My word for 2021

Habakkuk 1-3

Wait. Not exactly the word I expected for 2021, but that’s the one that stuck. Some people might say it was a word from the Lord, but I won’t be so bold as to claim to hear God in such specific terms. Still, this is the word that came to mind over and over as I pondered my focus for 2021. Two passages of scripture also circled in my head: sections from Habakkuk 2 and Jeremiah 33.

I read Habakkuk back in January, well before 2020 turned the world upside down. At that point, I considered his cry of “How long” from a theoretical perspective on the evil and injustice of humans. I could not have foreseen that “how long” would be the cry of so many people across the globe. Habakkuk prophesied in an evil age, one in which violence, poverty, devastation, and strife ruled, while the Law was ignored and justice never upheld. The Lord told him, ” Watch! Be horrified! Be frightened speechless! For I am accomplishing a work in your days — you would not believe it even if you were told!” (Habakkuk 1:5). Jeremiah heard the same word: “Call to me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3). Those unbelievable “great and mighty things” included the total destruction of Judah at the hands of the Chaldeans because the sins of God’s people had reached a point of utter wickedness. Zephaniah also preached against the rebellious and defiled people who refused to obey the Lord and did “violence to the Law” (Zephaniah 3). Even before 2020, there were people crying out to God, “how long?” How long will bitterness and injustice rule even in our churches? How long will people flout God’s command to love God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength while loving each other? (Matthew 22:35-40). I wrote in my journal on January 17, 2020:

How long? The question of the ages, it would seem. Evil still runs rampant in the world. War, slavery, and violence are as much a part of this time as in any other…the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth. Pay attention. To say God works in mysterious ways is an understatement. However, He know what is happening, and He will judge the wicked even if we don’t. However, because His ways are not ours (Isaiah 55:8-9), how He works may not make sense to our limited minds. Here [Habakkuk 1], God uses the Chaldeans, who were know for witchcraft, astrology, and worship of Marduk to punish the wicked in Israel and Judah…How long? Until the people repent and a leader comes forth to honor God.

And here we are, nearly a year later. The world has suffered a deadly pandemic, drought, horrific natural disasters in the forms of fire, earthquake, and flood, economic catastrophes, and human suffering on a massive scale. The US has endured riots, protests, division, hatred, contentiousness, and violence, not to mention an election that pleased nobody. The economy suffered as businesses either shuttered or pivoted to “contactless” commerce. People argued over wearing masks of all things: protection or liberty. Physical distancing drove families. Work and school and church moved to online platforms. (Oh, to have bought stock in Zoom back in February.) Hugs and handshakes became elbow bumps. The virus that upended everything created chaos by its sheer inconsistency: most people recovered quickly, but some endured long term effects, and many died. Will a vaccine help? Maybe. Hopefully. But the damage to the psyche of the world is done.

And yet, after all these things, we still wait for the return of the good times. Back to “normal.” When we can attend church services and have school in classrooms and travel freely. But if we just return to the way things were, what have we learned? Have we made changes in justice? Are we better, kinder people? Do the good guys in white hats come out ahead? I submit, we have not made changes and we are not better people. The white hats are more than fifty shades of gray. And, with Habakkuk we might ask, why do the wicked seem to prevail, even after all the events of 2020? Evidently, there’s still a lesson to be learned.

I spent a fair amount of time in 2020 studying the minor prophets and considering the “day of the Lord.” Joel wrote that “the day of the Lord is indeed great and very awesome, and who can endure it?” (Joel 2). Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that the day would come like a “thief in the night” but before that time, people would be talking about world peace and security (1 Thessalonians 5). After 2020, not much is certain, but no one is claiming this as a time of peace and security. I think the Lord does have a word for us, the same word he gave to Habakkuk: “Write down the vision…so that one who reads it may run. For the vision is yet for the appointed time; It hurries toward the goal and it will not fail. Though it delays, wait for it; For it will certainly come, it will not delay long” (Habakkuk 2:2-3). This year has been a foreshadowing of what is to come. Jesus called times like these the “beginnings of the birth pains” (Matthew 24). Habakkuk saw that things were going to get far worse before they got better; we must understand the same thing.

Why? Why the suffering? Why the certainty of eventual destruction? Because humans are desperately wicked by nature. Because, until people see themselves as they truly are, they will not see their desperate need for a Savior. We are stubborn, we humans. We want to be the masters of our souls, but we cannot be holy. And the Lord will do whatever it takes to make us see that, without Jesus, our souls are doomed. C.S. Lewis put it well when he said that God shouts to us in our pain (Lewis 1940, 2001). Joel foresaw a time when God will light up the sky with fire while turning the moon into blood. At the same time, young people will have visions and the old will dream of God’s wrath, judgement, and salvation (Joel 2). There will come a time when everyone will choose for themselves: worship the self or call on the Lord. Moderation, fence-sitting, cultural “churchianity”- these will be abolished and the lines of demarcation will be clearly drawn.

God has not destined us for that wrath. He sent Jesus, the Incarnation of Himself, for our salvation. When we call on His name, we are eternally His, no matter what happens on this earth (1 Thessalonians 5; Romans 5). The question we must address today is the same one Habakkuk faced: how do we respond to the certainty of hard times ahead?

