In keeping with the theme of my last few posts on doing what is hard and not resting in past victories or stalling out in our spiritual growth… I’d like to share a bit from a sermon I just taught on Habakkuk.
In the first two chapters of Habakkuk we see a man struggling with the sin and corruption of his nation and her leaders; a nation that had covenanted with God to be His special people according to very clear terms and conditions. When God reveals to Habakkuk that He has a plan to bring about reform and renewal in Israel, Habakkuk doesn’t even have time to be thankful for the answer to his prayer. The reason? Because God’s plan for renewal required the covenant judgement He promised in Deuteronomy. Even more perplexing: that judgement would be at the hands of the Babylonians who were less righteous than Israel (1:13). So Habakkuk groans over the idea of Babylon being used by God, while Israel is being judged by God… at the hand of Babylon! God gets the last word in chapter two, describing how His righteousness not only requires covenant judgment, but also cosmic judgment. Babylon will pay. By the same methods and means Babylon employed in her wrath against humanity, so God will employ in His wrath against her.
In Habakkuk 3, the prophet switches from his already unusual style of prophecy through personal dialogue to and even more unexpected form of prophecy: singing! Habakkuk writes a Psalm; specifically a Shigionoth (not that it really matters. I just like saying the word “Shigionoth” over and over).
In this Psalm Habakkuk draws images for us, all of which either remind us of God’s past, present, or future work of redemption and wrath. It’s a Psalm that declares the power and glory of God. It demonstrates His righteousness in judgement. It remembers His mercy. It confronts one with the reality of the fear of the Lord. It reminds us of God’s faithfulness to keep His word, including His particular word made famous by Paul in the New Testament: “The just shall live by faith.”
Habakkuk concludes the prophetic Psalm with a declaration of patient waiting upon the Lord for Him to fulfil His word in His perfect timing. Habakkuk was no longer anxious and frustrated with the sin of God’s covenant people. He was no longer perplexed about God’s design to use the evil Babylonians to bring covenant judgment upon His people and he chose to trust God when He said that Babylon would not escape His wrath.
There is A LOT there that I could take apart and write various posts about. What I want to focus on, though — the “hard thing” that I feel many are often afraid of, be they shepherds or sheep — is how Habakkuk approached the entire thing from the beginning.
- Habakkuk questioned God. That’s right. I said it. Habakkuk questioned God. This isn’t the same as “putting God to the test” as Scripture clearly tells us not to do. This isn’t a lapse of faith or an accusation against the Almighty. It’s a cry for help from a man gone mad with the violence, sin, destruction and lawlessness all around him. It’s an honest dialogue. “LORD, I just don’t understand.”
- Habakkuk sought an answer from the Source. He didn’t settle for the current theological trends of the temple. He didn’t consult the opinions of the priests. He lent not his ear to the leaders of his day. He sought his answers from the Source; from God, Himself.
Before your mind meanders into the land of “what ifs” and “yeah buts”, let me comfort you with clarification. I’m not saying that seeking counsel from godly men is wrong. Nor am I claiming that established theology should be avoided in tackling tough topics. So relax the radar for a minute and see if what I’m getting at makes sense.
One morning I did something highly unusual and spent the 7.95 for breakfast in town instead of eating at home. As I sat there sipping coffee, playing “word welder” on my phone, and waiting for my “full Irish breakfast” to arrive, a group of men began streaming in one or two at a time and taking a seat right next to me. As they gathered and gained numbers the conversation grew livlier and livlier. It was truly enjoyable to listen to the banter, the jokes, the arguments, the laughter, the ribbing, and the squabbling. They discussed everything from sports to money, current affairs to affairs of state. They were the “men at the gates of the city”.
Habakkuk could have been one of these men. He could have sat and discussed the affairs of the day and topics of the time. He could have argued, joked, or just listened There would have been nothing intrinsically incorrect with doing so. But instead he chose the direct route. Instead He went to the Source: God. And in going to God he didn’t dance around the discussion. Habakkuk questioned Him.
