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Praying with God’s sovereignity in view

Chariots of God (copyright Messianic Art)

I remember the surprise I had when I first witnessed the prayer of my Swedish hosts over the food. It was unexpectedly short, sang, and apparently not devotional at all. Coming from a tradition where each meal was celebrated as a feast and was taken as a renewed opportunity to proclaim our faith, the new experience was altogether surreal. In time, I learned to hear at the heart of people and do not judge them according to appearances. It should not surprise us that when our foods reaches easily our tables, we tend to forget how much we owe to God for them. Poverty can be seen as God’s endowment to guarantee our dependence on him. That is the context Romanians came from. This illustration is the context of today’s meditation from Habakkuk’s prophecy as well.

We have seen that God is not surprised by our requests, not even when our prayers are sharp, straight to the point and unselfish, because He always has a plan prepared and ready to be revealed at the right time. Moreover, God’s plan is stable, it cannot be changed, but it always provides mercy for some, those seen as living in faithfulness.

In the face of social injustice and, for that reason, social insecurity, the prophet asks from God to intervene. The divine solution envisages the massive intervention of the cruel polytheist and militarist people of Babylon who will wipe out all the nations of the Ancient Near East, Israel included. Habakkuk continues by pondering whether such a solution is immoral and receives a second and final answer: God will judge the Babylonians themselves for their excess of zeal and will provide an escape for his loyal people. The prophet understands that the Babylonian slaughter will not end the history; at least not for Israel. The final scene is glorious, with God’s nation restored from shreds and the proclamation of God’s sovereignty as an act of worship generalized to the whole world. The final words of chapter 2 announced the entrance of His Majesty the King.

The third chapter of this short book contents the last contribution Habakkuk has in his dialogue with God. Contrary to the book of Jonah, here it is not God who has the final word, but the prophet. Although he cannot hide the complaining tone of this hymn, Habakkuk recalls a favourite theme among the prophets, that of God’s self-revelation in a chariot-like vehicle accompanied by storm, disease and earthquake. Witnessing such a spectacle has two effects: the total destruction of the enemies and the awe of the faithful ones. In the end, building on the knowledge of past interventions in history, the prophet expresses his confidence in God’s ability and willingness to defend his people and bring harmony where there is only disaster.

The teaching of this final chapter of Habakkuk’s prophecy can be envisaged as the answer to the more specific question ‘What happens when God’s answer to your prayer does not fit your expectation?’ Since the person in discussion is assumed to be religious, there is no need for a revolutionary acquisition of some new knowledge or experience, but finer tuning in the knowledge and experience already acquired. Get ready for a new E.R.A.! Mind this acronym.

1. Enhance your understanding of God’s character (vv. 3-6)
There are many people who assert that they believe in God but their God is rather a caricature, resembling the human likeness. Habakkuk’s recovers an understanding of God that has a long history going to the very roots of monotheism. God is the Holy One, entirely different and apart from every creature, perfect in his attributes, having the source of his own existence in Himself, and sustaining Himself through His own power alone. His incandescent presence consumes, shakes, disintegrates. God is a sovereign that has no equal. At his approach everything trembles, crumbles, and collapses.

Some people who got too close to God, like Moses for example, thought that they might peek at God’s inner radiance and see His very nature. In his sincerity, and ignorance at the same time, Moses believed that such a thing is indeed possible. Apparently God granted him his opportunity, but when the time came for Moses to contemplate what was interdicted to generations of people, when he heard the out loud shout of God’s herald, he crumbled on the floor. At the sound of “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exod 34.6-7), Moses collapsed at the ground in worship.

Other people, like Hagar or Manoah, were so terrified by the angel they have seen that they imagined that God himself revealed to them. As John the apostle said, though, we know that nobody had seen God, except His own Son (John 1.18). As Christians we have the advantage of having the witness of Jesus recorded for us, the One who had seen God and told us about Him. The revolutionary understanding that Lord Jesus brought to us is that God is not be the source of terror anymore, at least not to those who are His people. His Majesty gave them the right to become his children with all the statutory rights that this position encompasses. We can approach God as FATHER, we can address Him as such, and we can expect from Him every honour and responsibility that such a title bestows upon the privileged ones.

