Will You Relent to God? (When God Answers Your Prayers in Uncomfortable Ways)

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When crisis hits – whether it happens to us, our family, our friends, or we just hear about it on the news – our first instinct is to ask a lot of questions. Why did it happen to me/us? What will happen next? Is it over now or will it get worse? How far do the effects reach? Who is going to fix it? What needs to be done? How can I make sure this never happens again?

If you live with a Christian worldview, then the questions go even deeper. Was this a spiritual attack or simply the result of living in a fallen world? What is God trying to show me here? What does the Bible say about this? How have believers dealt with this in the past? What is my responsibility here? Who should I tell this too, and who should I not?

I think part of the reason that crisis brings questions is because humans have an instinct to try to understand and control everything around us. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. When God first created us He told us to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over [it].” God is the Creator and Owner of the universe, and He has made us managers of it. Implicit in that divine command is the need to understand our world and exert our energies to control what’s going on. So it’s not a bad thing that when something bad happens we want to understand as much as we can and then try to deal with it. Doing so is our God-given nature.

However, when sin came into the world it corrupted everything – including our God-given our curiosity and management duties, now, instead of working with God to discover more about His nature as it is found in creation, and then partnering with Him to accomplish His will, we believe that we can know everything there is to know without His input and can solve all our problems by ourselves.

This is why, though problems abound and questions flood our minds, many of us do not pray. Our inherent sin has told us that we are alone, that we can’t trust God, that we don’t need God, and that we can do a better job of fixing our problems without him.

Quick Review

The book of Habakkuk is all about a man of faith asking questions and seeking solutions during a time of crisis. Like some of us here today, Habakkuk looked at his nation and saw some hugely troubling issues. The number of faithful people was shrinking and paganism was taking over the land. The people weren’t working together for a greater good, but instead were more divided than ever. Violence ruled the streets

He looked to the religious leaders to do something, but they seemed both powerless and corrupt – and any of the good ones were ignored. He looked to the politicians, judges and lawmakers to do something, but they only cared about keeping their own power and lining their pockets. If a good person finally did stand up and challenge the system, it wouldn’t be long until the bad guys would corrupt him or eliminate him. Habakkuk was losing hope that his people would ever find a way back to living good lives of Godly peace and prosperity.

Habakkuk was getting angry and had had enough. But, instead of doing what so many of us do, where we start trying to find a way to control and fix the problem, Habakkuk started to pray.

The book of Habakkuk is a record of Habakkuk’s prayers and God’s answer to them. Habakkuk asked some huge questions, the main ones being: Why is this happening to us and what are You going to do about it, God?

God’s answer was that He had been at work raising up the Chaldeans, later called the Babylonian Empire, to be His weapon against evil in the land. They would come in, decimate the nation, wipe out almost everyone, and drag the rest off as slaves. This would be how God would discipline His people and force them to re-evaluate their lives.

Habakkuk’s follow-up question was to ask how that could be fair? Why would God allow a much worse, pagan nation to conquer His chosen people? God’s answer was that no one would be getting away with anything. The corruption in Israel would be rebuked, punished and then the people would be restored – and later the Babylonians themselves would be destroyed.

What happens next in chapter 3 is remarkable, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Habakkuk has just asked some huge questions, and God has been good enough to answer him – but the answers were not what he expected. No doubt, Habakkuk wanted God to work some miracles, change people’s hearts, send the Messiah to replace the corrupt leaders, or just zap all the bad guys with bolts of lightning. God’s answer wasn’t what He expected at all, but involved an evil nation, the death of his countrymen, the destruction of God’s temple, the loss of everything He owned, and the requirement to be dragged off into slavery for 70 years. He would die well before any Israelite would come home.

How Do You React?

How would you react? Or, more accurately, how do you react? I ask that way because this isn’t a theoretical question – you’re all living this right now. You currently live in a world where you are surrounded by bad news, and on occasion, that bad news hits you directly. You know that this world is full of poverty, corruption, violence, death, misery, starvation, and evil – but it’s not too hard to pretend it doesn’t exist as long as you stay pretty healthy, keep paying your bills, talk to your friends, and watch the occasional funny movie or video on YouTube. It’s easy to pretend that it’s all someone else’s problem, until it suddenly isn’t.

All of a sudden you’re the one who is in pain, facing financial struggles, is treated unfairly, has been a victim of violence, comes face to face with mortality, or has been touched by evil in some way. Suddenly it’s not just on the news, but it’s at your work, in your home, in your bedroom, in your body.

