"How long, O Lord, must I call for help?"

Next week I’ll begin a series of sermons on Habakkuk in preparation for Resurrection Sunday. The Season of Lent, the forty days prior to Easter beginning with Ash Wednesday, is a season of repentance and contemplation. Habakkuk himself is caught in the crucible between the shalom that should be and the alienation which is–not unlike the disciples between cross and resurrection.

In Habakkuk 1:1-3, the prophet cries out, “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? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.” This about sums up Habakkuk’s complaint before the LORD, though the news and consternation gets worse later. This complaint is for many, the crux of their problem with faith.

I read with appreciation David Plotz’s article in Slate Magazine earlier this week, “Good Book: What I Learned from Reading the Entire Bible“. Plotz was genuinely taken with the Bible and especially so because of its ubiquitous influence on every story of the West. Repeatedly he came across references to things which he only superficially understood, such as a shibboleth. Genuinely excited he writes,

And something like that happened to me five, 10, 50 times a day when I was Bible-reading. You can’t get through a chapter of the Bible, even in the most obscure book, without encountering a phrase, a name, a character, or an idea that has come down to us 3,000 years later. The Bible is the first source of everything from the smallest plot twists (the dummy David’s wife places in the bed to fool assassins) to the most fundamental ideas about morality (the Levitical prohibition of homosexuality that still shapes our politics, for example) to our grandest notions of law and justice. It was a joyful shock to me when I opened the Book of Amos and read the words that crowned Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Plotz’ enthusiasm is engaging. He states that every student should have to read the Bible simply for its literary and cultural value just as students read Twain or the Constitution. (I wish I shared his appreciation of the HS English curriculum. I wonder how many actually do read Huckleberry Finn or the Constitution, but that’s another post.)

Later in his article Plotz speaks to the passages in the Bible which confounded him. He was both challenged by both fellow Jewish-faithful and Christian-believer friends, but he goes on to say,

After reading about the genocides, the plagues, the murders, the mass enslavements, the ruthless vengeance for minor sins (or none at all), and all that smiting—every bit of it directly performed, authorized, or approved by God—I can only conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible, if He existed, was awful, cruel, and capricious. He gives us moments of beauty—such sublime beauty and grace!—but taken as a whole, He is no God I want to obey and no God I can love.

Though I would challenge his understanding of the meaning of the passages which so troubled him, Habakkuk, too found himself in much the same spot. However, there was/is something decidedly different between how Habakkuk saw his circumstances and belief and how Plotz sees his world and the God he doubts–that difference is the nature of the relationship between God and humanity.

Later this week, I read an article in the Winston-Salem Journal about a personal hero of mine, Pam Elliott. Pam, a burn victim resulting from a house fire as a child, underwent years of painful reconstructive surgery and physical therapy. In his article on Pam, (“Part of My Purpose”) journalist Scott Sexton writes,

While she was at Piedmont Bible, she began to doubt her faith and, for the first time, question God for all the suffering she had endured. “As a child, you believe your grandmother and mother when they tell you ‘This happened for a purpose,'” Elliott said. One day she read a passage from the book of Jeremiah, Chapter 18: “And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.” Something clicked. God had offered her comfort, so now she was to comfort others and become a nurse. She had a purpose.

It’s a striking contrast. Though Mr. Plotz doesn’t appear to have suffered the same physical suffering as Ms. Elliott, it would be ungracious to assume that he has not suffered greatly–I just don’t know. He doesn’t allude to those personal experiences which may or may not have shaped his doubt in God. Ms. Elliott’s response though, is akin to Habakkuk’s ultimate resolution which is, ironically, a song.

In Habakkuk chapter 3, Habukkuk says, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights” (Hab 3:17-19). You see, for Habakkuk, his relationship with God was not a consumerist-based relationship with a commodified-blesser. For him, God is, and he has not only bound himself with his people, but his people have bound themselves to him. Therein is the difference. We don’t come to God with the conditions that he measure up to our estimation of who he should be. Rather, he comes to us and graciously delivers those who trust in him. Though we love words like “grace”, we forget that grace nullifies conditions.

Mr. Plotz concludes,

The Bible has brought me no closer to God, if that means either believing in a deity acting in the world or experiencing the transcendent. But perhaps I’m closer to God in the sense that the Bible has put me on high alert. I came to the Bible hoping to be inspired and awed. I have been, sometimes. But mostly I’ve ended up in a yearlong argument with God. Why would He kill the innocent Egyptian children? And why would He delight in it? What wrong did we do Him that He should send the flood? Which of His Ten Commandments do we actually need? Yet the argument itself represents a kind of belief, because it commits me to engage with God.

And this is the trap into which the doubter can slip: Plotz says, “the argument [his year-long one] itself represents a kind of belief, because it commits me to engage with God.” Plotz sounds like C.S. Lewis, who while an atheist eventually confessed that though ‘he did not believe there was a God, yet he resented God for not existing. Further still, he resented this God who was or wasn’t there for creating such a flawed world.’ That is, you don’t resent something that isn’t. It’s the confusion which arises between the two realities which do exist that causes all the stomach acid.

And so, as we move from Ashes to Easter we pass through the death of our dreams, expectations, and agendas into the gob-smacked glory of the Risen One. But before the joy of a new day, we first cry, “How long?”

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