The prophet Habakkuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah. He prophesied in the period before the Exile, likely sometime between 626 and 622 B.C., when the Chaldeans (known also as the Babylonians) were beginning to wreak havoc on the lives of the chosen people. Habakkuk comes across as a confused and frustrated prophet. On the one hand, he buys in to the traditional Deuteronomic view that God rewards the righteous and punishes the sinful. On the other hand, he can’t understand why God would permit such suffering and oppression among God’s chosen people.
Ultimately, Habakkuk is asking the same question that we all ask when faced with injustice, devastating news, or blatant situations of evil: Where is God? Why is God letting this happen? Why doesn’t God stop this?
As he was wrestling with these questions, Habakkuk had a vision that provided an answer. It begins with him launching hard questions at the Lord: “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous; therefore judgment comes forth perverted” (Habakkuk 1:3-4, NRSV).
Habakkuk then proceeds to become even bolder in his questioning, to the point of accusing God of refusing to look at the destruction he sees: “Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (1:13, NRSV). He vows that no matter what God does, he will not look away while this is going on, and he will not give up on his desire to get an explanation from the Lord: “I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint” (2:1, NRSV).
It is here that the Lord finally responds. It isn’t that the Lord is refusing to look at what is happening. It isn’t that the Lord is doing nothing. Why is this happening? It is simple! The Chaldeans are being used to carry out God’s judgment on those who are abusing God’s children. They may at first glance look like conquerors; but, in fact, they are being used to carry out God’s plan without even knowing it. After the work of disciplining Judah is complete, the chosen people will rise up and destroy their captors. Victory will ultimately be theirs. This culminating act, the punishment of the Chaldeans at the hands of Israel, will one day bring great glory to God in the eyes of all the nations! (2:7-8, NRSV).
Their role in the meantime is to wait patiently for God to work God’s plan through to its conclusion and to be faithful while they wait.
Well, let’s just say it: In the parlance of today’s teenagers, that sucks. Am I allowed to say that? (Maybe I am, but maybe you shouldn’t from the pulpit. I’ll leave that up to you to decide.) However we phrase it, it isn’t easy to hear this from God.
Wait patiently and continue to be faithful, even when your suffering gets worse.
Is this what we are to say to the woman who can’t get out of bed because every day her life is defined by uncontrollable physical pain? Can we say this to the people of Louisiana as they clean up the absolute destruction from the floods, or the people of Italy as they dig out the dead bodies after the earthquake, or to the people of Syria as they watch their children get blown up by bombs? Can we advise patience and trust in God as the way to get through cancer treatments, or the way to endure an abusive relationship, or the answer to a government that violates and murders its own citizens?
You bet we can! In fact, this is what we MUST say. What else CAN we say?
That is not to suggest that we should not work to relieve suffering where we can, or use our votes to change our government if we don’t like it, or advise people to get out of a situation of violence if they are able.
But the hard fact is that sometimes—lots of times, unfortunately—there is just no easy way out. Sometimes in this life, we must endure suffering for a time, and nothing can be done about it. In times like those, which are inevitable, how are we to respond as people of faith?
We wait. We wait, and we trust that God is with us in the midst of our suffering. We wait and we assure our people that God is NOT refusing to look on wrongdoing, but is looking at the whole situation and loving us and watching over us in the best way possible. We wait, and we encourage spiritual practices such as prayer, study of Scripture, regular partaking of the sacraments if they are able, attending worship, and keeping the faith.
Sometimes that is all we can do. Sometimes we have to wait.
My brother, who is a cultural anthropologist, loves to tell me that the reason human beings have rituals is to help them through the inevitable times of crisis in our lives. Often, rituals (such as baptisms, anniversary parties, weddings, funerals, and quinceañeras, to name just a few) help move us from one station in life to another. My brother says that when situations are intense and emotionally charged, rituals function to help human beings get through them.
The good news is that through Jesus Christ and his church, God has provided us with the rituals of our own Christian faith for a similar reason – to carry us along not only in the regular practice of our faith, but especially during times of crisis.
- Think of how much it means to the man who has been hospitalized to have a visit from the pastor, to pray the Lord’s Prayer, and to know that his congregation is praying for him.
- Think of how much it means to a town ravaged by floods to have volunteers not only come to help with the clean up, but to pray with and for the victims.
- Think of how comforting it is to come together for a prayer vigil when a tragedy has struck our nation.
- Think of how meaningful it is to gather around the Table of the Lord in worship and then to extend that Table to our shut-in members.
- Think of how important funerals are as a step in bringing closure to a family’s grief.
All these practices help us get through those periods of time when our suffering is real, and when there are no answers to our questions and we may feel that God has abandoned us. All these practices help us while we must wait.
The promise of God made through the mouth of the prophet Habakkuk is that no matter how bad the situation is, and no matter how bad it may yet get, our God will never abandon us. It is okay to have questions and to be angry before, during, and after a time of trial. What we need to keep before us is that God sees the world from a totally different perspective than we see it, and God’s promises to the people of Judah are also for all of us.
The message of Habakkuk is that even when we question where God is, we must still keep the faith and practice the rituals. That’s how we get through. We “write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (2:2-3 NRSV).
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