Holding on to God in the Dark: A Meditation on Habakkuk

By Justin Stratis
habbakuk rs

Ours is not a time of rest. I need not enumerate the many troubles that we face today, but it should be uncontroversial to point out that we live in a world ever more enveloped by fear. And who can blame us twenty-first century folk for suspecting that danger lurks in the shadows of every path? What we assumed were the unshakeable foundations of life now show themselves to be more brittle than we'd ever cared to admit. And so, in many ways, the future has become for us not the occasion for the realization of hope, but rather for the confirmation of despair.

For the Christian, this gnawing sense of destabilization, this feeling of disorientation, is especially perplexing. For not only are we in the same boat as our neighbours on the chaotic seas of this world; we are also called to declare in the midst of it all the goodness of God. And this goodness is not some generic thing: it is a goodness defined for us by the person and work of Jesus Christ – a gospel – “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” But who wants to be a messenger of news which seems to contradict what everyone's eyes plainly reveal? How do we tell a world wracked in pain that God has its redemption in mind, despite God's apparent absence? More to the point: how do we Christians hold on to the goodness of the gospel without some sort of tangible evidence of its reality?


A tragedy in every respect

The prophet Habakkuk wrestled with such questions. And he did so not intellectually, not in the form of some sort of syllogistic “problem of evil,” but in the depth of his own and his people's existential dread. Writing during the final stages of the Babylonian conquest, Habakkuk witnessed the last gasps of Judah's life in the promised land. For him, this was not just the end of an era; it was the end of history – a tragedy in every respect. And so, he cries out in lament:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you 'Violence!' and you will not save? (1:2)

To this the Lord responds, not with words of comfort, not with the salve of impending resolution, but with the assurance that even more trouble is on the way:

...I am rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation,
       who march through the breadth of the earth
       to seize dwellings not their own.

They all come for violence,
       with faces pressing forward;
       they gather captives like sand. (1:6, 9)

Habakkuk registers further complaints, but the die is cast. The anchor of the Lord will not steady the ship, he is told; if anything, these times of confusion will only to be exacerbated.

So the prophet is now faced with a choice. Will he abandon his God and succumb fully to despair, or will he hold on for dear life in the tempest to come?

Habakkuk chooses the latter.

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)


Staying with the Lord

Notice that Habakkuk does not lay his complaint down. But neither does he accept that the troubles he is facing are the end of the matter. He stays with the Lord. Despite his fear, his restlessness, and his anger, he remains at his post. Why? Because he needs an answer; he expects an answer. Whatever the mystery of the unfolding divine will, Habakkuk knows that Israel's God is and always has been the one who sees and hears the suffering of his people. Moreover, he knows that the one to whom he directs his complaint is “the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.” As with the Psalmist, Habakkuk complains to the God whom he still regards as his true covenant partner. The Lord is still his God, and so the Lord will listen.

The Lord's response to Habakkuk is simple and yet immensely challenging: first, you are to continue to wait for the Lord's justice, and second you are to live by faith (2:3-4). In doing so, you will mark yourself out as both a beneficiary and a participant in God's justice, that is, you will not only be vindicated; you will also be righteous. In other words, what God is offering the prophet is much more than simply the alleviation of pain. What he offers is the chance to actually embody – to be – the just kingdom in his very person. All the prophet needs to do to receive this blessing is to hold on; whatever he does, he must not give up. Habakkuk must hold steadfastly to God with all the stubbornness, grit, and tenacity of the God who holds steadfastly to him. In this sense, an alternative translation of 'emûnāh in Hab. 2:4 might capture the meaning just a hair better: “the just shall live by faithfulness.”


The essence of discipleship

This, I believe, is the essence of discipleship, and it is the most difficult task of the Christian vocation. Recall that Habakkuk was not given any answers. He was not even given grounds to believe that God just might stay the treachery of the Chaldeans after all (quite the opposite). Instead, he was told that God's justice would remain, for a time, just over the horizon, and that it was his duty to wait for it and so fend off the temptation to despair. And this is what Habakkuk, in the end, chose to do. In one of the most moving passages of Scripture (which I like to imagine was prayed through gritted teeth and with many tears), the prophet writes:

              Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
              though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food;
              though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is not herd in the stalls,

              yet will I rejoice in the Lord;
                     I will exult in the God of my salvation.

              God, the Lord, is my strength;
                     he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
                     and makes me tread upon the heights.

The resolution to the confusion, to the source of Habakkuk's fears, is praise. But this is not idle praise. It is praise which boils over from the furnace of faith. It is, if you like, the kind of rejoicing that is so potent, so clear-eyed, so authentically present in the tumult of the world that it may even be credited as righteousness. It is the very faith of Jesus Christ.


Awaiting a garden

To many, this kind of faith will appear foolish, particularly because it seems not to be the sort of posture that gets results. Nor is it the kind of action that tends to receive vindication before the watching world. Indeed, how many nameless and faceless Christians have died without any evident benefit to their lifelong faith? By contrast, how many so-called Christians ultimately succeeded when they elected to supplement the dim spark of “mere” faith with the accelerant of Realpolitik? But that is not the nature of faith. Faith traverses the desolate ground in the hope that a garden awaits. It sets its face toward Jerusalem trusting that the fidelity of the Father will bring new life in the end. Faith follows Jesus, and Jesus dwells with the faithful.

I don't know what the remainder of this century holds for us. As it did for Habakkuk, things may very well get worse before they get better. But at such a time as this, the church of Jesus Christ faces the same set of choices as the prophet of old. We can give in to despair. We can take the silence of God as evidence of God's final absence and therefore of God's irrelevance. We can grab the reins of history and attempt to muster up the reversal of our fortunes on our own strength. Or we can stand at the watchtower and await God's justice, all the while rejoicing in its sure arrival, even as we plead for it to come sooner rather than later. For us, such faith is impossible, but with God, all things are possible. Let us pray.