When God Doesn’t Make Sense
August 8, 2014
The call came at about 10:30 P.M. Someone had died. Would I please call the family? Before I could pick up the phone, the mother called me. Her son had taken drugs and had died earlier that evening. As I got dressed to go to the home, I wondered what I would say. When I arrived everyone was milling around in a state of confusion. At length, the mother took me aside and through her tears asked me the question I had known was coming. Why? Why did God let this happen to my son?
It was not the first time I have had no satisfactory answer to that question, and it won’t be the last. When you look at the questions of life and death, and when you consider the problems of this death-sentenced generation, even the most fervent believer looks up to the heavens and cries out, Why? Why me? Why now? Why this?
Why? The question rings across the centuries and through every generation. All of us ask it sooner or later. If you haven’t yet, you will. It’s a question that does not admit of an easy answer. Indeed, the godliest believers have sometimes wondered about the ways of God. And if Job never got a complete answer, what can I expect? As I read the Bible, I don’t think there is one single answer.
All of us ask Why? sooner or later
We get one kind of answer in the book of Genesis, another kind of answer in Job, and still other answers in the book of Psalms. Ecclesiastes takes yet another approach, and the gospels present us with a Christ whose very coming alters the way we think about everything. Finally, the book of Revelation shows us our Lord’s final victory and the final defeat of evil. I don’t mean to suggest that these various perspectives contradict each other. It’s just that the problem of human suffering is so vast that we need many different ways to think about it.
That’s where the book of Habakkuk comes in. In this series we’re going to dig deep into this little book written just before the world caved in for the people of Judah. If you don’t know where to find Habakkuk, look in the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. Or just look in the “white pages” of your Bible. Habakkuk is squeezed between Nahum and Zephaniah, two other books we rarely read.
Major Message from a Minor Prophet
Let’s back up for just a second. There are 17 prophetic books in the Old Testament, divided between the Major Prophets (5 books) and the Minor Prophets (12 books). They are not called “major” and “minor” because of their respective importance but because of their size. In one of my Bibles, the five Major Prophets take up 191 pages while the twelve Minor Prophets take up only 61 pages.
We’re talking about short books here. Habakkuk contains 56 verses spread over 3 chapters. Though he is a “minor” prophet, there is nothing minor about his message. He’s writing about a topic that we all think about eventually.
Habakkuk is unlike the other prophetic books (major or minor) in that it records a dialogue between one man and God. Whereas Isaiah contains a message from God, Habakkuk records a conversation with God.
The people seemed hell-bent on their own destruction
If you’ve ever felt like you had a few questions for God, this is the book for you. Howard Hendricks called Habakkuk “the man with a question mark for a brain.”
Here’s a bit of the background. The year is 605 BC or thereabouts. We can’t be sure of the precise year but that’s a good guess. After good king Josiah died in 609 BC, the nation of Judah plunged headlong back into the cesspool of corruption, immorality and idolatry that had plagued it for so many generations. This time the people seemed hell-bent on their own destruction. Instead of edging toward the cliff, they seemed determined to plunge over it going full speed. It was as if the nation had a death wish and no use for God at all.
About the man Habakkuk we know almost nothing. We assume he was around 30 years old, but that’s just a guess. We know he was a contemporary of Ezekiel and Jeremiah and would have been 10-15 years older than Daniel.
When he saw the terrible moral decline of Judah, he prayed for God to “do something.” In his mind he no doubt thought that God would raise up another good king to lead the people in the right direction. Little did he know that God’s answer would come by way of the hated Babylonians.
If God doesn’t judge America . . .
As I consider the situation behind the book, I’m reminded of the famous words of Billy Graham, uttered when he was a young preacher: “If God doesn’t judge America, he’s going to have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” If those words were true 60 years ago, how much truer must they be today?
Habakkuk lived in confusing times.
So do we.
That’s why we’re calling this series “Strong Faith for Confusing Times.” We need to sit with Habakkuk for a while so we can find a faith strong enough for our own troubling times.
