THE RIGHT TO QUESTION GOD Based on Habakkuk 1:1-4
By Pastor Glenn Pease
The right to question God is a right that God Himself has given to His children. He inspired men of God to write about their own questioning of God’s ways of dealing with the evils of life and all of its suffering and injustice. None is more bold than the prophet Habakkuk. He begins his book with a series of complaints as he cries out to God about his prayers not being heard. He might just as well cry out to the wall to save him, for there is no help coming from God. He questions God to His face and says “Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?” The world is falling apart and the wicked seem to be in full control as they create violence and injustice at will with no power able to stop them. Later in the first chapter in verse 13 he questions God again as he says, “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?”Kirk Patrick in The Doctrine Of The Prophets writes, “The book opens with a dialogue between the Prophet and God, in which God is boldly but reverently challenged to defend His action in the government of the world.” Stuart Briscoe sums up his complaint, "Why is evil and suffering rampant in our world? Goodness and justice seem to fail! How is it, God, that you are so against wrong but you go on tolerating wrong? God, is what you are doing fair? Is this honestly the moral, ethical thing to do?"
Here is a man who represents every believer who has ever lived who begins to wonder about the purpose and power of God in a world of so much evil and violence. Where is God when we need Him? Why does He not seem to care when evil is so prevailing in its power that it seems of no value to be righteous? God wanted Habakkuk to write about his questions and complaints to Him because He knew that this would be a common issue all through history for His people. There are many timid Christians who fear to question God, for it seems almost like blasphemy for the creature to question the Creator. But the fact is, every child comes to a point in life when they begin to question the wisdom of their father in the way he is raising them, and every child of God comes to a point where they question the wisdom of God in the way He is dealing with them in a sinful and violent world. In other words, there are things that just do not make sense in this fallen world and we are compelled to ask why? We are compelled to question God’s will and power because it seems from our perspective that He does not seem to have the will or power to deal with the forces of evil that prevail.
God says by including such questioning in His Word that it is legitimate and right to do so, and so there is no point in trying to hide your doubts. God says we are to go ahead and get them out into the open and question His will and His ways. He actually wants us to question and to come to Him in prayer with all of our doubts and pessimism concerning the way things are. It is foolish to try and hide these feelings and pretend that all is well with us and that we do not care if it seems that evil is more powerful than good, and that Satan seems to be in control of history rather than God. The Psalms frequently ask the same questions of God that we read here. Some examples are:
1. How long wilt thou forget me, O LORD? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me? Psalm 13:12. How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Psalm 82:2
3. LORD, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph? Psalm 94:3
The implication is that it is understandable that evil must be endured for awhile, but when it is prolonged and goes on and on and God does not step in to correct the situation, then we become anxious and question God’s intention and control. We begin to doubt God’s power to change things and protect His people from the forces of evil and violence. His inactivity in times of suffering make us wonder if He is indifferent to our pain. J. Hampton Keathley writes,“Habakkuk’s name means to “embrace” or “wrestle.” As is usually the case, his name has something to do with the message of the book. I think it relates to the fact that he was wrestling with a difficult issue. If God is good, then why is there evil in the world? And if there has to be evil, then why do the evil prosper?”
Jeremiah prophesied at the same time as Habakkuk, and he had some of the same questions also. In Jer. 12:1 he asks God, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” In 15:18 he complains, “Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable?” In 20:18 he reaches the depth of despair and says, “Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” The point is, in times of sorrow and suffering of any kind it is normal to ask God why, and want to go to Him in prayer and complain about the circumstances and the fact that He allows them and does not respond to our prayers to deliver us.
