How Long, O Lord? (Habakkuk 1:1-4)Pastor Jon Truax, November 12, 2017
Part of the General series, preached at a Sunday Morning service
How Long, O Lord?
The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
Frustration. Confusion. Impatience. Anger. Resentment.
Do these words ever describe your relationship with God? Do you ever find yourself getting impatient with God? Frustrated with God? Even angry with God?
Some Christians believe that God’s people must never allow themselves to be upset with God. John Piper, for instance, has said that “It is never, ever, ever right to be angry with God.” But if that’s true, we’re left with a lot of questions about some of our heroes in the Bible who experienced plain impatience and frustration with God.
Consider David, the “man after God’s own heart,” king of Israel, slayer of Goliath, and the one who composed so many of our psalms. Here is what David sang in Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” This is one of the most common expressions of human anger toward God in the Scriptures is in what might be called the “usquequo verses.” (“ooz- kay-quo”) The Latin word usquequo is most literally translated “how long?”
Usquequo appears in numerous psalms of David in a pleading and exasperated tone, as in “How much longer!?” As if to say, “Oh Lord, why do you let this awful situation go on? Where are you!?” Thus, the word not only contains disappointment, but also a sense of injustice that God allows such terrible things to go on for so long.
God is not surprised by this; He knows that we feel this way sometimes. Even if we can supply some logical reasons that God would allow bad things to go on, or that He is not entirely to blame, still it is clear that our feelings often are not satisfied with rational explanations and we simply cry out emotionally, “How long, oh Lord!? God knows when we are feeling like this, and wants us to speak with him directly about it, to articulate it; to pray out of this experience. Furthermore, God desires us to speak what we are feeling, to give voice to our anger.
Why? First, He knows already that we have it and does not desire prayer to be pretentious or phony. If anger is the elephant in the room, let’s admit it rather than pretend it’s not there. Second, in expressing our emotions we often help vent or at least reduce their power. Suppressed feelings often become depression if not given a voice.
Ah, but you might say that was David who had plenty of sin in his life to deal with. He’s not a good role model for us. Then how about Jeremiah? Called to preach to Judea on the eve of the Babylonian exile, Jeremiah was known as the “weeping prophet.” After being imprisoned overnight in stocks, locked up by the priest in charge, no less, Jeremiah wrote, “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.”
Job is another who gave voice to his struggle to understand God. He said such things as, “God gives me up to the ungodly, and casts me into the hands of the wicked. I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces; he set me up as his target; his archers surround me…know then that God has put me in the wrong, and closed his net around me. Even when I cry out, ‘Violence!’ I am not answered; I call aloud, but there is no justice. He has walled up my way so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths.”
If that weren’t enough, look at Moses, whom God spoke to as a friend. After a painful episode with the rebellious chosen people in the wilderness, where they once again cried out against him, Moses had a little conversation with God. He said, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.”
Even Paul struggled in having patience with the Lord. He wrote, “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Like our passage this morning from Habakkuk, the cry of God’s people often seems to be, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.”
If feeling frustrated and upset with God is a sin, I admit I occasionally have this problem. I confess that I have had times of impatience with the Lord in my spiritual walk. When I was ministering among a community that was out of step with my calling and leadership, when my children and spouse had to go through painful trials and rejections, when I’ve had to go through painful trials and rejections, when I’ve seen violence and injustice and inexplicable suffering in the world, it makes me cry out, “Why, Lord? How long? How long must things go on like this before you come judge the world?”
I had one of those experiences this week, and, to tell the truth, it had been building up for a long time. The problem of deadly violence in our nation is stark. Permit me to just take a walk with you back through the past 10 years and consider what has been visited upon our country:
Ten years ago, on April 16, 2007, which was the day after my trial sermon here at Science Hill and unanimous congregational vote to extend a pastoral call to me, a shooter on the campus of Virginia Tech killed 33 people. At the time of the attack, it was the worst mass shooting in our nation’s history. Now it is third. And the rest of the top 5 have all happened since then.
The next year, in 2008, a man opened fire, killing 5 and wounding 18 before fatally shooting himself at Northern Illinois University. A few months later, a gunman opened fire in a plastics factory in Kentucky, murdering 5 before committing suicide. The year would not be over until a Christmas massacre by a man wearing a Santa suit killed 9 people during a Christmas Eve party in California.
The next year, in 2009, the infamous shooting at Fort Hood took place, with 13 shot and killed by Nidal Hasan.
The next year, in 2010, a biology professor at the University of Alabama opened fire, killing 3 people. Later that year, a man went on a killing spree in Manchester, Connecticut, killing 8. That same year, a car bomb failed to go off in Times Square, but not for lack of trying.
The next year, in 2011, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot and six others killed and twelve others wounded in a shooting by Jared Lee Loughnor in Tucson, Arizona. Later that year, a man opened fire in a hair salon in Seal Beach, California, killing 8.
The next year, in 2012, a student opened fire at Chardon High School, killing three and injuring two. That was the same year that James Holmes shot up a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, during a Batman movie, killing 12. You would think that was the worst thing that happened that year, but that unfortunate distinction goes to the December shooting that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary by Adam Lanza, killing 28, including 20 children aged 6 and 7 years old. That is now regarded as the fourth largest mass shooting in U.S. history. #1, #2, and #5 are still to be mentioned, all happening in the last five years.
