11 Feb 2009

Struggling for Faith: Thoughts on Habakkuk

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Grace, Habakkuk, Hebrew Bible, Jesus, Kingdom, Ministry, Prayer, Preaching, Spiritual Disciplines, Suffering

An Intro to the Intro

Every Tuesday morning I meet a group of guys for “Coffee with Bobby.” Usually the Sun has not graced the valley with beams of light yet. We have been reading our way through Habakkuk for some time now. What a rich journey! Many of the faith struggles and questions of Habakkuk resonate deeply with me. So what I propose to do here is share some of my interaction with the Prophet Habakkuk. I have written things in my journal and some of that has found its way into this post … May it bless …

How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so justice is perverted
.”

Introduction

John Bright once remarked that Habakkuk lived in a time of gross and violent injustice. He lives in a time when society has not only grown accustomed to abuse of our fellow humans but has come to expect it and even sanction it. That is “just the way life is.” It was a the society obsessed with a “premonition of doom and gnawing insecurity . . .” (History of Israel, 3rd Edition, p. 320).

The world power structure of his day was radically changing. The Assyrian Empire, which had been the master of the east for centuries, was in its death throes. A new power, called Babylon, was rising as fast as a meteor shooting across the sky. Government officials were killing each other, kings were being assassinated left and right, judges and lawyers could care less about the right as long as they made a buck or two.

Habakkuk looked around and saw his world, his nation, God’s People bent on self- destruction. He saw a society where neighbors took advantage of each other any chance they could. He saw a country where the poor and outcast were severely discriminated against.

And Habakkuk is confused! He is confused because he does not understand why Yahweh, the God of Israel, tolerates this situation. He confessed the holiness and justice of God and yet was dismayed that God had not stepped in to rectify the horrendous scene before him. He is confused because he finds God’s People to be at odds with his faith. He is confused because he wonders if faith can even survive in this kind of world.

I love the prophet Habakkuk! I think he is my favorite of the prophets. He seems so relevant to my life in this postmodern, post-Christian, and post-divorce world. He speaks, seemingly, directly to my life and my world. My world that has also been filled with a “premonition of doom.” Think about our world for a moment, do we not live in a world amazingly similar to Habakkuk’s? I read through Drudge and various news outlets imagining that I was Habakkuk. Our world definitely seems to have a gnawing insecurity. Huge corporations and executives sap millions (billions!) of dollars from the little man, leaving hundreds of thousands wondering about their future. Innocent people spend 35 years in prison only to learn that the police and the court hid information that proved innocence. The world sleeps with one eye open for fear of terrorists and the possibility of war. In Sudan and Ethiopia thousands are starved to death by their own governments while the rest of the world just washes its hands as if we have no responsibility. Marriages fall to pieces …

Yes…our world is like Habakkuk’s! He read the local paper and shook his head in dismay and said in a loud and painful cry, “How LONG! O, Lord, how Long!” It is as much an exclamation as a question. We read the paper and say, with Habakkuk, “Is God really in control?” “How can God let us go on treating each other as we do?” We must admit that we believe he is – but at times it looks as if he isn’t!!

A Complaint as Prayer

Habakkuk is among God’s faithful. He wanted to do what is right in Yahweh’s eyes, he wanted Israel to keep his covenant of love. But how is that to be done in a world that has forgotten God? How can Habakkuk have “faith” when he is simply struggling to have faith? How can you and I, not just maintain, but grow in our faith and devotion in times like these?

The prophet does something that most of us, on the face of it, despise. He complains! In our society complaining is associated with the sore loser or the ‘cry baby.’ That, however, is not the kind of complaining that Habakkuk is doing. Habakkuk’s complaint is called a “lament” and it is vital to genuine biblical faith. Habakkuk’s complaint (or lament) is a cry of weariness. The prophet is tired of the world as it is. He is exhausted from the fight of merely existing in a world in which the one standard is “look out for yourself!”

Because he is weary of Sin he complains to God. Because he is tired of injustice he laments. Because he is weary of evil he calls to God, “How Long, O Lord” (v. 2). This is the language of worship – it is the language of prayer! It is holy language …

How does one exercise and struggle for faith in a world like ours? If Habakkuk is any indication the first step is wrestling with God in prayer. Habakkuk in a sense becomes Israel itself. Israel means the “one who wrestles with God.” And Habakkuk is in a mighty wrestling match.

