I’m discovering that most significant transformation in my life happened when something old fell apart. The pain of something old falling apart invites my heart to be more open to the possibility of something deeper.
Richard Rohr speaking of transformation coming from chaos says,
“The pain of something old falling apart—disruption and chaos—invites the soul to listen at a deeper level. It invites and sometimes forces the soul to go to a new place because the old place is not working anymore. The mystics use many words to describe this chaos: fire, darkness, death, emptiness, abandonment, trial, the Evil One. Whatever it is, it does not feel good and it does not feel like God. We will do anything to keep the old thing from falling apart.”
It does not “feel like God.”
I love that statement, because I’ve found that to be true of some of the most important transformation in my own life. It does not “feel like God,” so it’s easy to dismiss it and miss the beauty of the new and the transformed, and become consumed with the period of darkness that accompanies the old being stripped away.
Which is exactly why change and periods of darkness and chaos do not always bring about spiritual transformation. The reality is, change can either help people find a new meaning, or it can cause people to turn bitter. And I believe the perspective you have in your season of darkness and chaos is what often makes the difference.
Take Jonah for example. For some reason, growing up I always felt like different Sunday school teachers and preachers taught the Jonah story from the perspective that the whale was some kind of punishment.
- God told Jonah to go to Nineveh.
- He didn’t want to go.
- He runs from God.
- God sends a whale to swallow Jonah, thus punishing him for not listening.
The reality is:
- Jonah doesn’t listen to God.
- He makes some poor decisions.
- He ends up so miserable that he thinks everyone would be better off if he were dead.
- He begs some sailors to throw him overboard, thinking this is a sure death.
- But he doesn’t die.
- Instead, he’s swallowed by a large fish.
But I think we’ve been missing the point, because we jump from Jonah being swallowed at the end of chapter one, to his being spit out on the shore at the end of chapter two.
If you read chapter two in between those two events, you’ll discover Jonah is in a lot of pain. Jonah goes overboard, ready to die. But God, in His mercy, has something else in mind. The whale was not a form of punishment or correction, but a form of rescue. A rescue from a certain death for Jonah, but maybe even more a rescue from himself—his deepest and truest enemy.
And yes, I understand that being swallowed by a large fish might not “feel like God.” In fact, I can attest from my own journey, that being trapped in a dark, scary place where nothing is known is far from pleasant. Feeling like your life isn’t worth living and that the people around you would be better off if you were dead is about as helpless and soul-crushing as it gets.
But maybe for Jonah, it was better than death. Maybe for Jonah, that darkness, that chaos, was just the beginning of letting go of the old in order to embrace the new.
For it’s in the belly of the fish that Jonah realizes God isn’t punishing him and hasn’t abandoned him, and he actually calls aloud to this merciful God. He was trapped in a dark and lonely place but he wasn’t alone.
I’m not trying to convince you that the belly of the fish is a “nice” place or even where you want to be. No doubt, it’s a place of no light and it feels like no hope. But don’t make the huge mistake of thinking that the point of this story is that if you “disobey” or “run” from God, that he’ll punish you by placing you in a dark, chaotic, helpless place.
Even when you make choices that are more harmful than helpful…even when you run…even when you don’t think your life isn’t worth living…
Even then, know, God hasn’t abandoned you.
God’s there in the belly of the fish.
Through my divorce and stepping down from vocational ministry, there was a period of deconstruction. I wrestled for well over a year with what, if anything, I believed anymore. And I had to start at the very beginning. The only thing I could really believe in that time was that I wasn’t alone. That I had been created and I wasn’t alone. Even in the dark and unknown, I wasn’t alone. And with that little step, that little acknowledgment or belief, I felt a sprig of hope begin to grow.
I’m still in a season of learning to “let go” of some things. Some of the old things we’ve trusted for so long are really difficult to let go of. But that spiritual transformation we’re all longing for comes from living in the confusing dark space for a while, and realizing that God is there. Even in the self-inflicted pain and loneliness, He’s there.
And then you begin to let go of the old, allowing yourself to be spit up on a new and unexpected shore.