So, how do you react? Of course, as I just said, our first, instinctual reaction, is to ask a bunch of questions. And a Christian turns to God for answers to those questions, and we believe Scripture reveals to us many answers to these questions: Where did evil come from? How should we respond to crisis? What is God doing about the problem of sin? How can we live through it and come out better on the other side?

The whole series has been answering those questions, but we’re not done yet. The next questions is this: How are you going to react to God’s answer? .

A favourite atheist reaction is to use the misery of the world as a proof that God doesn’t exist or to question His goodness. After all, if God is good and wise and holy and loving, then how can bone cancer and tsunamis and ticks exist? Or, as Habakkuk asked, “God, if you are good and wise and holy and loving, then how can evil Israelites and evil Chaldeans and Babylonians exist?” Or as we ask today, “God, if You are good and wise and holy and loving, then why do that bad thing happen?”

A Christian reaction is to bring these questions to God, read His answers in the Bible, and then listen to His answers as He speaks to our spirit. My intention right now is not to rehash the last nine sermons and try to convince you to bring these questions to God, but instead to get you to ask yourself how you react when God answers your prayers in ways you don’t expect.

Habakkuk’s Relenting Prayer

Habakkuk gets it right. He hits his knees, asks some questions, and then waits for some answers. When God shows up and tells Him what’s going to happen, it’s not even close to what he expected, but what does he do next? He relents to God’s will and continues to pray.

Let’s read his prayer together and then we’ll take it apart a bit, but first I want you to notice one thing… this is a song meant to be sung by God’s people year after year. The words “according to Shigionoth” and “Selah”, and the comment at the end about instrumentality tell us that this isn’t a one-time prayer for one man during a crisis, this is a prayer given by God to His people to remember and sing for ages to come. This isn’t just a historical song, there is something here for us today.

“A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.

O LORD, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O LORD, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy.

God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. (Selah) His splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power. Before him went pestilence, and plague followed at his heels. He stood and measured the earth; he looked and shook the nations; then the eternal mountains were scattered; the everlasting hills sank low. His were the everlasting ways.

I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction; the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble. Was your wrath against the rivers, O LORD? Was your anger against the rivers, or your indignation against the sea, when you rode on your horses, on your chariot of salvation? You stripped the sheath from your bow, calling for many arrows. (Selah) You split the earth with rivers. The mountains saw you and writhed; the raging waters swept on; the deep gave forth its voice; it lifted its hands on high. The sun and moon stood still in their place at the light of your arrows as they sped, at the flash of your glittering spear. You marched through the earth in fury; you threshed the nations in anger.

You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed. You crushed the head of the house of the wicked, laying him bare from thigh to neck. (Selah) You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors, who came like a whirlwind to scatter me, rejoicing as if to devour the poor in secret. You trampled the sea with your horses, the surging of mighty waters.

I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 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.

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” (Habakkuk 3 ESV)

I Have Heard and Remember

This prayer has only one theme: Habakkuk’s relenting to God and His plan.

The first section is an introductory phrase where Habakkuk turns the whole problem over to God. Do you remember the very first verses of Habakkuk? He asks these opening questions: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” At the very beginning of his final prayer we see that Habakkuk has received his answer. God has heard, God is at work, and God is not idle.

The implicit accusation behind “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?” is that God is seeing all the evil going on around him, but not doing anything. And now, after hearing from God, Habakkuk’s prayer begins… and I much prefer the NIV’s translation here:

“LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.”

Habakkuk, as he prays, is remembering and talking to God about what He has learned about how God does things. He’s processing how God operates in this world, the reminder that God is patient and kind, but also has a great wrath against sin. And while that knowledge blossoms, he’s recalling some of the times that God has chosen, because of his wrath against sin, to put his people through difficult times, and then later, restore them with acts of His great power. After talking to God and hearing His answer, He’s now convinced that God has been doing exactly what He’s always done – being patient, offering salvation, and then judging evil. This is Habakkuk’s prayer, relenting to God’s plan.

He has gained wisdom. He no longer believes, as some do, that God’s perfect will must always be happiness and comfort for everyone, but sometimes – as we’ve learned in Pilgrim’s Progress – that He sends His people through the Slough of Despond, and requires them to face the fiery darts, before they reach the Hill of the Cross. Wisdom knows that the straight and narrow path a pilgrim must follow always leads over the Hill of Difficulty, through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, across the streets of Vanity Fair, and past the Giant Despair before they can reach their rest in the Celestial City.