Habakkuk wrote out his argument with God in three short chapters. Here’s a simple outline:
Chapter 1: Faith Tested
Chapter 2: Faith Taught
Chapter 3: Faith Triumphant
We can describe his personal journey this way:
Chapter 1: Argument
Chapter 2: Answer
Chapter 3: Acceptance
Habakkuk is a very modern book
Here is what the prophet is doing in each chapter:
Chapter 1: Asking
Chapter 2: Waiting
Chapter 3: Praying
Along the way Habakkuk experiences a total change. In this book he moves from . . .
Fear to faith,
Burden to blessing,
Perplexity to praise,
Confusion to confidence, and
Worry to Worship.
J. Vernon McGee says that Habakkuk begins with a question mark and ends with an exclamation point.
In many ways this is a very modern book in that it raises the questions that we wrestle with today. I received a note from a young man troubled by many problems. After describing his particular issues, he framed the question this way:
I am exhausted with life, and I would kill myself if it weren’t for the fact that I am a coward as well and I don’t have the guts to carry it out. I see therapists and psychiatrists but they don’t help. They stuff me with drugs and send me on my way. Why is God silent?! Why does He not act?!! Where is my Lord?!!!
We’ve all been there, even if we wouldn’t put it exactly that way. When up against problems for which there is no human solution, we look to heaven and cry, “Why don’t you do something about it?”
As the book opens, Habakkuk is confused and agitated. Three issues haunt him:
Issue # 1: Unanswered Prayer
“How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?” (v. 2).
Consider the things going on in the world today:
Corruption in high places
Those same things were happening in Habakkuk’s day. As he surveys the evil he saw on every hand, he cried out to God, “How can you let this go on?”
Sooner or later we all wonder about God’s seeming inactivity. Where is God when we need him?
• A godly mother prays for her wayward son. He was raised in the church, he went to Sunday school, he knows the Bible—but when he left home, he left it all behind. For many years his mother has prayed for him, but to this day he remains a prodigal son.
• A wife prays for her husband, who left her after twenty-three years of marriage for a younger woman. He seems utterly unreachable, and the marriage heads swiftly for divorce.
• A husband prays for his wife, who has terminal cancer. She has six, maybe seven months to live. None of the treatments stop the rampaging tumors. The elders anoint her with oil and pray over her in the name of the Lord. She dies five months later.
• A young man prays fervently for deliverance from an overpowering temptation, but the struggle never seems to end. The more he prays, the worse the temptation becomes.
And so we cry out with the psalmist, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1).
What happened to the girls of Nigeria?
What about the girls of Nigeria?
What happened to them?
In April 276 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped by the Muslim terrorist organization Boko Haram. Most of the girls were Christian, though a few were Muslim. Their crime? They wanted an education, something the radical Muslims don’t want for their women.
For a while we saw the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
For a while we got concerned.
Millions of Christians prayed for those young girls.
So far only 57 of the kidnapped girls have escaped. No one knows what has happened to the rest, but some may have been sold as child brides or forced into sex slavery. Their kidnappers have released videos boasting of what they did.
We are entitled to ask, “Lord, where are you? Why do you not do something about this?”
Issue # 2: Uncontrolled Perversity
“Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? 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 that justice is perverted” (vv. 3-4).
When lawlessness prevails, no one is safe. Over the July 4th weekend in Chicago, 82 people were shot and 14 were killed. But it isn’t just Chicago that has problems. Perhaps you saw this headline in USA Today: Police chief, rabbi among 71 nabbed in child porn bust.
Technology can be used for good or for evil
Here is the lead sentence:
Two police officers, a rabbi, a registered nurse, a nanny and a Boy Scout den leader are among 70 men and one woman arrested on charges of trading child pornography in what federal officials say is one of the largest-ever roundups in the New York City area.
The article contained this disturbing detail:
The expansion of the “Dark Web,” where pedophiles hide using websites that encrypt their computers’ identifying information, has fueled an explosion of child pornography
The “Dark Web” refers to the vast “underground Internet” that can’t be accessed through search engines like Google. The “Dark Web” is said to be many times larger than the Internet most of us know and use every day. Pornographers, drug traffickers, violent criminals, and terrorists of every variety use the “Dark Web” to hide their evil deeds. In this case, the police were able to crack the case because they were able to penetrate part of the “Dark Web.”