What can the Christian do about Iraq, banks, corruption in government and injustice against those of another race? Habakkuk says we must turn to the only source for making the world a place of shalom (peace) and that is Yahweh in anguished prayer! The prayer of the follower of Christ is intensely interested in God’s mishpat, God’s justice in this world. That is the dominating idea in these four gut wrenching verses of Habakkuk. The prophet prays for God to intervene and make justice count. He prays that right will prevail in the lives of those around him. He asks the honest question, “how can you stand to look at wrong doing?” (v.3, TEV). I cannot begin to count the number of times I have voiced that same question.

The struggle of faith in a troubled world is anchored and shown in prayer – honest wrestling prayer. No not a prayer every once in a while but constant prayer. The text lets us know that Habakkuk has been uttering this lament in prayer for a long time. Over lengthy periods of time faith is demonstrated through calling on his Name. Habakkuk challenges us – because he was challenged – hunger and thirst after righteousness and seek God’s kingdom first in this world. It made the prophet sad, even angry, that his world was dominated by a view that could tolerate the mistreatment of fellow humans. That sadness fed his prayer life. That sadness caused him to plead, cry and wrestle in prayer with Yahweh to send forth his righteousness.

Complacency and Struggling for Faith in Troubled World(s)

Christians must avoid the spiritual disease of complacency at all costs. You see complacency kills our search for intimacy with God. It kills the God-born hunger in our hearts for righteousness. Complacency convinces us that the world isn’t so bad – especially if we are not personally impacted by its injustice. Complacency whispers that I need not be concerned about corruption in officials or the courts.

Habakkuk calls such mentalities on the carpet. He demonstrates just how foreign such an outlook is to those who belong to the covenant community of Yahweh. He challenges us to hate evil and seek God about it in prayer. Prayer not only demonstrates our faith while living in a troubled world, but it also FEEDS and STRENGTHENS our faith. In prayer we learn, as did Habakkuk, “that no matter how loud the roar of the storm, no matter the strength of the wind or the force of the rain – God is with us.” (Jerry Jones, Beyond the Storm, p. 165).

In prayer we enjoy the refreshment. How so? In prayer we may not discover the answer to injustice or why God tarries. However, in prayer – in worship – we find the gracious Presence of the Father. The same Father who once lost a Son to a mob bent on lawlessness and injustice. We find companionship for the dark night and strength – yes even divine strength to live by faith in a troubled world.
That is why Habakkuk laments and wrestles with God in prayer.

I recently read a fascinating book by Eugene Genovese, The World the Slaves Made. It amazes me how the “world” the slaves made was fashioned out of their troubled world – it was the creation of faith. Imagine, if you will, that you were born in 1838 (or you think you were) and you just happen to be black. You are now 20 years old in 1858. You don’t know who your father is, nor your mother, because you were sold shortly after birth. You have seen children taken from their mothers and it grieves you. You have witnessed white men take slave girls and father children by them only to see them sold into slavery themselves. The other day you wandered off the plantation without supervision and received thirty-nine lashes for trying to escape. On a day called Sunday you see a bunch of white folks go to a building called a “church” and worship some “God.” You even think in your mind that you might have faith in this God too. I ask you, how would you, if you were one of those slaves, maintain faith in your troubled world?

I tell you, honestly, I don’t know if I could have – but they did! In fact faith thrived. How did they do it? They did what Habakkuk did – they prayed their laments. They sang their prayers and they triumphed over the world that had them in chains. They have left all Christians a priceless treasure of faith filled prayers songs we call “spirituals.” They sang prayers like, “There is a Balm in Gilead” and “Roll Jordon, Roll” and “Where You There When they Crucified My Lord.” They sang,

Go down, Moses
Way down in Egyptland
Tell old Pharaoh
To let my people go
.

(Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred years of African-American Writing,
ed. Deirdre Mullane, p. 277)

and

Steal away to Jesus
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here.

and

We’ll soon be free,
We’ll soon be free,
We’ll soon be free,
When de Lord will call us home.

My brudder, how long,
My brudder, how long,
My brudder, how long,
‘Fore we done sufferin’ here?
(Crossing the Danger Water, p. 291)

Did you hear the same question that Habakkuk asked? “How Long, O Lord?” It is the cry of God’s People down through the ages. But in that troubled world faith not only was born but thrived. We sing their prayers of deliverance. We sing their prayers songs for God’s kingdom to burst forth. We sing their songs of unshakable faith. The slaves had faith by going and wrestling with God in prayer – they did not find the answers they longed for but they found something profoundly mysterious – the companionship of God. The slaves are just one example of faith thriving in this fallen and sinful world. But its one that I am grateful for.