The next year, in 2013, there was a shooting at the Washington Navy Yard that killed 13. You might not remember that one very well because it was overshadowed that same year by the Boston Marathon Bombing which killed 6 and injured 280.
The next year, in 2014, no large, spectacular attacks happened. Just two people shot and killed at a shopping mall in Maryland, three people shot and killed at Ford Hood (again), six students killed near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara in May, two weeks later another student shot at Seattle Pacific Univeristy, two days later two police officers killed in Las Vegas, two days later a student killed at a high school in Oregon in the 74th school shooting incident since Sandy Hook a year and a half earlier. Four students then shot and killed in October at a high school in Marysville, Washington, and then six people shot and killed in December in Pennsylvania.
The next year, in 2015, a student at Umpqua Community College in Oregon killed 8 fellow students and a professor. Earlier that year, Dylan Roof went to a prayer service at Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine African Americans. Again, not even the bloodiest event of that year as on December 2, in San Bernadino, fourteen people were killed and 22 injured by a married Islamic couple.
We’ll just hit the highlights of the last two years: a year and a half ago, we had the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando that left 50 dead. 50 people dead. This was the largest mass shooting attack at the time. Now it is second.
In June of this year, four people, including congressman Steve Scalise, were shot and wounded during softball practice in Washington, D.C. Last month, Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd in Las Vegas, killing 58 and injuring 546. Two weeks ago, the driver of a truck in New York City intentionally killed 8 people and wounded 11 others. One week ago, Devin Kelley entered a church service in Texas and killed 26 people and injured 20, many of them children.
What does all this mean? Where does all this shooting, and death, and hatred, and terrorism, and violence come from? God? To be angry at God doesn’t seem fair. He didn’t do any of these actions, though He did allow them. The real cause, the real perpetrator, were human beings. What should we do about this? What can we do about this?
I have heard a couple of suggestions offered up by our fellow citizens troubled by these events. One suggestion is gun control.
I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of a political debate about gun control here. It’s not my place, and I won’t pretend to know if that’s a good answer or not. One thing I do know is that it’s not an ultimate solution. It’s not a solution for the problem of evil and violence in the human heart. Gun control may or may not make these tragedies less common or less severe – that’s debatable – but it won’t address the problem that lies at the root of evil like this. In a nation that is losing its spiritual bearings, its Christian heritage, its understanding of the value of life as well as the right to life, we reap the fruit that we sow. It’s not surprising to me to find that, as the influence of the church declines, we find more and more attacks being trained on the church, like in Charleston and Sutherland Springs. Spiritual hatred is a real thing.
I have also picked up the suggestion made this week that “thoughts and prayers” offered to victims and communities are useless. Have you heard this? This was probably the number one response I read on the internet to the horrific events of last Sunday. “Save your thoughts and prayers – this happened in a church. If God existed and cared about those people, He would have done something to stop that tragedy.”
This attitude represents a gross misreading of spiritual truth, the Bible, and history. God’s people have always lived in a hostile world, and have suffered right along with it when evil pays a visit. Yes, God can and does intervene miraculously to save His people, but that doesn’t mean He always will. The Bible assures us that prayers avail much, for it is hard to know how much tragedy is spared as a result of our prayers.
What do we have left, after pondering our “how long” question? God does not often answer the “Why?” implicit in our groans. Yet He still allows them as a sign of His understanding, even respect, for our anger. He is able and willing to hear us. And sometimes it is our very groans that yield relief. The Psalmist says, “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry, my appeal. He turned his ear to me, and thus, I will call on him as long as I live” and “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.” Augustine has said, “More things are wrought in prayer by sighs and tears, than by many words.” Sometimes, God gives a Job-like answer in which He reminds us of our feeble capacity to see the whole picture when we protest suffering or evil. He reminds us that our minds are very small and perspective very limited.
Have you ever noticed that God takes up the complaint “How long?” as well? It shouldn’t surprise us that God is also at times exasperated, frustrated, and angry with us, and in a kind of turning of the tables, he too laments in the Bible in several passages, “How long?”
God is allows into prayer both our anger and His. Where there is love there is also bound to be some anger, for things matter when we love. Once again, God would rather have us speak openly and honestly of our anger toward Him than deny it and cover it up.
When it comes to impatience with God about the violence and evil raging our nation, getting angry may be an understandable reaction, but, in the final analysis, we have to admit that it is shortsighted and simply wrong. Our real frustration should be with the Evil One who inspires evil people to do these deeds. And our spiritual battle calls us to advance the kingdom of our God so that righteousness will triumph and evil will be defeated. That’s what we can do. That’s what we have to do! We have a long way to go, but our mission remains the same. How long, O Lord? Only He knows…but in the meantime, for however long it takes, we have our marching orders to go and make disciples!
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1The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did see. 2O LORD, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save! 3Why dost thou shew me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance? for spoiling and violence are before me: and there are that raise up strife and contention. 4Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth. (KJV)