When God announced to the prophet Habakkuk that he would soon judge the evils of Judah through the destructive acts of a violent, invading army, Habakkuk was seized with dread:
I heard and my inward parts trembled,
At the sound my lips quivered.
Decay enters my bones,
And in my place I tremble.
Because I must wait quietly for the day of distress,
For the people to arise who will invade us.
Like Habakkuk, each of us will eventually enter a time when we’re “waiting quietly” for some kind of inevitable, foreseen, unavoidable suffering—a painful surgery, a parting from a foster child, the final breath of a dying loved one, or any number of difficulties we know with certainty we’ll soon be required to endure. The dread of anticipation at times like these can be terrible (as Jesus, who sweat drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, well knows), and Habakkuk vividly captures that experience in these verses.
But the direction he turns next is extraordinary:
Though the fig tree should not blossom
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will exult in the Lord,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
The Lord God is my strength,
And He has made my feet like hinds’ feet,
And makes me walk on my high places.
That is how the book ends—not with despair, but with hope in the God of his salvation. Nothing has changed in his situation. The suffering God proclaimed for Judah is still inevitable. Habakkuk will go through it, and he knows it. Still, he is able to end his book like this. There’s only one reason he’s able to do this: He seeks God for his own sake, not for the sake of his gifts.
When you start to lose what you value—whether people, things, or comfort—you will quickly discover whether you’ve been worshiping God because you’re counting on him to improve your life and protect you from harm or you’ve been worshiping him because he is worthy of worship and you love him. The truth is, if you’re a Christian in the West (where many churches do not address the reality of suffering or prepare Christians to face it), there’s likely a bit of both of these motivations behind your worship. Because of this, when you first face any serious suffering, you will find yourself disoriented: I count on God to protect me! What does it even mean to trust him? What am I trusting him to do if I can’t trust him to prevent things like this?
I honestly think that, ultimately, even if a Christian understands this topic intellectually, it will not be until he experiences real suffering firsthand that a sincere assessment of these questions will take place at the level of the heart and will. For true followers of God indwelt by the Holy Spirit (who will not turn away from him because of the suffering), the kind of trust in God that emerges from this purifying fire is a little more refined, a little more solid, and a little more true because it’s focused on God himself rather than his gifts.
When that refinement happens, like Habukkuk, we continue to lament—and even dread—inevitable suffering, but our ability to worship is not threatened. We exult in the Lord, rejoicing in the God of our salvation, the God who strengthens us to continue walking with him through any and every situation.