Finding Joy On Dark Days
What’s your favorite newspaper comic strip? The one you always read, and probably have to follow on Facebook now to get your daily dose.
I have a few favorites. I love Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” and Stephen Pastis’ “Pearls Before Swine,” which is actually insulting, if you think about it. He’s calling all of us who read his comic strip swine. But my very favorite is Calvin and Hobbes – the adventures of a 6-year-old boy named Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes, who comes to life when no one but Calvin is around. One of my favorite story lines in the comic involves Calvin and his nemesis, Moe, the school bully, who is about 3 times the size of Calvin.
In one episode, Calvin is at school, out on the playground at recess, swinging on a swing. Moe wants the swing and says “Get off the swing, Twinky.” Calvin refuses, telling Moe to wait his turn. The next frame shows Moe giving Calvin a huge roundhouse punch that knocks Calvin off the swing. In the last frame, Calvin is in a heap on the ground, saying “Sometimes it’s hard to be religious when certain people are never incinerated by bolts of lightning.”
Isn’t that the truth? A good cartoonist captures in one strip, or in the case of Gary Larson’s “The Far Side,” one frame, the big issues, the big questions of life. They make us think while we think they’re making us laugh.
The issue Calvin is wrestling with is “Why isn’t Moe, and others like him who hurt people, brought to justice?” Philosophers and theologians call this the “problem of pain.” If God IS good, and if God IS all-powerful, and if God DOES love us, why, so often, isn’t evil punished? Why do bad things happen? Why are children used and abused as sex toys? Why does the drunk driver survive while the victims in the other car are killed? Why are governments that oppress their own people so badly that they try to flee to safer places in the world allowed to come into power? Why do so many babies die while the Hitlers and the Kim Jong-uns and the Pol Pots thrive and grow into human monsters who kill and maim millions? Why are some people healed of terrible diseases while others aren’t?
Those are the kinds of questions the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk wrestled with. Habakkuk ministered in Judah at the same time as Jeremiah, right before the fall of Jerusalem. For 250 years the Assyrian Empire had ruled the Middle East ruthlessly and with an iron fist. Assyria and her capitol city Ninevah were renowned for their treatment of the peoples they conquered. Assyria had decimated Judah’s neighbor to the north, Israel. And so God raised up another empire, Babylon, to bring justice to Assyria. And having displaced Assyria as ruler in the Middle East, the Babylonian army was now marching toward Judah, toward Jerusalem.
One of the unique things about Habakkuk is that he isn’t speaking directly TO the people of Judah. He’s speaking to God ABOUT Judah. He asks God a series of questions, and God answers. Habakkuk is wrestling with God. In fact, the name Habakkuk means “to wrestle” or “to embrace.” When you think about it, there isn’t a lot of difference between an initial wrestling lock and an embrace. The outcome is very different. We don’t usually throw the people we’re embracing down, and wrestlers don’t usually just stand there with their arms around each other.
Habakkuk is living in a world where nothing makes sense. There’s a trendy little acronym that’s making the rounds in managerial circles – VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The U.S. Army War College first introduced the concept to describe the new realities after the Cold War ended. VUCA refers to the perfect storm of circumstances of life that sometimes hit individuals, families, and churches. It’s what happens when you face a string of complicated and ever-changing “unknown unknowns.”
Or as an article in the Harvard Business Review put it, VUCA is a catchall phrase for “Hey, it’s crazy out there!”[i]
Habakkuk looks as his own people, the people of Judah, the people of God, and sees nothing but corruption and greed and selfishness and vice and idolatry. READ Hab. 1:2-4. He sees his own people doing wicked things that go unpunished. He sees the poor and the sick and the vulnerable used as pawns in the games of the powerful – dehumanized and mistreated. And this among God’s own people. How could God’s own people be reduced to this? Just two of the 12 tribes remained, and those two were far from God. It doesn’t make any sense.
And then he looks to the horizon, knowing that Babylon is coming, her mind set on taking Jerusalem. READ Hab. 1:12-17. God had already shown he was more than willing to discipline his people, and use an evil people like the Assyrians to do it. But if the stories were true, Babylon was worse than Assyria. Would God do it again? Would he use an evil people to discipline and purify his people? Would he use a godless people to discipline his own possession? Thousands would die. Thousands would be tortured. And not just warriors. Women and children. Where was the sense in all of it? It just didn’t make any sense. Prophets like Jeremiah and Habakkuk were pleading with the people of God to turn back to God, reminding them of what God had done to the 10 northern tribes with Assyria, and what God had done to Assyria with Babylon. And now Babylon was at their doorstep. Habakkuk is wrestling with God. God, how can you allow so much evil and injustice and corruption in your own people? And how can you use a godless, brutal people like Babylon to deal with us? None of this makes sense.
Sometimes, life doesn’t make sense. Your business goes up in smoke. Your marriage falls apart. Your kids make poor decisions. The person you love rejects you. You’re injured in an accident and find yourself addicted to painkillers. You find out your children were sexually abused. Your family rejects you. Someone who was supposed to love and protect you hurts you. The doctor calls and says you have cancer. A drunk driver steals the life of someone you love. Your coworkers lie about you and you lose your job. Your child is killed while riding their bicycle. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Unknown unknowns. Its crazy out there. Sometimes life just doesn’t make sense. What do we do when life doesn’t make any sense?
After questioning God twice and hearing God’s response, Habakkuk does something really interesting. He turns to God in praise. He begins to worship. Chapters 1 and 2 are his questioning of God and God’s replies. Chapter 3 is a psalm. It would fit just as well in the Psalter as it does here. His psalm starts by remembering all of God’s goodness to his people in the past, all that God had brought them to, and through. Look at V. 2. In light of all of the uncertainty in his world, a world in which nothing makes sense, he needs to remind himself of God’s faithfulness and goodness and love in the past. But then Habakkuk does something really interesting. He confesses his fear. Now look at V. 16.
