It is often observed that most religious people do not believe the essential affirmations of the religion they espouse. If they did, they would be up in arms about the lack of correspondence between what they are supposed to believe and the facts on the ground. They are not up in arms. Apparently, they could not care less.
Against all this, the religion of biblical personalities is faith-based. It follows that they argue with God and challenge God from a position of belief whenever the facts on the ground conflict with the person God is supposed to be, the God they believe in, the God who sees all and oversees all.
Faith-based religion has more in common with protest atheism than it does with run-of-the-mill religion.
Run-of-the-mill religion takes many forms. It can be about smells and bells, frumpy clothing, and sophisticated speech. Or it can be about catharsis, groveling, and emotional spikes.
The faith of Habakkuk partook of religion in all of the above senses. Hab 3 is designed for worship, as the rubrics in 3:1 and 19 demonstrate. So H knew all about smells and bells, frumpy clothing, and sophisticated speech.
Furthermore, H, like his contemporary, Jeremiah, did not hang up his emotions on a coat rack before coming into God’s presence and addressing God in prayer. The seven laments of Jeremiah (11:18-23; 12:1-6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:1-13; 20:14-18) are comparable to the three laments of Habakkuk (1:1-4; 1:12-17; 3:2).
Habakkuk’s initial protest (1:1-4) elicits a response from the God he addresses identical in thrust to that Jeremiah received in response to one of his laments (Jer 12:5, a reply to 12:1-4):
If you race with foot-runners and they exhaust you,
how will you fare in a heat with horses?
If you fall down in a peaceful land,
how will you fare in the jungle of the Jordan?
The worst, says God, is still to come. Jeremiah should expect more of the same as far as calamity is concerned. As opposed to run-of-the-mill preachers, the God who speaks in Jer 12:5 and in Hab 1:5-11 is not in the business of giving false assurances. Here is Hab 1:5-11, the divine reply to H’s first remonstrance:
Look among the nations, observe,
be astounded, be astonished!
For a work is being wrought in your days
you will not believe when told.
For I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that fierce, impetuous nation,
who trod the earth’s wide spaces
to possess homes not their own.
Dread and fearsome are they,
a law unto themselves; the signal goes forth,
and their horses are swifter than leopards,
fiercer than wolves of the steppe.
The cavalry charges,
the cavalry from afar;
they come as if flying
like a vulture eager to devour.
All of them come, for violence.
The totality of their van advanced,
they collected captives like sand.
They hold kings in derision,
princes for them are a joke.
They laugh at every fortress,
they piled up earth and captured them.
Then the wind changed, and they moved on,
they incur guilt, those whose might is their God.
The God of Habakkuk is not into justifications. Whine all you want, God implies. You haven’t seen anything yet.
H’s questions remain unanswered. H’s need for God to defend himself remains unsatisfied. A hint of closure to come peeks through at the end.
Paradoxically, the lack of comfort in God’s answer, for a hard-bitten man like H, turns him toward, not away, from the God he addresses. The dialogue, as we shall see, continues.
The God H believes in is not a projection of his wishes. H's God is other, totally other, whose intervention, for that very reason, is worth waiting for. H's religion, in more ways than one, is faith-based.
I am reminded of the testimony of a Baptist friend from the island of Sardinia. She described what it was like to grow up in a pious Baptist family in a pious, close-knit congregation. Faced with the trauma of a young person dying of cancer, the congregation prayed their hearts out for the sake of the young person’s healing. But it was manipulative prayer. Prayer that treated God as if God were a vending machine. In goes the dollar. Out comes the candy bar. My friend could not believe in such a god. Such a god was not worthy of her worship. As her family and congregation prayed, my friend lost her childhood faith.
The sick person died. The congregation’s prayers were not answered. Grief filled the air, thick to the touch, indigestible.
My friend began to
believe again. God was not a vending machine. God is beyond our ability
to grasp. God might also understand our needs better than we do. In this God, my
friend could believe.
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