Technology is good when it is used for good purposes, but when put in the hands of evil people technology unleashes uncontrolled perversity in the world.
Issue # 3: Unexpected Answer
Habakkuk faces his third issue when God gives him an answer he doesn’t expect.
“Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told” (v. 5).
Taken by itself, those words might lead Habakkuk to think that God is going to send a mighty spiritual awakening to Judah, a revival that will rid the nation of idolatry and bring them back to God. Sometimes preachers use this verse as a basis for praying for revival in our day. While I certainly think we ought to pray for revival, that’s not what this verse is all about. God is going to send something, but it’s not a revival.
“I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth” (v. 6).
Nothing God said could have surprised Habakkuk more than this. He knew about the Babylonians.
Everybody knew the Babylonians.
Everybody knew the Babylonians
They were the most hated and the most feared nation on earth. Under the leadership of King Nebuchadnezzar, their armies plundered the nations around them.
No one could stand against them.
No one could defeat them.
They were crucial, vicious, rapacious in their appetite for destruction. If they wanted a city, they took a city. If they wanted a province, they took a province. If they wanted a nation, they took that nation.
It is hard for us to fully understand how the Jews felt about the Babylonians. They swept across the Ancient Near East with a cruelty hitherto unknown. If a conquered city was considered insufficiently servile, they might put a pile of skulls in the city plaza as a warning not to rebel against them. They poked out the eyes of conquered kings and marched the rulers off in chains, sometimes with hooks through their jaws.
These are nasty people, and God knows how bad they are
Look at how God describes them in the next few verses:
Ruthless and impetuous (v. 6)
Feared and dreaded (v. 7)
Law to themselves (v. 7)
They are swift as leopards, ravenous as wolves, and they swoop on their prey like eagles dropping from the sky.
They gather prisoners like sand.
They mock kings.
They laugh at fortified cities.
They never stop.
Here is God’s ultimate indictment of them:
“Whose strength is their god” (v. 11).
The point is, these are nasty people, and God knows how bad they are. It’s not like he’s raising up the Little Sisters of the Poor to judge Judah. He’s not calling on the Boy Scouts to do the job. When God decides to judge Judah, he picks the meanest nation on the block to do the job for him.
Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better.
Nothing about that made sense to Habakkuk.
It’s as if God said, “I’m going to raise up Al Qaeda to judge America. Because you did not respect my law, you will now live under Sharia law.”
As shocking as that sounds to us, that’s exactly how God’s message sounded to Habakkuk. He couldn’t believe what he had just heard.
Perhaps you are familiar with the story of Meriam Ibrahim, the 27-year-old medical doctor in Sudan who was arrested, tried and convicted of apostasy and adultery. Her crime? Supposedly converting from Islam when in fact she had been raised as a Christian. She wasn’t an “apostate” because you can’t leave a religion you never joined in the first place. They accused her of adultery because she had a child with her husband, a Christian from Sudan who emigrated to the United States. That is, the “adultery” was really a charge of having sex with her own husband because they didn’t recognize her marriage to a Christian. Sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy and sentenced also to 100 lashes for adultery, she was given a chance on the stand to recant her Christian faith. Time and again the prosecutor badgered her to renounce Jesus. She refused each time.
Finally she said, “I am a Christian and I will remain a Christian.”
“I am a Christian and I will remain a Christian”
As a result of her faithful witness, she was not only kept in jail but put in shackles. The authorities would not even unchain her when she gave birth in prison.
Through it all, she steadfastly refused to renounce the name of Christ. After millions of people protested, she was recently allowed to leave Sudan with her husband and two children and has now entered the United States.
We’re doing fine without God, or so we think.
What if God allows this for a purpose?
What if these things must happen?
