The Scripture reading from Habakkuk expresses well the jarring contrast we often experience, doesn’t it? On the one hand, we have the record and testimony of God’s greatness—who he is and the marvelous things he has done; on the other, we have an expression of the threat of deprivation and suffering that are often part and parcel of our earthly lives.[1] In juxtaposing such disparate experiences of life, we’re faced with a dilemma: How do we embrace and testify to the truth of who God is in the midst of our suffering?

As we turn to Habakkuk’s prayer for some insight and answers, verse 2 states, “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord.” As a follower and prophet of the LORD, Habakkuk knew well the ways in which God had intervened on behalf of his people throughout their history. He knew well what the LORD was capable of doing. He knew well that nothing was too difficult for God.[2] Therefore he began with this confession, acknowledging that the God who made us is a powerful God capable of deeds that are worthy of our awe. Habakkuk then prayed for encouragement as he asked the LORD, “Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.” Habakkuk sought a word of assurance. He asked that the LORD might yet again make his deeds known. And he acknowledged that even when God expresses his wrath, this wrath is tempered by his mercy in his dealings with those who are his.

How much more do we, who through Christ have God’s Holy Spirit within us and his Holy Book at our fingertips, know the LORD’s awesome deeds and fame? For by this book we know that it is he who made us; who made everything that exists.[3] We know that even when we turned away from him, he didn’t turn away from us but instead proclaimed judgment upon the serpent who deceived our first parents. At that time God promised to send one who would crush the serpent’s head and thereby do away with the serpent and all who followed in his ways. Thus did God promise to deliver us from evil. In these same Scriptures we see how the LORD’s fame and awesome deeds continue to spread as he created a nation for himself by way of one man, Abraham, through whom all nations will one day be blessed. Even to our day the LORD’s fame and awesome deeds continue to be made manifest through the lives and testimony of his people.

The pinnacle of the LORD’s deeds and fame is to be found, of course, in Christ his Son, eternal God in human form, who is the only means provided for receiving his mercy rather than his wrath. For upon the Messiah, upon God’s Christ, have the sins of his followers been placed. In exchange, all who have placed their trust in him receive not only his forgiveness but also his righteousness. All who have placed their trust in him are declared “not guilty” and are thereby welcomed and embraced into the loving arms of their Father in heaven. This is the deed we should repeat in our day; this is the deed we should make known near and far.

But how can this awesome deed of God’s steadfast love touch our suffering now? For at least so far, 2020 has been marked by enormous challenges that we as individuals, families, and nation among many nations have undergone. Beginning in January, we heard rumors of a virus, COVID-19, discovered in December of 2019 in China. But most of us paid no heed, deceiving ourselves under an illusion of safety brought about by the fact that we live on the other side of the world. Yet by March, that illusion began to crack. Soon, much of our society shut down as leaders and scientists struggled to figure out which activities were safe for us to undertake—and which activities might sicken or even kill us.

As we isolated for our safety and protection, individuals and families lost jobs; gyms, places of worship, restaurants, and businesses deemed to be nonessential were closed; gatherings with friends and families ceased; nonessential appointments with doctors and dentists were canceled; the number of people who were food insecure increased; depression and anxiety rose; uncertainty about the future grew. Where—and when—would this all end?

What is more, there were devastating fires in the west that destroyed people’s lives, homes, and livelihood; there were floods in the southeast that did the same. On top of these calamities in nature there were calamities in the political sphere as politicians and their followers glared and derided and stared down their perceived enemies across the political divide. Again, we wondered, where—and when—would this all end?

Yet as we turn to verse 17 of Habakkuk, we’re presented not with a Pollyanna view of life that denies the very real suffering life may bring but with a Providential one that can sustain us even in the midst of our suffering. Habakkuk speaks hypothetically of a, “fig tree [that] does not bud;” of there being “no grapes on the vines;” of failing “olive crop” and fields that “produce no food.” He goes on to note the challenge of there being “no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls.” Writing in a time of battle, Habakkuk knew well the possibility and prospect of food insecurity; and the loss of livelihood; and the danger of starvation and death. But he didn’t end by focusing upon these. Instead he pushed through the very real prospect of deprivation and refocused upon the LORD; the LORD concerning whose fame he had heard; the LORD before whom he stood in awe over his deeds.