2. Remember God’s works (vv. 7-15)
Does anyone know what makes a good surgeon famous? Is it his degrees? Maybe his articles published in scientific journals? Probably his titles? I have the feeling that his career as a surgeon is built on the successful surgeries he performed. It does not help me to be cut by a heavy diploma loaded surgeon with an imprecise hand. Theoretically only such a surgeon can advance, being given to him all the honours I have just mentioned. In real life, though, there are many who abuse the system to their own advantage and to the expense of public safety.

What makes a god famous? If we are to consider the Greek mythology, the answer must be his deeds. All these legends about gods and goddesses and their deeds had the main purpose to inspire awe and hope into the human subjects, and stimulate their devotion. Therefore, we can notice that it comes natural to humans to evaluate somebody in relation to his/her own deeds. The Lord God had an impressive impact on the Israelites because He had made Himself a name by getting involved in their history, as a family, as a tribe, and then as a nation. The Canaanites were in shock when they heard that this God of Israel has brought his people from Egypt down to Jordan, breaking every single military resistance on the way and even opening the waters of the Red Sea for them and then even the Jordan (Joshua 2.10-11, 5.1).

When we have problems in understanding God’s dealings with humanity and/or with us a clearer understanding of God as sovereign helps to put things in order. The theme of the lordship of God and of the divinity of Christ is recurrent in Paul’s epistles. It stays as the basis of all his instructions, rebuking, and counsel. Take, for example, 1 Corinthians. Here Paul writes “to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours” (1.2). In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author makes it clear that the very approaching to God is conditioned by the preliminary understanding of God’s nature: self-sufficiency and righteousness (Heb 11.6).

3. Adjust your faith to God’s character (vv. 16-19)
Eventually, Habakkuk admits God’s right to discipline his nation His own way, demonstrates composure and declares his trust in God despite all appearances and the unfavourable temporary climate. Given the agrarian society in which he lived, Habakkuk’s final words are deeply moving, promising a faith that goes beyond the basic expectations of God fulfilling his daily needs plunging into the thick darkness of having a resilient faith that does not move about, but stays firm in the trust of God who can turn all things into a better end. The same faith echoes in Jesus’ final words: “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Mat 26.39).

There is one passage in particular where Paul the apostle looks into the benefits of Christian prayer in the context of God’s sovereignty (Rom 8.23-30).

Not only so, but we ourselves [as the whole nature does], who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (this is the object of our prayer). For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently (this is the quality needed).

There is a problem, though; something that makes our patient waiting painful.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.

But we have the knowledge to back up God’s support.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

What do we have to do when the answer’s to our prayers does not seem to fit our expectations? We have to build on the knowledge and the experience that is firmly grounded in God’s character and involvement in our life and wait patiently his timely and perfect answer.

E Enhance our understanding of God’s character
R Remember God’s deeds
A Adjust our faith to God’s character

I am perfectly aware that I cannot provide the best illustrations for matters of faith if God would have not blessed me with the support of so many people to be of help to me. I remember an incident, though, that took place seven years ago. At the time, shortly after being accepted as a doctoral student at a theological college in London, and having promised the funding necessary, I left for Jerusalem to deepen my knowledge of Hebrew. Five months later the ‘firm’ funding promise was gone, because the trust went bankrupt. All future plans seemed completely ruined and I blamed the man who irresponsibly promised help when he knew it will be difficult to deliver. I felt like the door closed in front of me smashing my face. For a while I was completely paralysed. When the agony passed I found myself writing letters to dozens of trusts and missionary societies for funding, but each one was just another cul-de-sac. At God’s own time, after almost two more agonising years, all things came into place and I have enjoyed the peace of research freed from financial preasure. God was preparing me for another experience, the toughest of my life that far. But here I am, celebrating the end of that process that at one point I thought is in peril of never starting again. God is indeed good and His plan is perfect.