Very often in the Bible, things had to get worse before they could get better. Have we reached that point in America? I talked with a distraught father about his prodigal daughter who, though raised in a godly home, seems bent on going her own way. Through his tears the father said, “She’s going to have hit rock bottom, I guess.” We prayed together that God would do whatever it takes to open the eyes of her heart so that light from heaven could come flooding in (see Praying for Your Prodigals).
What if God allows this for a purpose?
As I travel around the country, I hear many people say that we need a revival in America. I certainly agree with that. I also hear some people say that we are on the brink of a great movement back to God. I don’t know if that is true or not. I certainly hope it is. But we can pray and work to that end.
Why have we as a nation turned away from the truth?
Why the collapsing moral standards?
Why have we so quickly accepted gay marriage?
I think the answer is clear. As a nation, we don’t need God. We’re doing fine without him, or so we think.
I remember how on the Sunday after 9/11, the churches were crowded with people. Millions of Americans responded to the terrorist attacks by coming to a house of worship. But soon that post-crisis attendance bump disappeared. After a few weeks, things returned more or less to normal. We said to ourselves, “Things will never be the same again,” but we were wrong.
You can turn toward God without turning to God
I can tell you what happened in America after 9/11. We turned toward God but we didn’t turn to him. There’s a big difference. We turned in his direction, but we did not repent of our national sins. Turning toward God is good but it never lasts. Only turning to God can change a nation.
We need a big God, and we’ve got one!
I told you earlier that this series is called “Strong Faith for Confusing Times.” Everyone reading these words is in one of three places:
You’re in confusing times.
You’re coming out of confusing times.
Or you’re about to go into confusing times (and you just don’t know it yet).
I’m hoping you’ll take this series on Habakkuk and put it in your back pocket. Keep it close by so you can get to it when you need it. If you don’t need it today, you’ll need it tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.
Three Important Insights
Let’s wrap things up with three important insights.
1. We see only a part of the picture.
When it comes to understanding what God is doing in the world, we are like ants on a Rembrandt. We crawl across the dark brown and think all of life is dark brown. Then we hit green and think, ’”Oh, this is better. Now all is green.” But soon comes the dark blue and then a splash of yellow, a streak of red, and then another patch of brown. On we journey, from one color to another, never realizing that God is actually painting a masterpiece in our lives using all the colors of the palette. One day we will discover that every color had its place, had a reason, nothing was wasted or out of place. Just as there is a time and a season for everything, there is also a color for every stage of life’s journey. When the painting is finished, we will discover that we were part of his masterpiece from the very beginning.
2. God isn’t limited to what we think he ought to do.
We continually make the mistake of thinking that our plans and God’s plans are the same plans. They aren’t. Some wise person said it this way: “Write your plans in pencil and give God the eraser.”
If your God always does what you want, he’s probably not the God of the Bible.
Here’s another way to say it. If your God always does what you want, he’s probably not the God of the Bible. God will be no man’s servant.
He does whatever he pleases (see Psalm 115:3).
3. We need a bigger God.
Habakkuk got his mind messed up because he thought he knew what God should do. In fact, chapter 1 shows us that he was wrong twice, first when he thought God was ignoring Judah’s sin and second when he couldn’t believe God would use the Babylonians to judge his own people.
We need a God who is bigger than our puny ideas.
We need a God whose ways continually surprise us.
How big is your God?
You’d better figure out the answer before hard times come.
Here’s one final thought about how to face confusing times. A few months ago when our family faced some hard times, a little saying popped into my mind. It comes from a TV series called Friday Night Lights, about high school football in West Texas. In the series the coach has his players repeat three phrases:
When that came to my mind, I came up with a new version that sums up how to face confusing times:
Stop right now and say that out loud
God is good.
Stop right now and say that out loud. You might want to write it out and put it where you can see it this week. It’s a great reminder that our confusion can’t cancel God’s goodness even when life itself makes no sense.
Father, as we go through this story of a man who wrestled with you, we’re glad you included it in your book so we would know how honest we can be with you. Thank you that you listen to us in our complaints and you don’t turn us away. Open your Word to us so that our vision of who you are might grow. We need a big God, and we’ve got one! We thank you for that. In Jesus’ name, Amen