When we deal with deep issues like Habakkuk does here we will experience both the depths and the heights of emotion, for we will be led through the darkness into the light, and so experience both fear and faith. Joseph Parker in The People’s Bible writes, “He talks to God; he has it out with God; he plies God with sharp questions. He will have practical matters attended too; he says, Lord, this is evil; how did it come to be in thy universe, thou fair One, whose face is beauty, whose voice is music? There is no such book in all the cannon as Habakkuk. The very word means strong embrace. He gets hold of God, and throws Him in the gracious wrestle. He will not let God go. On the one side he represents pessimism or despair as it never was represented before, and on the other he rises to heights of faith, which even David did not attain with all his music. We shall find sentences in Habakkuk that leave all the prophets and minstrels of the Old Testament far away down in the clouds, whilst Habakkuk himself is up beyond the cloud-line reveling in morning light.”
God wants all of us to be Jacob ‘s and wrestle with Him over hard issues like this. It is only by wrestling with hard issues that we find answers and purpose in a world that often seems meaningless. God does not want us to just drift through life, but to struggle and become thinkers about the major issues of purpose and meaning. If we never question God and His ways we will never really come to have understanding in a way that enables us to live by faith with a full trust in God regardless of circumstances. That is where Habakkuk came out in the end. He starts with questions and pessimism, but he end his book with the greatest optimism and faith that we can find anywhere. He writes in 3:17-18, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” One can never go from questioning God to trusting God without wrestling with God, and that is what we do when we wonder out loud to God why He does not act on our behalf in the way that only seems right for a God of love who has the power to act.
The first thing we need to keep in mind is that this first complaint of Habakkuk deals with the wickedness and violence of God’s own people. They had become totally corrupted and had fallen away from the worship of God. God kept sending them warnings but they would not listen to the prophets of God. They kept on going deeper and deeper into perversions of all kinds. We get a clear picture of what was going on in Jer. 35:15-17.
“15 Again and again I sent all my servants the prophets to you. They said, ‘Each of you must turn from your wicked ways and reform your actions; do not follow other gods to serve them. Then you will live in the land I have given to you and your fathers.’ But you have not paid attention or listened to me. 16 The descendants of Jonadab son of Recab have carried out the command their forefather gave them, but these people have not obeyed me.’ 17 “Therefore, this is what the LORD God Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Listen! I am going to bring on Judah and on everyone living in Jerusalem every disaster I pronounced against them. I spoke to them, but they did not listen; I called to them, but they did not answer.’”
So we have an answer to the first complaint of Habakkuk. God does not listen to our prayers sometimes because people do not listen to His Word. When people close their ears to the will of God, God closes his to the prayers of the people. God does not stop the consequences of evil choices. If people insist on departing from His laws for life and live according to the lusts of their flesh, then they will have to reap as they sow, and God will not step in to change the function of that law. Evil prevails when evil is the first choice of people. It is not God’s will that people choose evil and folly. It is contrary to His revealed will, but He allows them the freedom to be fools and pay the price of folly. The consequences of a people rejecting the will of God for their own will are terrible and the innocent will have to suffer with the guilty. That is what makes it such a damnable evil and worthy of severe judgment. When a society is full of violence and evil deeds the righteous will have to suffer even though they are not involved in the evil deeds. They are victims of their times, and to make it even worse they must also suffer with the guilty when God’s judgment falls and they are carried away into captivity.
God goes on in verses 5 to 11 to describe the horrible judgment that He is going to bring on His people for their wickedness. He says it is unbelievable, but true, that I am going to raise up the ruthless Babylonians with all their military weapons of destruction to punish my people who will not listen to me. Habakkuk is getting an answer that he does not like at all, for though it explains why God has not answered his prayer and come to the rescue of the righteous, it seems still to make God an accomplice to evil. The Babylonians are worse than the wicked people of God. They are the worst of idolaters and they are cruel and bloodthirsty without mercy. Habakkuk questions God again as to the seeming inconsistency of using people so wicked and treacherous to achieve His goals. It makes some sense that God allows evil to run its course until the cup is full and it is time for judgment because people have exhausted their right to mercy, but does it make sense that God would use a people even more evil than His own to judge them? Habakkuk questions the wisdom of God in tolerating and showing even temporary mercy to those who show no mercy toward His people. Life is a mess and there seems to be no way to unravel it so that it makes sense.