As Christians we believe that God has in fact answered Habakkuk’s complaint. He has heard the slaves of long ago. God wants us to seek him, and him alone, not the “comfort” of the world. God assures Habakkuk that he is working to overcome the evil he laments (1.5-11). No, God will not tolerate evil and injustice. He does not just want to punish evil but eradicate it, he wants to cure it!

God points the prophet forward to a time he cannot see – to the time of the Cross of Jesus Christ. There in the face of the Ultimate Outrage against justice we see God’s one and only answer to the problems Habakkuk has shed tears over. God challenges us to see in that event his answer to the evil of this world. He condemns and punishes all the evil the Prophet complained about and the slaves sang about – he tells us to look at the figure of the Man on the Tree and see the wrath of God displayed against injustice. We see the resurrection and are assured that God does in fact make it right. Our prayers are being heard, they have not fallen on deaf ears. In spite of it all … THIS I DO BELIEVE!

Wrapping Up

So we Christians, in the year 2009, will commune with God in his holy temple and keep silent prayer before him (2.20). We will continue to wrestle in prayer for God’s way to be our way. We will pray for God’s kingdom to have dominion over all hearts. We will pray for justice to be empowered in our world. We will maintain faith – through God’s gift of prayer – in this mighty unfriendly and troubled world. We will call to our God and he will give us the strength and see us through. I close with, possibly, the most stirring words in all of Scripture:

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
YET I WILL REJOICE IN THE LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior
.”
(Habakkuk 3.17-18)

Oh, God may it be so … as we Seek Shalom.

9 Responses to “Struggling for Faith: Thoughts on Habakkuk”

  1. Steve Says:

    So Habby is like Jeremiah, Job, and some of the Psalms in the way he complains and questions God. Then there’s Abraham’s haggling about Sodom and Gomorrah. Jacob wrestling all night long with you know who. That’s a pattern. It’s making more sense to me now when I ponder what Peter Rollins says: “God wants a fight”.

  2. kingdomseeking Says:

    What would it be like if we dared to let Hamakkuk lead our praise teams one Sunday? Maybe we would not exclusively call it a “praise” team.

    -Rex

  3. Sarah Borges Says:

    Hi Bobby,
    I was moved by “Struggling for Faith: Thoughts on Habakkuk” because I am currently struggling with the world, particularly as it relates to my job in the public school system as well as having other people watch/teach my precious children. (Joaquin and I had another son-7 month-old, Quame:) I was once able to justify my position as a teacher, but now that Quino is in kindergarden I question how soon will it be until I am in a position that will further the kingdom of God. Yes, the world’s chaos is always on my mind. I also want to protect my children from caring people who will down right teach them the wrong things if I sit back and let them. I have been lamenting to our Savior about my concerns. It feels very comforting to be able to cry out to God like Habakkuk did. I have to tell you, I usually don’t understand your voice or style of writing. I mean, I do my best to break it down…but…well. Anyways, what I’m trying to say is the Holy Spirit is so powerful in that He allowed for me to get a whole lot out of your posting about the book of Habakkuk. Thank you!

    Sarah Borges

  4. Anonymous Says:

    It seems to me that Habakkuk offers us an opportunity to look at prayer rather differently. We might begin to think about “how long he had been in prayer and how agonizing it was not to hear back from God over the course of that time.” I think we too easily look to God’s answers and our worldview shapes us to expect some resolution after a few commercial intermissions at least. We are too some weary with hearing about the down economy or the war or other bad news. We have no patience for the prayers of struggling addict; or the chronically ill (I think). Thanks for touching on these matters!

    Ron Exum
    Seattle

  5. preacherman Says:

    Bobby,
    Habakkuk is one of my favorite books of the O.T. You do a wonderful job on this post as well as others. You are a trust scholar.

  6. cwinwc Says:

    There is balance in reading Habakkuk for it mirrors our experience. We have the times in our lives where praise abounds through great times and then there is the praise that is still praise but it takes on the guise of questions, wrestling, and praying for relief and even presence.

    Its evening so I’ll call this (milk)- “Shakes with Bobby.” I was a bad “WW” tonight but it tasted good.

    Blessings brother.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    hey Bobby, long time
    moving post
    I have pondered this and other
    issues from the past… such as how the fathers justified owning slaves when they wrote that all men are created equal…
    anyway hope you are well
    jim (in milwaukee)

  8. johnmarkhicks Says:

    Thanks, Bobby; very helpful. My Bible class series on Habakkuk is available at http://johnmarkhicks.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/prayers-of-habakkuk.doc

  9. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    thanks for the link John Mark

Leave a Reply