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Praying toward fulfilling God’s plan

Habakkuk by Donatello (The Sistine Chapel)

Human prayer does not change God’s plan, even when it seems it does but, at the same time, God is never short of mercy; all people fall short of the glory of God and deserve God’s judgement, but He still displays mercy on them.

Unleashing God’s judgement over the wicked, rightful as it might be, begs the question: ‘is it proportionate, though?’ We are all familiar with the perception of guilt that comes in degrees and penalties that should fit the crime. Is God himself going to breach our understanding of law and justice? Atheists would argue that the mere existence of wars and natural disasters responsible for the killing of thousands of innocent people proves that God does not exist. If He exists, He must be with necessity a perfect judge and a loving God. Philosophers, and even theologians, judge God according to their own understanding based on faulty reasons. God became nothing more than an idea, a representation of our own nature, a human construct. The reality seen from the other side is as follows:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,
declares the LORD.
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts

(Isa 55.8-9).

Habakkuk, the prophet, continues praying, wondering whether the penalty does not exceeds the crime. It is true that Israel is guilty, but a son is less guilty than a foreigner after all. How could you punish your son by handing him in to the police? You would rather pay the bill and let him run free from jail, wouldn’t you? God punishes the guilty party without any moral judgement over the merits of His tools. The Babylonians in this case are just tools in God’s hands. Ultimately, He is the one who decreed the punishment of nations, the one who unleashed the judgement. Is God the moral author of violence? No, but God can use the most cruel inventions of fallen human nature such as militarism and genocide to achieve His purposes. And that even at the expense of moral judgements.

When I read the words of Habakkuk in chapter 1 vv. 14-17 about describing the way the Babylonians used to treat people like fish, destroy nations without mercy and even worship their nets, I cannot help thinking at the twentieth century death camps. How can we, as believers, answer to all accusations of impropriety and cruelty against God? How can we reconcile His justice with human cruelty and, worse, natural disasters? I reckon this is not going to be an easy answer. The prophet himself needs to recollect himself and find a clear state of mind in order to perceive God’s answer. When the answer comes, it is perfectly right; it is perennial, its universality deriving from the command to have it written down. God’s judgement is perfectly legitimate; He will condemn all sinners, including the tools he has once used. For Him, they are all the same, just sinners. For some, He provided an escape, though: ‘the righteous people will live by their faith’ (Hab. 2:4). Even though there is no escape from God’s judgement, the righteous has the opportunity to validate himself by acting according to his faith.

There are numerous occasions in the Bible where the judgement of God is portrayed as inescapable. Take Amos 2.13-16 for example:

Now then, I will crush you
as a cart crushes when loaded with grain.
The swift will not escape,
the strong will not muster their strength,
and the warrior will not save his life.
The archer will not stand his ground,
the fleet-footed soldier will not get away,
and the horseman will not save his life.
Even the bravest warriors will flee naked on that day,
declares the LORD.

People will flee to the mountains to find a hiding place (Hos 10.8), but there will be no escape:

Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, „Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:15-16)

The mercy God has on some is not owned to them, because even the tiny seed of faith that makes all the difference (Luke 17:6) is from God (Jude v. 3). The interpretation apostle Paul gives to this passage suggest that faith is a self-generating quality received from God (Rom 1:17). In the Epistle to the Hebrews the same passage from Habakkuk is employed to encourage the brotherhood to persevere (Heb 10:35-39).

God’s judgment is announced against all sinners, even against those once used for his purposes. The remaining of chapter 2 (namely, vv. 6-20) is written as a set of woes. Note the decisiveness of God’s purposes expressed especially by the image of the cup. It is clear that there is no second chance given to these sinners, and God’s purpose is going to be fulfilled. “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (2.14), not because all sinners will be converted but because all wickedness will be removed. Revelations 20.15 says that “if anyone’s name was not written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire”. There is nothing we can do to change God’s plan, but we should do all we can to fulfill His purpose with us and accomodate our life to His plan.

The prophecy of Habbakuk does not end here. Since prayer does not surprise God, nor changes His plans, then what does it accomplish? The only place where change can take place is within us, but that change builds extensively on the knowledge that God exists, He cares, and He is accomplishing His purposes showing mercy to those He has chosen.

