Why Doesn't God Act More Like God?

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Habakkuk 1:1-6, 12-13

Have you ever wondered why God allows so much suffering in the world? Have you ever prayed for help and he didn’t seem to answer? Well, you’re not alone in struggling with these problems. The prophet Habakkuk wrestled with these exact issues – over 2,500 years ago.

Have you ever wondered why God allows so much suffering in the world? Have you ever prayed for help and he didn’t seem to answer? Well, you’re not alone in struggling with those problems. The Hebrew prophet Habakkuk was an ancient man with a modern problem. A contemporary of the great prophet Jeremiah, Habakkuk proclaimed God’s word in the kingdom of Judah during the late 7th century B.C. – the final days of Jewish independence. His life and world could hardly have been more different from ours. So why is it that we still pay attention to the little book that he wrote?

The reason is that despite the almost unimaginable differences between Habakkuk’s time and ours, between his culture and modern culture, between his life and yours or mine, he struggled with exactly the same kinds of spiritual questions we do. The differences between Habbakuk and us are all superficial. On the deepest and most important level, we’re just the same.

Habakkuk’s questions had to do with God, with suffering and the problem of evil, with basic issues of faith and fear. His book – the record of the messages he proclaimed to the people of Judah – begins with this simple introduction: “The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received” (v. 1, niv). This phrase could also be translated, “Habakkuk’s burden.” Habakkuk had something he wanted to say, something he had to say; or rather, something he had to ask. What might seem unusual is that though he was a prophet – one of God’s anointed spokesmen – Habakkuk had more questions than answers. Habakkuk believed in God. He knew God. He served God. But he didn’t understand God. So he wrestled with the same issues we have when we’re confronted with pain or injustice, when we cry out to God for help and our prayers seem only to echo back to us, unanswered. Our questions can all be boiled down to this one: Why doesn’t God act more like God?

A QUESTION

Here’s how Habakkuk puts it:

How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?

Habakkuk 1:2

There are really two questions here for God. One is theological, attempting to reconcile the fact of evil in the world with the goodness of the God who made and rules the world: “Why do you tolerate wrong?” The other question is relational, and it’s a question that echoes over and over in the scriptures: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?”

The prophet was living in a sick and dying society, one which was increasingly filled with crime and violence, where social injustice and human rights abuses multiplied. The very authorities who ought to have been correcting these wrongs were instead contributing to them. Crime was out of control; violence abounded and innocent people were suffering from it every day in addition to all the normal ills and problems of daily life. And all this was happening in Judah, not in some godless, pagan society, but supposedly the Promised Land, among God’s chosen people Israel!

So in the midst of rampant evil and untold human misery, Habakkuk has been praying. He’s been crying out to God for help, but God is unaccountably silent. The Lord doesn’t seem to answer or even hear Habakkuk’s prayers. And God is strangely passive. In situations of wrong that scream for him to do something, God apparently does nothing. So Habakkuk wants to know why.

Think of it this way. What would you do if you were God? If you had all power and controlled everything, if you could change peoples’ minds and hearts by your simple word, if you could create something out of nothing, if you could heal the sick, even raise the dead, if you ruled over all the forces of nature, and had authority even over the evil powers, what would you do? What would you do when you saw a “crack” cocaine baby lying in an incubator in a neonatal Intensive Care Unit, eyes taped shut, a tube down its throat, writhing in pain? What would you do when a cancer patient, wasted away from his disease and devastated by its treatment, cried out to you for healing, or just for relief from pain? What would you do when a beloved child of yours who had loved and served you all her life prayed earnestly to you year after year for the salvation of her son? What would you do when believers living under a totalitarian regime who were being harassed and imprisoned and tortured and executed for their faith in Christ pleaded with you day and night for deliverance? What would you do about the fervent prayers for revival among churches that saw their influence shrinking and vitality dwindling in the midst of societies that were increasingly turning away from their Christian heritage and sinking further and further into moral corruption? What would you do if you were God? Surely you’d do something, wouldn’t you?

It seems to us that if God really acted like God, there wouldn’t be any more fatal accidents, no more birth defects, no more cancer or AIDS, no more killer storms, no more war or crime. There would only be peace and happiness, faith and righteousness throughout the whole world. We could understand that. We could believe in God then. Everyone would. It would be easy. But when we cry out to him and he just seems to do nothing, how can that be? That was Habakkuk’s problem, his burden. And mine. And yours too, I imagine.