This is when the heart cries out Why? Why? Why? Some feel that we have no right to question God and ask why, but my question to those people is why is the Bible so full of the question why if it is not right to ask it? You would think that God would prevent His prophets from asking why, and then recording it for all of history to read, if it was not legitimate to ask why. If we are to live by every word that comes from God, and His Word is filled with the question why, then we not only have a right to ask why, but an obligation, for God reveals it to be something that we ought to do when we are truly puzzled by life. If you have lost a child by some tragic accident or disease, you must ask why? If you have had someone you love reject you and give their love to another, you must ask why? If you have prayed for your son or daughter to become a strong Christian and instead they become rebels who live a life of sinful indulgence, you must ask why? We could go on and on with endless negative situations that compel the question why? This question is addressed to God often in the Bible and all through history, and nobody needs to feel they are out of God’s will by asking it. It is a valid biblical question. Even if we had no other example, we have that of the highest example, for Jesus prayed from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Habakkuk has seen his people, who are supposed to be the blessed people of God, go from bad to worse, and society becoming so corrupt that the righteous are at the mercy of the wicked. Justice is ignored and powerful wicked people can break every law and not pay a penalty, but the righteous are forced to suffer for the evil acts of the wicked. The law of God is no longer honored and so the righteous who seek to live by it are sitting ducks for those who pay it no heed. It is no longer an advantage to be righteous, for the wicked can overcome you by having no restraints of the law. It is a heart breaking time for the righteous, and God seems to be doing nothing to help them no matter how much they cry for help. One author I read said it is like a policeman sitting in his car at the curb while on the sidewalk in front, of him a couple of thugs are beating an elderly lady and stealing her purse, and he does nothing. If that would not make you angry, then you have a serious lack of compassion and a sense of justice.
People get angry at God all the time because of the many things that don’t make sense. Does it make sense that a godly person who serves Him all their life can come to old age and suffer a disease that leaves them at the control of forces they refused to obey all their lives. Godly people will begin to swear and talk in ways they never would have before. They become an embarrassment to their families because they seem to have lost their righteousness, but it is only the loss of control of the mind that is filled with all sorts of foolishness that they were able to keep under control when they were fit and healthy. People who see a loved one go through this are angry at God for allowing it, and they cry out Why? Many people get so disappointed with God that they stop worshiping and cut themselves off from fellowship in the church. There are many thousands of people who are angry with God, and possibly even millions, and one of the reasons is they have questioned God, but they have not waited for the answer. Habakkuk is not only about the right to question God, but also about the obligation to wait for His answer. Those who do not wait on the Lord, but just stay focused on the question that has filled them with anger and anguish become bitter people who lose the joy of the Lord. It is lack of listening to God that leads to all the judgment on His people, and it is lack of listening to God that leads to even the righteous becoming very unhappy believers or bitter apostates.
Barbara Mandrell, the famous singer, is a good example of how the believer is to deal with the questioning of God. She had a terrible accident that led her to have to suffer great pain over a long period of time. In her book Get To The Heart she tells of her why questions and of her waiting for the answer. She writes, “I was still in rough shape the next day, and I went to see the Naval Chaplain to talk about my accident and Sher being killed. When I saw the Chaplain, I asked, “Why did God let me loose control of that car and crash?” The Chaplain was a naval officer, and he gave it to me straight. He said, “It wasn’t God’s fault. He didn’t do it. You were the one who didn’t change your tires. You were the one who had bald tires on the car. You were the one who made it happen.”
And I asked, “Why did God let Sher get killed?” And he said, “You let Sher out, and a human being was driving too fast. You can’t blame God for that. We all have the ability to make choices. We are all going down the road. We all choose left to right. God is omniscient. He knows what road we are going to choose, but He lets us choose. He doesn’t do bad things.”