He admits his fear. He’s a prophet. He has spoken to God, and heard from God. He’s proclaimed the Word of God with boldness and conviction. And he feels afraid, and admits it. We’ve created a culture in the church where you’re expected to check your questions, your doubts, your pain, and your fear at the door. Nothing but smiles and hugs and joy here, right? Slap a smile on your face and act like everything is okay, even if your world is falling apart. Some expect you to slap a smile on your face even if your world is falling apart AND THEY KNOW that your world is falling apart. There’s no room for a real follower of Christ who wonders, who doubts, who cries out to God in agony. There’s no room for pastors who cry and doubt and admit they’re afraid. We’ve become all about image, not substance. God wants a people of substance.
In Habakkuk’s case, he knew what was coming. He knew Babylon was coming, a tool in the hand of God to discipline his people. What he didn’t understand was how God could do such a thing. Sometimes, even when we know God’s plan, life is scary, because God’s plan can be scary. That’s why God doesn’t ask us to believe in ourselves and our abilities. He asks us to believe in him. To trust him and his resources and his goodness, even when life is anything but good and when what is coming is anything but God.
Now, having admitted his fear, he steps into faith. Look at the last half of V. 16 and V. 17. Dallas Willard defines faith as “confidence grounded in reality. It sees the reality of the unseen or invisible, and it includes a readiness to ACT AS IF the good anticipated in hope were already in hand because of the reality of God.” Habakkuk looks at what is coming. He knows that Judah is going to be brought to the end of her resources. Figs, vines, olives, fields, flocks, and herds … every source of sustenance that Judah had, would be laid waste by Babylon. The land would be laid waste. God was taking everything, EVERYTHING, away.
When we are fat and satisfied and comfortable, we have a tendency to do two things. We tend to assume that this state will last forever, and we tend to not listen to what God is saying to us. When we’re comfortable, we don’t “need” God, and so we don’t listen to God. We worship when it’s convenient. We serve when we have the time. We ignore anything in Scripture that suggests that our endless pursuit of health and wealth and unending happiness and a life of ease might actually draw our hearts farther from God. That it is so easy for selfishness and self-centeredness and greed to take control of us, all while we come to worship when we feel like it and sing the songs and drink bad church coffee and listen to messages that never challenge us or make us uncomfortable. The Old Testament prophets make us uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. So does Jesus, if we really look at his life and his teaching. When we’re comfortable, we get lazy.
Look at what Habakkuk says. Even though I understand nothing of what God is doing, and even though he takes away everything in life that I have attributed to his provision and goodness and grace, all of my blessings, I will continue to trust him, continue to look to him. Even though I literally starve and go naked and lose my health and my home, even as my knees shake in terror at what is coming, I will wait patiently for God to bring us through it. You want to know what the really interesting thing is? Habakkuk makes this incredible declaration of faith in God even though he would not live to see the other side of the darkness that was coming. We aren’t talking about a bad day, or a bad month, or even a bad year like the one we’re in now. We’re talking about years. Decades. More than a century. Generations. But God would still be at work. God still had his hand on them, and he would rest in and trust in that unseen reality.
And that leads him to joy. Look at Vv. 18-19. Not happiness. Joy. Joy is deeper than happiness. Happiness is shallow and fleeting, dependent upon the happenings in life. As Habakkuk looked to and understood what was coming, there wasn’t anything to be happy about. People would die by the sword. People would starve. People would die of heat and dehydration. People, not just warriors but old men, women, children, would lose their homes, would die, would be murdered. Joy has to come from someplace deeper than the good circumstances of our lives. Joy comes from a place that this world, our circumstances, evil, and Satan himself cannot touch. Joy comes from a well deep within, the knowledge that God is my savior, and nothing can change that. It is this source of joy that St. Paul latched onto in Romans 8:38-39 when he wrote, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
On the cross Jesus took upon himself the full brunt of God’s wrath, and experienced in our place, for us, the separation from God that God’s wrath requires. Paul goes so far as to say that when we place our trust in Christ, we are actually crucified with him. Christ vicariously takes God’s wrath upon himself for us. And nothing. Nothing. Absolutely nothing can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ. Nothing in this life. No circumstance or experience of evil can separate us from God. Death itself has lost its sting because it cannot separate us from the love of God. No evil spiritual power or evil political power or system can separate us from the love of God. Nothing we are experiencing today or will experience in any of our tomorrows, no matter how painful, no matter how bad, no matter how evil, can separate us from the love of God. The highest mountain and the deepest darkest depth of the sea cannot separate us from God’s love. Absolutely no spiritual, human, or political power can separate us from the love of God. No accident. No disease. No economic downturn. The loss of our home. The loss of our marriage. Not even the loss of our life can separate us from the love of God.
Would you please stand with me and read with me the words of Habakkuk 3:18-19, just like we read our call to worship at the beginning of each service.
Yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
He makes my feet like the deer’s;
He makes me tread on my high places.
Do you feel it? That feeling in your gut? That realization that your loved ones death and your own death cannot separate you, or them, from God’s love in Christ? That’s joy. Not happiness that’s dependent upon good circumstances. No, it’s joy that’s independent of any circumstance. Up to and including death itself. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity. No easy answers. And yet … I still cannot be separated from God’s great love.
Let us pray.
[i] Nathan Bennett and G. James Lemoine, “What VUCA Really Means for You,” Harvard Business Review (January-February 2014)