With joy. We choose joy in the God of our salvation. We choose joy because He made a way of escape; these light and momentary struggles are nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed to us on that day (Romans 8). And for now, we wait in anticipation.

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—  but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Romans 5:1-11

Additional reference

Lewis, C.S. (2001) The problem of pain. Harper. Original publication 1940.

Joy is a choice

January 20

Habakkuk listened to the Lord’s plan for Judah in horror and confusion, but his knowledge of God’s character helped him work out his response. Chapter 3 is Habakkuk wrapping his brain around the juxtaposition of mercy and judgment in the circumstances of imminent catastrophe in order to save. He plead with God for mercy within wrath in verse 3, then described the Holiness and Glory of God before painting the picture of the ultimate destruction of evil. And then he recognized God’s purpose in the chaos: crushing the wicked and saving His people.

Habakkuk didn’t pretend to understand the hand of God. That’s good news for us. We don’t HAVE to understand. Habakkuk said, “I hear, and my body trembles” (3:16). He was not happy about what lay ahead. He knew it was going to be bad.

And yet. And yet. And yet, he made a choice to respond with joy in the salvation and strength of the Lord.

His circumstances didn’t change. History shows that Judah was captured by the Chaldeans who were then crushed by Babylon. It was a time of darkness and hardship and despair for the people, except for those who were faithfully committed to the Lord (like Daniel and his cohort). Habakkuk left his worry at the throne of the Lord, saying, ” Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength” (3:18-19). This is hard teaching. Does God want us to be happy? I have to say, not necessarily. He wants us to choose joy no matter what the circumstances, even when the circumstances do not make us happy. When we choose joy, we are looking beyond our current situation to God’s eternal plan, one of rich mercy, great love, and complete restoration in the fullness of time (Ephesians 2:4-9, Philippians 4:4-13; Titus 2:11-14).

Wait, what?

January 18, 2020

Wait, what? Habakkuk 1:12-2:20.

One of the things I love about the prophets is that they are just like most of us. God had just told Habakkuk that the Chaldeans were going to ransack Judah to deal with the evil people there. Habakkuk couldn’t make sense of it. He put what he knew about the character of God (everlasting, holy, pure, and righteous) next to the prophecy (righteous people swallowed by wicked, merciless conquest) and found nothing but cognitive dissonance.
While many people experiencing a similar cognitive dissonance become discouraged, despairing, or lose their faith altogether, Habakkuk chose to wait and watch for God’s explanation. He committed to standing at his watch post, standing at his tower, and looking out to see what God would say. How often do we give up on God when things are bad?

God DID answer Habakkuk. There’s no indication how long Habakkuk waited, but God’s answer came with both the ultimate fate of the Chaldeans AND the proper response of the faithful. The Chaldeans would eventually be conquered by Babylon. In the meantime, God told Habakkuk to wait for it (2:3), live by faith (2:4), be assured that the glory of the Lord will fill the earth (2:14), and that His character is unchanged (2:20). We, too, need to watch and wait for God’s long-term eternal plan to finally see true justice. It’s not easy. At all. We still ask, “how long will God stay silent while the wicked prosper?” I think part of the lesson of Habakkuk is that it’s okay to be confused. God doesn’t expect us to understand. And it’s perfectly acceptable to ask the questions, as long as we are committed to watching and waiting for the answers.

This is faith, living with insecurity while trusting God’s character. We are justified by that faith, which leads to peace even when life is hard and we can’t see how anything good can come out of our circumstances (Romans 5:1-5). Sometimes trusting God comes easily. Other times we hang on by the very tips of our fingers. We aren’t alone in questions and confusion, but when we are committed to waiting and watching, we will ultimately see God’s glory revealed (Habakkuk 2:14, Romans 8:18).

How long?

January 17, 2020

“How long?” Habakkuk asked the question sometime around 600 b.c.e. but we’re still asking. Why don’t you do something? Why do the wicked people seem to thwart justice and ignore the law without penalty?(My paraphrase of Habakkuk 1:3-4.) I read an article on Medium this morning that started with the notion that people really are pretty rotten by nature. Certainly Solomon thought so as he wrote Ecclesiastes. Our current era of anger, division, injustice, and violence is one in a steady stream of normal human affairs.

So, why doesn’t God DO something about it? That was Habakukk’s question, too. God told him, “Pay attention. It’s about to get real” (another ‘Loomisism’) and then laid out the plan. It was not exactly what Habakkuk expected (Habakkuk 1:5-11). In a nutshell, God was about to let the Marduk- worshipping, witchcraft-practicing, violence-loving Chaldeans conquer Israel. This conquest led to a Babylonian captivity that lasted a generation. Wait, what?

That doesn’t make sense (which Habakkuk says in verses 12-17), but that’s because Habakkuk (like all of us) was limited to a finite and limited understanding of human history and future.

Sometimes, when things look dismal, God’s work in our lives doesn’t line up with our expectations. It is during those moments that we need to remember that God’s thoughts and ways are so much more than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9.) The will of God is to draw each person into relationship, which can only happen through repentance (Isaiah 55:6-7). And sometimes we don’t pay attention to God’s holiness and ultimate justice until something drastic happens. It’s still really hard to wrap my brain around, to be honest. But that’s where trust in God and faith in His character has to take precedence over our own limited understanding. (Romans 3:21-26).