When the Chaplain told me that, it gave me such peace. It brought me back to reality, brought me to my senses. I was heart broken, blaming my Heavenly Father, but then I found out that I had messed up. Instead of blaming God, I should ask Him to help me be better in my actions.
I also don’t believe God looks down and says, “Zap! I’m going to give that person cancer,” or, “Zap! I’m going to give that person a heart attack.” That’s the way it is. There are these things, germs, diseases, accidents, in this life.”
What we see is the natural response to question God, but we also see the desire to listen for an answer. She went to someone who could help her see that God is not the cause of the bad things that happen to us. This is what waiting on the Lord is all about. It is about seeking for understanding. You have a right to question God, but then it is your duty to wait for an answer. We see this in Habakkuk. In 2:1 he writes, “I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.” Because he waited and listened he ended up an optimist praising God in spite of the miserable circumstances. Barbara Mandrell and millions of others end up with a realistic understanding about suffering because they do not stay in the questioning mode, but seek to find an answer that gives them peace and joy in the Lord. It is valid to question God, but it is vital that we get an answer, and so in this message we will seek to answer the question of why evil is so strong, and why God allows it to survive and do damage even to His own people.
EVIL IS THE RESULT OF HUMAN CHOICES.
God did not choose for the people of Judah to become immoral and unjust. He gave laws to guide them to be a moral and just people. They became evil by their own choice. Adam and Eve chose to disobey God’s will for them, and every form of evil since then has been due to the free choice of those who decide their own will is superior to God’s will. Jesus is the only person who ever lived who never chose his own will over that of the Father’s will. Even facing the cross he prayed, “Not my will, but thine be done.” All others have said by their actions, “Not thy will, but mine be done.” And this is the essence of sin and evil, and the cause of most, if not all, of the misery of the world. All of the suffering of God’s people came from the same source, and it was their choices to do their own thing rather than follow the laws of God.
So the answer as to why God does not stop evil and even the righteous must suffer and endure violence and injustice at the hands of the wicked is really quite simple. God cannot let people be free to make their own choices and at the same time prevent the consequences of those choices. There is no point in giving the law that says thou shalt not steal if God is going to make sure by His power that nobody can ever steal. He gave the law because it is His will for the good of mankind that nobody steal. But He has to let people be free to steal, for if they are not free to disobey His law, they are also not free to choose to obey. Freedom of choice is what determines righteousness and sinfulness. If God prevented all evil choices then man is not free to choose the way of goodness and obedience to God either. They are prisoners of God’s will, and means none chooses to love God by their own will. This is not the purpose for which God made man. He made him to be a creature who could choose to love and obey Him, and not a toy He could wind up and watch perform actions He built into it.
Evil is real because choice is real. Habakkuk listens to God describe the powerful armies of Babylon who choose to use their superior power to sweep across the world destroying nations without mercy. God is going to use these terrible people to punish His own people for their wickedness and rebellion. It makes sense, because a righteous and compassionate people would not be coming to destroy them. God in His sovereignty can and does use evil people to accomplish His purposes in the world. It is not His choice that they be evil, but since they are, and since they are out to conquer and destroy, He can use their evil choices to achieve a goal He has of punishing His own people. God is simply using their choice to His advantage. He accomplished the salvation of His people by using the evil choices of men to send His Son to the cross. God will use evil for God, for that is the way He is able to outwit evil, but He is not the author of the evil. It is always due to the choices of people. The essence of evil is bad choices. We try to make evil such an incomprehensible mystery, but the reality is that it is extremely simple. All evil is the result of bad choices, and by that I mean choices that people make that are not choices that God would will for them to make.