How many times do we attempt to answer the hard questions of life, theology, relationships, and reality by finding out what everybody else thinks instead of what God thinks? How many times do we settle for the latest quotes on Twitter or Facebook as “good enough” to get us by, rather that getting a direct quote from the source? How many times do we mouth mantras of the faith to get us through difficult times, rather than using our words to dialogue with our Father?
Let me be specific, and let me say that I make no accusation that I, myself, have not been guilty of at some point.
- Eschatology. Do you actually understand your eschatalogical positon from Scripture so that you could intelligently and Biblically describe it to another person without having to refer them to the latest book by so and so? I’m not saying that you must be able to to this. It’s certainly not the most important area of general theology. But I know so many shepherds and sheep who do make it a major point and yet cannot do what I asked above. They have not taken the time to question God about it and seek answers from the source: His word. In my experience, they’ve normally done one of two things: they’ve spent just enough time to memorise the main points from their favorite downloaded pastor, or they’ve spent oodles of time memorising what all of their favourite downloaded pastors have said about it.
- Church Government. Same questions as above. In fact, since the Bible doesn’t give an exact formula for this one, it’s even more of an “open-handed” or secondary issue than eschatology. And yet the fervor with which so many shepherds and sheep hold on to their preferred system is confusing to me, when only a very few have ever been able to tell me why they feel that way.
- “Missions”. Why do you do “missions” the way you do it? If you are a shepherd, why do you lead the flock in “missions” the way you do? Have you just accepted the norms around you without ever questioning God about it? (Yes, I put “missions” into quotes because I can no longer be sure of it’s intended meaning in an audience or that they would understand my meaning to be).
- Day to day pastoral things: Order of worship/liturgy, “sunday school” / “children’s church” / “children’s ministry”, rules for worship service, Biblical gender roles in the ministry, “youth groups”, evangelism and discipleship, and many other things? Are you shepherding those areas based on the vision the Lord has given you, based on His word and careful study and patient prayer about them? Or are you just doing what everybody else does? Do you even know why you do things the way you do them?
Are we supposed to be built up on the foundation of our favourite pastors, or upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Scripture), with Jesus as the chief cornerstone? Shouldn’t we seek to truly know what we believe, question God, study His word (including what other godly men have written about it), and be open and honest with God about the questions and answers that arise from our study? Shouldn’t the foundation for our faith, our hope, and our worship of the one we put our faith and hope in be as rock solid as Christ Himself? Or should we settle for a foundation of what others are saying and doing and hope [in them] that they got it right?
Since learning the many basic theological foundations that I first learned through the ministry of Calvary Chapel in 1990, my faith has been rudely confronted by reality in many areas of the theology I was sure I had memorised.
We all have our own list of things that have challenged our faith and revealed cracks in our theological foundation. But the hard thing to do… the thing that took me some time to face up to doing… is to allow what we’ve memorised of our pastors’ theology and popular theology to be set aside long enough for us to question God about it. Seriously consider His word for ourselves. Take up the mantle of the opposite opinion and try to prove it Scripturally. Find those with differing opinions and dialogue with them. Search the Scriptures intently until you have as much confidence as possible, and then write down what you learned to reference later. Be honest with God about your doubts and questions and ask His Spirit to guide you to the truth. Be willing to be wrong so you can grow.
In the end, you’ll either: (a) learn that you were wrong about some things and be better founded now that you’ve been corrected (this is what happened for me in the area of “missions”); (b) learn that you were on the right track and gain further understanding and insight that better founds your faith going forward (this is what happened for me in the area of Church Government and Eschatology); or (c) learn that you were correct in your understanding and application of God’s truth and be all the more excited about living it and telling others (this may happen to me some day 😉 ).
Just like Habakkuk, my willingness to question God and the status quo has lead to rejoicing! Because I am constantly challenging what I think I know and either correcting or reaffirming it, I’m constantly reminded of God’s character, righteousness, mercy, power, and faithfulness. That’s what gave Habakkuk peace in the midst of adversity and put a Psalm in his heart.
May we, like Habakkuk, do the hard things of questioning God and the status quo, clarifying and verifying that our faith is founded on the truth, and enjoying a peaceful and worshipful heart as a result.