Habakkuk now knows this, and has decided not to fight it – and as He does, the stories of scripture come flooding into his mind:

  • He remembers the fear and awe that came upon the people as the earthquakes and lightning and smoke poured out of the mountain, as God descended during the giving of the Law. (3:3)
  • He remembers the pestilence and plagues that came upon both their Egyptian enemies and upon Israel when they broke God’s law. (3:5)
  • He remembers how great nations feared the people of God because He was with them. (3:6)
  • He remembers how God used His power even over nature – turning the Nile to blood, crushing the perusing armies in the Red Sea, and making a dry path through the Jordan River for his people to come to the Promised Land. (3:8)
  • He remembers how, though they have been at war for so long, that when they have been faithful, God has always defended them in miraculous ways; even stopping the sun in the sky – but has brought terrible justice and wrath upon the whole earth; from global floods to plagues to enemy armies – when His people broke their covenant with Him. (3:11, 15)

Habakkuk says in verse 16, “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.”

He’s not denying his disappointment, nor his fear, at what is coming. He’s not looking forward to seeing God’s wrath come upon His people, and he knows that it’s going to be a terribly hard road. BUT, he says, “Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon the people who invade us.” In other words, “God, I trust you. I know how you operate. I know that you don’t always do things that are comfortable for me. But I also know that you are just and good and that in the end, all evil will be repaid. I may not look forward to the immediate future, and I know it’s going to be hard, but I look forward to your end game, where all of Your enemies are brought to justice.”

Palm Sunday Application

The application, or rather, the final question today is this: Can you pray that prayer with Habakkuk? All through this study we’ve read how the Bible makes the case for the importance of bringing our questions and fears to God in prayer. We’ve seen how God’s plan of salvation often leads through difficult times, and how our response needs to be to run to God, not away from Him. And we’ve even had God explain how His long-term plan is to bring salvation to believers, wrath against evil, and glory to Himself.

But, are you willing to relent to God and have Him save you His way?

Today is Palm Sunday. It is on this day that Jesus came into town, riding on a donkey, fulfilling Messianic prophecy and declaring to all of Jerusalem that He is the Son of David, the Chosen One, the Messiah, the Saviour. That’s why they called out “Hosanna! Save us!” They knew what Jesus was doing.

But within five days the citizens of this same city would be shouting “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” What changed? Part of the reason was that He refused to save them the way they wanted to be saved. He was supposed to come in and use His divine power to overthrow the Romans, set up a new kingdom, and distribute their wealth to the Jews. But He didn’t.

Instead, He came and preached against the Jews! He preached against the religious elites of the day, pronouncing woes upon them and calling them blind guides. He preached against the hypocritical worshippers who had turned the temple into a shopping mall. He taught that they were supposed to pay taxes to Caesar! He said that God doesn’t prefer the rich and happy, but the poor, the humble and the outcast! He said that Jerusalem would be encircled by armies and then destroyed. He said it was never His intention to create a worldly kingdom, but a spiritual one – and everyone who followed Him would be persecuted and hated. He said the only way for anyone to be saved would be to believe that He, the Son of God, had to die on an accursed Roman cross, taking the punishment for their sins.

That wasn’t what they wanted. They didn’t want to admit they had a sin problem. They didn’t want a suffering saviour. They wanted worldly comfort, not spiritual salvation. Jesus wouldn’t save them the way they wanted to be saved – and so they turned from laying palm branches before Him and shouting “Hosanna in the Highest” to trading him for the terrorist Barabbas and shouting “Crucify Him!”.

The Final Prayer

Let’s close by re-reading the final part of Habakkuk’s prayer, but as you read it, I want you to ask yourself: “Can I pray this prayer honestly?”

“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 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.”

If you can pray that prayer, then praise God, because that’s an uncommon faith.

But if you are struggling to pray that prayer today – knowing honestly that you would prefer God save you on your terms rather than His – then let me encourage you to do a few things so you can grow in your faith and trust in God’s plan:

  1. Start praying that God would increase your faith, teach you to trust Him, and show you how He provides for you in ways you’ve never seen or expected.
  2. Get into your Bible so you can know what He has done in the past and let that inform for you how He works.
  3. Surround yourself with people that will help you grow in your confidence in God. Get into a good church, join a small group, find a study group.