Skip to main content

The Bible is full of stories of repentance leading to forgiveness and a new start.

Take Jonah, for example. God spoke his Word to him. It was very simple – ‘go to Nineveh and preach against it; tell them my judgment is coming’. But Jonah didn’t think that was such a great idea and he rebelled – by 180 degrees, in fact. He ran (and sailed) in the opposite direction in the hopes he might find somewhere away from the Lord’s presence. So, God had to do some careful persuasion.

A great storm came upon the boat, and we all know the story. At Jonah’s request, the sailors tossed him into the ocean and the wind and waves died down. Jonah was swallowed by a large fish, where he remained for three days and three nights.

It was here that Jonah learned how to repent, and in particular, how to repent with prayer. In graphic detail, he describes, in Jonah chapter 2, the moment of sinking in the ocean, becoming entangled with seaweed and unable to find his way back to the surface. He was pretty sure he was going to die.

Sometimes, God allows distressing things to happen in our lives when we disobey him. Why? In order that we might call upon his name and return to him. Jonah knew he had messed up while he was still on the boat, but it was only in the dangers of the open sea that he called out for help. And it was only in his suffocating imprisonment in the fish that true repentance began to occur.

Jonah probably spent a great deal of time in tears and this chapter reveals a man in fear, deep sadness and regret. Repentance with God can sometimes begin with an honest conversation about how you feel right now or how you felt in a moment back then. But we must go deeper if we are going to allow God to bring healing and birth spiritual fruit in us.

Surprisingly, Jonah is also thankful. He is thankful for God’s mercy and faithfulness towards him despite his earlier decision to run away. Giving thanks in times of reflection is an important part of recognising God’s sovereignty in all things. When we give thanks, we are acknowledging that only God has all the power and authority. He is the one who forgives and blesses, and only he can create good out of the bad.

Verse 7 seems to signal a turning point: ‘When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple’. Jonah had probably been praying non-stop from the moment the fish swallowed him, but at this point, his prayers seem to change direction. He speaks of remembering and praying towards God’s holy temple.

What does he remember? Perhaps it was his failure to obey the Lord’s instructions, but then God’s holiness hits him with new understanding. God hates sin and cannot live with sin. Yet, despite that, God has allowed Jonah to enter into his holy presence and receive his forgiveness. It is an awesome moment of both humility and restoration. Jonah deserves separation from God, yet God has engineered circumstances to draw a rebellious man into his very presence so that his heart can be changed.

Jonah’s next response is to worship. He talks about offering sacrifices with songs of praise. As we imagine Jonah in a dark, slimy fish’s stomach, we hear a solitary voice singing! There is music in his heart and a deep compulsion to worship his Father in heaven. Despite his circumstances, the man has found peace and he now knows, deep in his heart, who his saviour is.

Lastly, we find this curious phrase, ‘What I have vowed I will make good’ (in verse 9). This is likely Jonah’s way of saying that he will now turn back 180 degrees and follow God’s commands. He will seek to obey him from now on. He will go to Nineveh as God instructed him and he will do what God wants him to do. This is true repentance – a re-commitment and a reorienting of the heart to full submission to the Lord’s purposes.

Today’s devotion was an excerpt from my book Looking Back to Move Forward: embracing setbacks for greater fruitfulness, available through Amazon and all major outlets or my website

To listen to this devotion via a short podcast, go to or find “4-minute Devotions – the Podcast” on your own provider