AN ANSWER

But God doesn’t remain silent forever. He responds to his prophet’s cry of complaint. God himself speaks in verse 5 of Habakkuk 1. This is what he says: “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.” God tells Habakkuk that he is about to act. In fact, he’s going to do something amazing. “Wait til you see this,” he says to the prophet. “You won’t even believe it when you do see it!” The fact is, God is involved in the world. He does know what’s going on. He is neither helpless nor uninterested. God is not deaf or dumb like an idol, not the living God of the Bible. He sees and hears everything, and he acts. Despite how things may appear, God does control history. He does rule the world. The nations and peoples obey his will and carry out his purposes. The earth’s rulers – presidents and prime ministers, dictators and kings – all must serve God’s plan for history, whether willingly or not. What happens in the world happens because God decides that it should.

That’s the good news. But before Habakkuk gets too excited, God goes on to explain to him just what it is that he’s going to do among the nations. The amazing things that are going to take place are going to be amazingly bad for his people, not amazingly good. “Behold, I am sending the Babylonians,” God says, “They are fierce and cruel – marching across the land, conquering cities and towns (vv. 6-7). So God’s response to all the things that are wrong in Judah’s society is to bring judgment. He’s going to judge his people by sending the vicious armies of Babylon to conquer them, destroy their country, and carry them off into captivity.

Instead of solving Habakkuk’s problem, this answer from God raises more questions than it settles. “Wait a minute,” we can hear Habakkuk thinking. “The Babylonians! You’re going to use them! Why, they’re worse than we are! They’re completely immoral. They’re cruel and heartless, and as for idolatry, well, if you think it’s a problem in Judah, have you ever been to Babylon? How can you possibly think of using them as an instrument of your justice, God?” Not only that, but the Babylonians could not have cared less about the Lord God of Israel. They did not believe they were instruments of his justice; they didn’t believe in him at all. The Babylonians thought their own might, their own strength and superior tactics and powerful armies, were responsible for their military success. (See Habakkuk’s image in 1:14-17 comparing the Babylonian conquerors to fishermen who credit their own nets for their success.) Babylon was a typical world power: brutal, idolatrous, arrogant. So how could a just God give them success and even use them as an instrument of his policy?

A SOLUTION

So here is Habakkuk’s problem (and ours too). The problem is how to reconcile our faith with our experience. We believe certain truths about God, and rightly so. Habakkuk even rehearses them for us at the end of chapter 1: God is eternal, above and outside all time and history. God is self existent and sovereign; he does rule over the whole universe. And God is reliable and dependable, a “Mighty Rock,” as Habakkuk calls him. God can be trusted. We are safe when we take refuge in him. Above all, God is the holy one – “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil,” says the prophet. The Lord is pure goodness. God does not, he cannot, compromise with evil. Humans may be corrupted but never God. He can neither do wrong nor be associated with it. This is the God whom believers know and love. “My God, my Holy One,” Habakkuk calls him. He is ours and we are his.

The prophet knows all this, and he believes it, but the problem was that he couldn’t tell that any of those things were true just then from what was happening in his life and world. What Habakkuk thought about God seemed to be contradicted by what he saw happening around him. That’s what caused his distress. And that’s what causes our distress when we’re caught in the same dilemma. So what is the solution?

Well, there isn’t one, at least not a neat and easy one. At the end of chapter 1, Habakkuk is left dangling, so to speak. God doesn’t make everything clear to him immediately. But in its own way, that too is a kind of solution, because what we see here is Habakkuk continuing to struggle with God. When your faith seems to be contradicted by your experience, the easy thing to do is to give up your faith. Just abandon it. “If God is all good, then he is not all-powerful. If God is all-powerful then he is not all good,” says the American writer Norman Mailer in a recent book. And he goes on to say, “I am a disbeliever in the omnipotence of God because of the Holocaust. But for 35 years or so I’ve been believing that God is doing the best he can.” That’s one way to solve the problem of evil. You simply say that God can’t really do anything about it. If there even is a God, he’s just doing the best he can.

But this is not a very satisfying solution to the problems of suffering and injustice in the world. It leaves us with a God who isn’t really God. Far better to wrestle with the problem like Habakkuk and refuse either to give up your faith or to deny your experience. Here is the key fact: the whole time he is asking his questions and venting his complaints, Habakkuk is praying. He is taking all of his doubts and his struggles to the Lord in prayer. And Habakkuk is willing to leave them there too, and to leave himself in the hands of a God whose ways he sometimes can’t understand.

That may be the best you and I can do as well. If you’re struggling with your faith, with unanswered prayers, with what seems like the triumph of evil against you, all you may be able to do just now is to cry out about it to God and cast yourself on him. It isn’t the whole answer. It’s only a temporary solution. But it’s a pretty good one, because no matter how things may seem, God does hear you. He does care about you, and he will help you. We must learn, like Habakkuk, to be patient and hang on.