When the Answer to Prayer Is Bad News

IMG_0646?ver2I love the little book of Habakkuk. It’s just three chapters long in what’s called the minor prophets of the Old Testament—minor not because they are less important, but just because these books are shorter than the five books called major prophets.

Habakkuk was a prophet who prayed—or complained or lamented—about what was going on in his country: violence, iniquity, destruction, strife, contention, perverted justice (sound familiar?) (verses 1:1-4). He sounds exasperated when he begins:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? (verse 1:2).

God responds:

Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told (verse 5).

That sounds good! But God continues:

For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans … (verse 6).

Wait. What?

The ESV Study Bible notes that the Chaldeans were technically a particular tribe in Babylon which grew to prominence, but eventually Chaldeans and Babylonians became almost interchangeable names. God goes on to describe them. Bitter, hasty, seizing dwellings not their own, dreaded and fearsome … more fierce than evening wolves … they fly like an eagle swift to devour … violent … their own might is their god (verses 6-11).

Habakkuk surely didn’t expect his prayer to be answered by the violence of an invading army. He understands God has “ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof” (verse 12). But, he asks, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (verse 13). The age old question: how can a holy God (verse 12) look on and allow evil to flourish? After expanding on this a while (verse 14-17), Habakkuk awaits God’s response (2:1).

God answers in 2:2-20. He doesn’t give a direct answer to Habakkuk’s complaints, just as He didn’t to Job. But He assures Habakkuk He knows what He is doing, He will take care of the Chaldeans in good time, and “the righteous shall live by his faith” (2:4). The ESV Study Bible says:

It will take faith to wait patiently for God’s plan to unfold, but the righteous believe that God will accomplish it. The phrase but the righteous shall live by his faith is quoted in the NT to emphasize that people are saved by grace through faith (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; cf Eph. 2:8) and that Christians should live by faith (Heb. 10:38-39). The kind of faith that Habakkuk describes, and that the NT authors promote, is continuing trust in God and clinging to God’s promises, even in the darkest days (p. 1724).

The book ends with a final prayer of Habakkuk, changed in attitude from his first. He reverences God. He goes on for several verses about God’s holiness, power, and majesty. He asks:

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 (3:2).

After stating he will quietly wait for God’s timing, Habakkuk ends his prayer in faith and worship:

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 (3:17-19).

These statements are remarkable in themselves, but even more so in context. Not only did Habakkuk not get the answer to prayer he was hoping for: he got news of impending disaster. He didn’t get an explanation, but he got an encounter with God. Afterward, he was humbled and hopeful. Though even hard times were coming, he rejoiced in the God of his salvation and acknowledged God as his strength.

I don’t think this means he pasted on a smile to face an invading army and loss of resources. What he describes in his prayer in chapter three is horrible. Other prophetic books concur. The Babylonian invasion and captivity were devastating and costly. It’s okay to be sad, to grieve losses, as my friend, Lisa, wrote. Lamentations is Jeremiah’s hope-filled sadness over the same invasion. But Habakkuk had faith, prayed for mercy, and rested in God as his strength for what was coming.

I can’t help but see parallels to our current situation. No one can say exactly why God allowed a pandemic to occur. No one would have asked for it. We hope it will all last as short a time as possible. It might get worse before it gets better.

The same could be said of other bad news situations: a lost job, a scary diagnosis, a failed relationship, and upending of normal way of life. In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were threatened with being thrown in a fiery furnace if they did not bow down and worship the king’s golden image. They refused and replied, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.  But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (verses 17-18). Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane the night before He was crucified, prayed, “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). In both of those situations, the immediate deliverance was not granted. But God worked mightily for His glory and the benefit of others and delivered in His own time and way.

Our hopes and prayers aren’t always answered as we would like. But in the face of an invading virus, shortages, or any other bad news, what we most need is an encounter with God. We can trust His wisdom, purposes, and love. We can rejoice because He is with us and is our strength. He will give us grace to go through hard things.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Global Blogging, Senior Salon, Hearth and Home,
Purposeful Faith, Tell His Story, Happy Now, InstaEncouragement,
Recharge Wednesday, Worth Beyond Rubies, Anchored Abode,
Share a Link Wednesday, Let’s Have Coffee, Heart Encouragement,
Faith on Fire, Grace and Truth, Blogger Voices Network.
Links do not imply complete endorsement.)

23 thoughts on “When the Answer to Prayer Is Bad News

  1. Oh, if this is not the most difficult and complicated part of the following life, I don’t know what is!

    And Nancy Guthrie interviews a Bible scholar about the book of Habakkuk on her Help Me Teach the Bible podcast that I’m listening to these days. Very good!

  2. “He didn’t get an explanation, but he got an encounter with God.” Yes. I want this for each of us, too. I’ll keep asking God to speed up the healing of our world and to eradicate this virus, but I can find hope in knowing he is with us and will continue to give us encounters with him. Thanks, Barbara.

  3. So needed this a.m. As I was watching the service online from the church where I play organ, I learned last night that the pastor’s wife just found out she has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Another friend has also just been hospitalized and learned of a cancer diagnosis. Along with the Coronavirus stuff, it just feels like too much. So glad to read your thoughts here; thank you.

  4. So true, Barbara. Our hopes and prayers are not always answered as we would like. God doesn’t promise to fulfill all of our wishes but He does promise to be with us during the hard times. He is with us now.

  5. Pingback: End-of-March Reflections | Stray Thoughts

  6. A very encouraging reminder for a weary heart, that no matter the outcome, God is always with us and He is always good! Even when things go in a direction we didn’t want to go, trusting in Him will be where we remain in peace with Him! #instaencouragement linkup

  7. One of our most popular posts is on Habakkuk. There is so much to learn there! God certainly doesn’t always answer our prayers in the way or timing that we would like. However, we rest assured that His way and His timing are always perfect! Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

    Pinned.

    Thank you for linking up at InstaEncouragements!

  8. Thank you for your teaching on Habakkuk and the way it mirrors our world today. I imagine most everyone is feeling like they are not getting what they want. I feel i am as I lean in and spend more time with God. I pray I carry this over to the other side of the pandemic.

  9. Amen – “We can trust His wisdom, purposes, and love. We can rejoice because He is with us and is our strength. He will give us grace to go through hard things.” Yes, He will. Thank you for for reminding us. Maree

  10. Barbara, Habakkuk is one of my favorite book of the Bible. e continually teaches me that while I may not always get the answers to prayer I desire, God always meets me where I am. He is faithful, He strengthens, and He is always with me.

  11. As God and I have walked together He has answered many prayers with bad news. Wait is the most dreaded answer to those prayers. Thanks for the encouragement today. It was great finding you at the Grace and Truth Link UP.

  12. Pingback: Artisan Collection Bible Review... and Grace and Truth Link Up - Lauren Sparks

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