, we get to vent our frustrations and get some of the emotion out of our system. But in the end, it really doesn’t help us with healing the pain. Here are a couple of things we can do to deal with or avoid pity parties.
Focus Outward, not Inward
When we hurt, we have a tendency to turn inward. Think of the wounded animal that returns to its home to heal and you’ll have an idea of the typical person dealing with pain. We turn toward where we feel the pain, within us, hoping to make it stop. This does nothing to get rid of the pain. In fact it causes to focus more on the pain instead of the problem that caused it. Turn your focus outward instead of inward. Jesus admonition to love God and love neighbor is a good place to start. Move from living into your pain (feeling sorry for yourself) to empathy (feeling emotions for others).
It is hard to live into your pain and live into gratitude at the same time. The writer of Colossians says, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.” Living in the Way of Jesus is living thankfully. Living thankfully make sit hard to live in self-pity because the act of gratitude is completely at odds with the selfish motives behind the pity party.
We all experience hurt and pain on this journey. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as saying that God, “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” The question we have to ask ourselves is how will we respond to it?
How do we respond to being asked by God to deal with hard things, like Jonah was?
How do we love our neighbor – which is everyone else living and breathing on this rock floating through space – when they are not anything we see as lovable?
We love as God loves; loving those we disagree with; loving those we can’t stand; loving those who stand for things we cannot begin to imagine accepting. We love because God loves us. We love, because that is how God loves them, by loving through us.
A think a thought from the Franciscans may help,
May God bless you with discomfort,
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships
So that you may live
Deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears,
To shed for those who suffer pain,
Rejection, hunger and war,
So that you may reach out your hand
To comfort them and
To turn their pain to joy
And may God bless you
With enough foolishness
To believe that you can
Make a difference in the world,
So that you can do
What others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness
To all our children and the poor.
Achtemeier, E. (1996). Minor Prophets I. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group.
Cary, P. (2008). Jonah: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Brazos/Baker Publishing Group.
Limburg, J. (1993). Jonah: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Limburg, J. (2011). Hosea-Micah: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Ramp, S. W. (1999). When the Wheels Come Off: Homiletical Reflections on Jonah 2. Word & World, 19(4), 414-423. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.asburyseminary.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000990358&site=eds-live
 (Sweeney, 2000, p. 317)
 (Ramp, 1999, p. 416)
 (Ramp, 1999, p. 419)
 Colossians 3:15
 Matthew 5:45