And so Habakkuk claimed that even if all of these potential hardships were to take place, verse 18, “yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” Even if all essential earthly comforts were gone—food from the fields and food from the flocks—even so, he would rejoice in the LORD; he would be joyful in God, his Savior. To rejoice and be joyful begins with an act of the will. Though we may be stripped of earthly goods, those who know God can never be stripped of knowing him and his goodness. Habakkuk is acknowledging here the truth that our Lord Jesus later declared when the tempter, the devil, came to him after he had been fasting for forty days and forty nights and was therefore hungry. When the tempter told him, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread,” he who was indeed the Son of God replied by quoting from the Scriptures that had nourished and fed him from his youth. Messiah Jesus, Christ Jesus, said to him, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”[4] Jesus set aside the reality of his temporary, albeit very real, physical hunger and clung to the eternal, unchanging truth of God and his Word. For true life is found not in bread but in every word that comes from the mouth of God. For God is not only a living God, but is also a life-giving God. He is a God who gives his eternal life to all who turn to him. But we can only know this as we turn to him and his Word—and read it—and meditate upon it day and night—and obey it—and share and proclaim it—and thereby draw near to him in and through it by his Holy Spirit’s enabling.

Habakkuk, prophet and follower of God that he was, understood all of this. As he went on to declare, verse 19, “The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.” We ought not go through life by relying on our strength but should realize that the only confidence that is sure-footed is confidence that is grounded in God and God alone. For he it is who it is sovereign; he it is who rules over all creation; he it is who has given his Son, his life, in order that we might be reconciled to him and thereby know that he alone is our strength. When we are feeling frightened—and weak—and anxious, he it is who gives us strength, enabling us to tread on the heights.

We find this attitude expressed by the Apostle Paul, a man who despite having considerable natural gifts yet suffered from an unidentified “thorn in the flesh.” Paul testifies how

in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.[5]

When we’re able to do things by relying upon ourselves, we often forget that even our natural and perhaps hard-earned abilities are only possible due to God giving us the minds, bodies, spirits, emotions, and resources. But when for whatever reason we find these natural gifts thwarted, we may be able to see things as they really are. We may be able to see, as Habakkuk understood, that our strength comes from our loving and Sovereign LORD alone.

This is why Peter, another of Jesus’ apostles, similarly declared, “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.”[6] Whenever we’re able to understand that all that we have and are has been made possible because of God, then we’re on our way to learning to see our lives through the eyes of providence, knowing the truth that our Sovereign LORD is our strength, not we ourselves. Therefore, he is the one who should receive all the honor and glory and power.

Now not only in this past year when we as individuals and a nation have been afflicted by Covid—and wildfires—and floods—and threats of or actual job loss—and financial and health concerns and the usual day-to-day worries of life, but throughout my life when I’ve been confronted with some trial—or disappointment—or tribulation—or source of suffering, I’ve often thought: How in the world do people who don’t know Jesus get through this life? I’ve thought this not because Christians are spared suffering—no, it’s hardly that. But I’ve thought this because even when I’ve felt most alone or frightened or in pain, I’ve known that my heavenly Father loves me—and is with me—and will never leave or forsake me,[7] no matter what the trial; I’ve known that before the foundation of the world he knew he would send his Son to deliver those who are his from all evil and suffering;[8] I’ve known that by his indwelling Holy Spirit, I’m united to him. And therefore I’m united to all followers of Christ Jesus, a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before me;[9] and all followers of Christ Jesus who are currently living; and all followers of Christ Jesus who are yet to be born. Especially when we are suffering, it’s critical for us to remember that our ultimate joy is ever to be found not in our circumstances but in our great—and gracious—and merciful—and compassionate—and kind God. This is why even during times of adversity I, with Habakkuk, have been able to rejoice in the LORD; to be joyful in God my Savior, the Sovereign LORD who is my strength; who makes my feet like the feet of a deer; who enables me to tread on the heights.

Dear sisters and brothers, before turning to a time of sharing with one another the things for which we have been thankful this past year, I want to close by exhorting you with some more words from Paul from his letter to the Ephesians:

16 I pray that out of [the Father’s] glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.[10]

Let’s pray.

Benediction: Romans 15:5–6: May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

[1] Though writing in the context of battle, Habakkuk’s overall message may be applied to many situations of deprivation and suffering.

[2] Jeremiah 32:27: I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?

[3] See Psalm 100:Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.

[4] Matthew 4:4. Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 8:3: He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

[5] 2 Corinthians 12:9–19.

[6] 1 Peter 4:11. Emphasis added.

[7] Deuteronomy 31:6: Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.; Romans 8:38–39: 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[8] Ephesians 1:3–10:Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he[b] predestined us for adoption to sonship[c] through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he[d] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

[9] Hebrews 12:1–3: 1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

[10] Ephesians 3:16–17.