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Praying for others: for how long?

Ishtar gate detail, Babylon.

What happens when human prayer meets God’s established plan? (part 1)
Meditations on the book of Habakkuk the prophet

In order to have an overview of the book we start with an outline of its first section.

1. A matter of social injustice
The prophet complains (1.2-4): Are you going to do something about the social injustice, Lord?
The Lord replies (1.5-11): Yes, I will do. Just watch the Chaldeans!

2. A matter of fairness
The prophet complains (1.12-17): Punishing the unjust by the means of some less just is not fair, is it?
The Lord delays the answer (2.1)
The Lord replies (2.2-4)

Many bad things happen in our world, but the criminals get away with it because there is not enough evidence to incriminate them. Hence, the need for a ‘Big Brother’ state, a state in which everything is recorded and used as evidence against the perpetrators. Evidence does not seem to be the sufficient and necessary condition anymore, since the same piece of evidence can have various and even contradictory interpretations. What really counts is a good lawyer and few supportive headlines in the papers. This is not so with God. He has both the evidence and the right interpretation of all the evidence, as well as the willingness to carry on the verdict.

People bring in prayer all sorts of things: things they do not understand, things they are scared of, things they think pose a hazard potential, things that can become a benefit, things too big or big enough, things needed or useful, things they wish they could do or can’t do without, so on and so forth. Does prayer betray the weakness and the mediocrity of the one praying? That may be true if one prays for things within one’s grasp, but commodity and disinterest prevail over any intention to do something about acquiring it. That may be true if one prays selfishly for things that are of limited use.

There are other prayer types, though. The prayer we hear the prophet pray here reflects his concern for the social justice that went lacking in his country. He prays for things that are out of his reach, things that cannot be undone within any conceivable time limit just by human input. It appears that the human subjects responsible for ensuring a just society lack any willingness to fulfil their duties. A similar situation can be found in any country with a strong autocratic, antidemocratic leadership having the appearance of a strong, rock solid and fair society. What can the believer do in times like that, other than pray? When the society seems to decompose, and its members become out of control, oppressing the needy, it is time to pray, it is time for intercession.

When we pray, we profess our belief in God’s ability to do all things, His authority to do the way He chooses, and we admit our limits as God’s creatures, dependent on Him. Praying for others opens our heart for other people. Insisting in prayer for other people gets us to love them. Many things happen around us independent of our will and without us being able to do anything about them. The least we can do in such a circumstance is to pray. This is why the apostle advises the church in Thessalonikki:

And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else. Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil. (1 Thes 5.14-22)

If the intercessory prayer takes place in such a context, God’s reply should not surprise us. God always has a solution, even when it seems that He is disinterested or passive. His solution is swift, exemplary, well balanced, in one word – perfect. As He had used the Israelites to punish the Canaanites long time ago, He used the Babylonians, a new rising military power to punish the peoples of the Ancient Near East, Israel included. This new force, as any God’s tool, cannot be stopped, deterred, blackmailed, let alone defeated. They have no other god than their military prowess. They live in order to kill. God’s hammer strikes with all the power of hell and there is no escape.

Therefore, when we mediate for others we should be aware that God has a potential beyond our wildest imagination and we should fear the worst. We should not pray for the unleashing of His furry, but for a fair resolution to the problems of the world, expecting in all honesty that we could be asked to be part of the solution. In a similar situation, Lord Jesus himself preached for his disciples not asking great things on their behalf but to be protected from the evil one (John 17.15).

We should learn again what intercession really means. By virtue of my calling as Christian I am a mediator. Therefore, I am not allowed to say “May your will be done with them!” but “May your will be done with ME!” When I pray on behalf of others I should rather call upon His mercy: “Lord, have mercy on them!” As Abraham has done unsuccessfully for Sodom and Gomorrha. As Moses has done for Israel converging with God’s desire to delay the punishment of those redeemed from the Egyptian bondage. Accepting the will of God for me is a sign of maturity but figthing in prayer over others’ blessing is a sign of greatness.

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