Wednesday, January 16, 2008

When experience and theology collide

In the book In God’s Waiting Room, Dr. Lehman Strauss recalls one of the hardest moments in his life:

It was Wednesday, April 14, 1982. Eighteen days had passed since [my wife] Elsie's stroke. The neurologist in charge requested that I meet with him. I waited expectantly in the corridor outside Elsie's room. When the doctor appeared his remarks were brief and pointed. "We are making arrangements to move your wife to a rehabilitation center in San Diego." "What led you to this decision?" I asked. He hesitated. I detected a bit of concern in his delayed reply. I was right. His words came slowly. "There is nothing more that we can do medically for Mrs. Strauss." He placed his hand on my shoulder and patted it gently. "I'm sorry," he said, and he walked away.


For a few seconds I stood motionless, my mind almost blank. Then I walked slowly into the room, kissed Elsie, and sat in the chair beside the bed. She spoke first. "What did the doctor tell you?" "He said that you will be transferred to a rehabilitation center in San Diego." I took her hand in mine. Then I assured her that there was nothing to fear because God was in control. But did I really believe that God was in control?


…We Christians affirm our belief in the sovereignty of God, but our faith is challenged in times of natural upheaval, national disaster, or personal affliction. Pain and poverty, disease and death, sorrow and suffering all tend to cause us to think seriously about God as creator and controller of the world of which we are a part. It is not always easy to believe that God is in control. On that Wednesday in April 1982, my faith was being tested. At that particular moment my mind was not capable of rationalizing the majesty of God's sovereignty. When I was told the seriousness of Elsie's condition, I realized that some cherished plans would have to be canceled. Quite frankly, I could not understand God's reason for this turn of events. But I knew that the Bible contains all we poor mortals need to know. Our Lord said, "It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4).

Perhaps some of you have received news as earth-shattering that. Others have not. But we can all be certain of this: the longer God leaves us in this sin-cursed world, the more we can expect “natural upheaval, national disaster, and personal affliction,” and the more our faith will be challenged. Our increasing encounters with suffering will test our level of trust in God. And in moments like these, when experience and theology collide, we desperately need the message of Habakkuk.

The prophet Habakkuk wrote at a very dark time in Israel’s history. The Northern Kingdom (Israel) had already been destroyed and scattered by the Assyrian Empire. Now, the Southern Kingdom (Judah) was bracing for an immanent attack by the Chaldeans (or Babylonians), God’s new instrument of choice to discipline His people. At that moment, Habakkuk’s experience and theology collided. His “experience” told him that the world was falling apart, that God had forsaken His covenant people, and that God was standing silent while the wicked “swallowed up” the righteous (1:13). Yet Habakkuk’s “theology” told Him that God was sovereign, holy, faithful, and just in all His dealings. How could these facts be reconciled?

The key verse in the Book of Habakkuk, where God finally unravels this mystery, is Habakkuk 2:4. “Behold, as for the proud one, his soul is not right within him; but the righteous will live by his faith.” Note the contrast between two kinds of people:

  • The proud. God says that the “proud” (puffed up, inflated) person has a soul that is defective. As a result, the proud will eventually be judged and condemned. The God of vengeance and Judge of the earth will “render recompense to the proud” (Psalm 94:2). In the immediate context, the “proud” describes the Chaldeans, but it extends to all people who are arrogant and self-reliant rather than humble and dependent upon God.
  • The righteous. By contrast, the “righteous” (the morally good, just, fair) will have a “faith” or "steadfast trust" in the Word of God that will cause him to persevere through a trial and patiently wait for God to act. This condition of “righteousness,” is not something we can earn because of any inherent moral goodness. Rather, it is a legal standing before God that occurs when we place our faith in Him. Speaking of Abram, Genesis 15:6 says, “Then he believed in the LORD; and He [God] reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Notice that it is faith alone (not works) that leads God to declare Abram “justified.”

Habakkuk 2:4 is one of the most important verses in the Bible because it summarizes two central truths of Christianity: we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ (Genesis 15:6; Romans 1:17, chs. 1-5), and we persevere by faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 6-8; Hebrews 10:36-39). New Testament scholar S. Lewis Johnson said, “ ‘The just shall live by faith’ – it is, without question, near the soul of Pauline theology…Habakkuk’s great text, with his son Paul’s comments and additions, became the banner of the Protestant Reformation in the hands of Habakkuk’s grandson, Martin Luther.” Dr. John Feinberg described this verse as “The key to the whole Book of Habakkuk…the central theme of all the Scriptures.”

Do you have a faith that endures under trial? Or at the first sign of trouble, do you worry, complain, and grow angry? By the grace of God, when our experience and theology collide, let’s live with a steadfast trust in God and cling to the precious promises of His Word.

4 comments:

David said...

I think of Habakkuk as a "backward" prophet.

Usually prophets go from God to the people with a message. Habakkuk boldly goes from the people to God. "Hey God... we got questions!"

So God answers Habakkuk's questions. Only problem, every time God answers a question, he opens a new can of worms!


I read it like this:

Habakkuk: God, why do you allow sin in Israel?

God: Don't worry, I'm Sending Babylong to destroy them.

Habakkuk: Babylon! Why would you use evil Babylon to destroy righteous us?

God: Don't worry, I'm only going to use them for a time!

By the end of it all, Habakkuk is so worn out he moves from questions to just a decision to trust God.

Stephen Jones said...

I think your description exactly fits the first half of Habakkuk. It's a good reminder that even we as spiritual leaders can sometimes look at God, scratch our heads, and wonder what He is doing!

But there is a real change beginning in 2:4. Having encouraged the righteous, God now turns to the "haughty man" and pronounces judgment beginning in 2:5. Then, in chapter 3, as Habakkuk prays for God's will to be done, he sees a theophany -- a rare moment in Scripture when God draws back the curtain and unveils His glory as the great Warrior King. What a comfort this must have been to Habakkuk (and to the righteous remnant) in such a time of turmoil.

David said...

You're right. I did only summerize the first half. Habakkuk's great faith comes out in the latter half of the book.

You know, you get me so excited about Habakkuk I think I'm going to preach on it when I'm finished with Colossians.

Stephen Jones said...

I'm sure it would be a blessing to your congregation. Habakkuk is a hidden gem in the minor prophets.

In the NAC commentary, R. D. Patterson says, "When times of doubt and discouragement come, as they inevitably do, the believer needs to come to God … and share his concerns with Him. Like Habakkuk, he needs to come to God’s Word and get a fresh glimpse of who and what God is and so come to a place of renewed trust in the one who alone is truly God and therefore sufficient for all of life."