Habakkuk and Despair
As the news carries yet another story of yet another unarmed black person murdered by police (his name was Antwon Rose), my thoughts turn first to despair. Again!? Another!? Murder justified by circumstance and denigration!?
And then my thoughts turn to Habakkuk.
I know, that’s probably not what you would have expected, but hear me out. Long ago, during a time when I was close to giving up on God, I came to Habakkuk. The words of the prophet echoed the emotions of my heart:
How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save? (1:2, NIV)
There’s this utter despair in the complaint of Habakkuk that I feel rising up in me again and again as I hear the news: more murders, more injustice, more racism, more sexism, more homophobia, more xenophobia, more, more, more. When will it end?
Why do you force me to look at evil,
stare trouble in the face day after day?
Anarchy and violence break out,
quarrels and fights all over the place.
Law and order fall to pieces.
Justice is a joke.
The wicked have the righteous hamstrung
and stand justice on its head. (1:3-4, MSG)
“Justice is a joke!” as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, is about as succinctly as I can state this feeling. What’s the point? Why keep pursuing justice if there’s no such thing? Why demand equality if it’ll never happen? Why keep trying, fighting, resisting, when it doesn’t work?
God’s response to Habakkuk was, shall we say, not exactly what he wanted to hear.
Look around at the godless nations.
Look long and hard. Brace yourself for a shock.
Something’s about to take place
and you’re going to find it hard to believe.
I’m about to raise up Babylonians to punish you… (1:5-6a)
God goes on to describe how the Babylonians, the most feared power in the ancient near east at the time, were ruthless, bloodthirsty death-dealers.
They descend like vultures
circling in on carrion.
They’re out to kill. Death is on their minds.
They collect victims like squirrels gathering nuts. (1:8b-9)
Yup, those are the people that God decided to use. WTF!?
Habakkuk’s response to God was just a little more tactful:
God, you’re from eternity, aren’t you?
Holy God, we aren’t going to die, are we?
God, you chose Babylonians for your judgment work?
Rock-Solid God, you gave them the job of discipline?
But you can’t be serious!
You can’t condone evil!
So why don’t you do something about this?
Why are you silent now?
This outrage! Evil men swallow up the righteous
and you stand around and watch! (1:12-13, emphasis original)
And, for me, this is the pivot back to justice, mercy, and love. It’s the place where Habakkuk leads me to complain to God about all of the evil in the world. It’s the place where I see that it’s safe and good to inhabit a place of despair–as long as I do so in community and communication with God and God’s people. Isolated despair is dangerous, cancerous, and ultimately deadly. But despair in community gives it a place to exist, space to be and breathe and process the overwhelmingness of the feelings.
God empathized with Habakkuk (and does with us too):
And then God answered: “Write this.
Write what you see.
Write it out in big block letters
so that it can be read on the run.
This vision-message is a witness
pointing to what’s coming.
It aches for the coming—it can hardly wait!
And it doesn’t lie.
If it seems slow in coming, wait.
It’s on its way. It will come right on time. (2:2-3)
“How long?” Habakkuk asked. “Right on time!” is God’s reply.
But God didn’t stop there. After that the response turned to a full accounting of the evils that God saw, and letting Habakkuk know that God’s character had not changed, despite the evidence of evil everywhere. Starting and ending with the reminders of faith:
The righteous person will live by their faithfulness (2:4b, NIVish)
The Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth be silent before him. (2:20, NIV)
The opening reminder is one of the more often quoted passages from the Hebrew Scriptures found in the Christian Scriptures. It is a call to faithfulness in relationship with God. Staying loyal to the righteousness of God, the understanding of what justice, mercy, and love look like, and continuing in that relationship even when despair sets in (especially when despair sets in). That is faithfulness! It’s not holding the right set of propositional truths nor complying with the correct system of rules and regulations. No, it’s being faithful to the relationship, to the person of God, who is love and justice and mercy. And it’s trusting that God will continue to be faithful to us even as in the past.
And it was to the past that Habakkuk turned to process his despair:
God, I’ve heard what our ancestors say about you,
and I’m stopped in my tracks, down on my knees.
Do among us what you did among them.
Work among us as you worked among them.
And as you bring judgment, as you surely must,
remember mercy. (3:2, MSG)
He then recounted God’s past victories over evil and injustice. He remembered God’s past faithfulness and, in relationship, called on God to continue to be faithful in the future. Finally, Habakkuk came to the answer to despair:
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
to come on the nation invading us.
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 tread on the heights. (3:16b-19a, NIV)
“Yet” is a powerful word in the face of despair.
Yet I will wait for justice to roll down.
Though people are still being murdered for being black; though immigrants are still being criminalized, victimized, and interned; though corporations and oligarchs still control most of the world, at the cost of the poorest and most vulnerable; though equality for women, for non-binary people, for LGBTQ people, for people of color, and for so many others is still just a long-hoped-for dream; yet…
Yet I will rejoice, I will be faithful, I will recommit to the one who has committed to me, in love and mercy, to seek justice together, for as long as it takes.
Habakkuk leads us into despair, not to defeat it or destroy it, but to contextualize it within our faithful relationship to a faithful God. To see that despair is the natural response of compassion. We’re supposed to feel this way because we’re learning to love, not just ourselves, but our neighbors. We are learning justice and so become aware of injustice. We are learning inclusion and so becoming aware of exclusion. We are learning hope and contentment and so becoming aware of greed.
Despair is a death-moment. It is a losing, falling, cross-taking, Jesus-Way following moment. The God of the cross is a God that suffers-with (i.e. has compassion). The Way of Jesus is the Way of faithfulness to the just, merciful, loving character and nature of God even through suffering. Hope lies on the other side of despair, and it’s found through the work of compassion.
How do you process despair? Cultivate hope?