Psychologist Scott Peck in his book People of the Lie tells of how he came to understand evil. He began counseling with a family where the parents were so neglecting their adolescent boy that it amounted to abuse. They were in denial of what they were doing, and this was made clear when they gave him a rifle for Christmas, and it was the very rifle that his older brother had used to commit suicide. They had no idea that this son was also contemplating suicide. “I awoke that night in a state of panic and terrible realization,” writes Peck. “What these parents exhibited was something for which the vocabulary of medical pathology has no word. The only word that begins to describe what they did to that boy was evil. Until I could allow myself to use that very unscientific word in this situation, I had no hope to being able to treat or protect this boy.” He was dealing with the bad choices of these parents, for that was the essence of their evil. They may have really loved their boy, but they were still evil because of the bad choices they were making. Even good people make bad choices and suffer the consequences, and they make others suffer with them.
The only way God could prevent suffering due to bad choices is to prevent people from having choices at all, and this would mean that God would have to change His plan to have beings who freely choose to love and obey Him. Man is not that being, and so God’s purpose in making man can only be fulfilled by having him free to choose to disobey as well as to obey Him. God made man able to make bad choices and produce evil, but He never wills that they make those choices. His will is always that they make good choices. The bottom line then is this: evil is the result of bad choices, and because man is a fallen being who often chooses badly, the world is filled with all kinds of folly and violence that is suffered by the innocent as well as the guilty. Righteous people will be victims of those who break all of the commandments of God.
If you pray that people in this fallen world will stop committing crimes and stop lying, stealing and doing all sorts of things that injure others, you can expect that God will not answer that prayer. Habakkuk was praying that the Lord would stop His people from being so stupid. He wanted God to prevent them from their folly of forsaking God’s law and living such lawless lives that made life so unbearable for the good people of the nation. He wanted God to prevent the perversions of justice that led to the wicked being able to win over the righteous. God has nowhere promised to stop people from making bad choices. It is His will that they be free to do so, and so it is a futile prayer to ask God to prevent evil choices when it is His will that men be free to choose evil. So when you cry out with Habakkuk, “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” remember that if you are asking God to prevent bad choices you are asking for what God can never answer. The answer to all of Habakkuk’s why’s is simply that the evil exists because of bad choices of man, and they are permitted by God because it is His will that they be free to choose.
What God did do for Habakkuk, however, was to make it clear that bad choices will lead to judgment. Those who make bad choices and bring evil into the world will not go unpunished. In the long run those who make bad choices always end up in defeat and disgrace. If you study the evil rulers of history the thing they all had in common is that they did not last. There reign of terror lasted for awhile, but they were defeated and destroyed. God goes on to tell Habakkuk that the Babylonians who do evil deeds and destroy nations, including Judah, will not last, but go down in defeat and suffer the very pains that they inflicted on others. The point is that bad choices always lead to bad results for the one making them. This goes for individuals and for nations. We reap as we sow. It is a universal law. Therefore, do not blame God for the mess the nation or the world is in. Do not get angry at God for all the bad choices that lead to so much evil. Instead, come to the recognition that Habakkuk came to, and realize that trust in God is the only hope we have in an evil world. In 2:4 we read, “but the righteous will live by his faith”
Faith in God is the key to surviving evil of all kinds. There is no promise of escape from suffering. If you study all manner of tragedy, disease, crime, persecution, injustice and every form of evil you can think of, you will find that God’s children suffer all of them. When they do they naturally ask why, and it is their right to do so, for questioning God is a God given right. But, like Habakkuk, they need to wait on God for the answer, and also wait on God to act in history to judge those whose bad choices made the evil a reality. He says in 3:16, “Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.” Faith in God means that you wait on Him. You give Him time to make clear to you just why you suffer evil and He does not deliver you. You wait for Him to act in history to set the record right and deal with evil. Successful survival of evil calls for going through two stages-the why of anger, and the wait of acceptance. It is normal and natural to be angry when we suffer evil, and often we will be angry at God for not preventing it. This is valid and God gives us the right to question Him. But then we need to trust Him and move into the next stage and wait for the answer that helps us accept what has happened and go on in hope that God will work in all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. This is the message of Habakkuk and the whole New Testament.