I recently handled a Bible study via Zoom on Habakkuk, one where I had to touch on sufffering, God’s role in it, God’s purpose in it, and what our response should be. Although I believe that what I said during the Bible study faithfully aligns with Habakkuk’s teaching, I realize that some of the things I said might have come across as being insensitive, especially with respect to people who’ve suffered a lot during this pandemic. That wasn’t my intention, so I’ve decided to write this in order to clarify to myself at least what I really meant.
I hold to a very strong view of God’s sovereignty. In line with that, I believe that the present pandemic would not have occurred without his permission. I also believe he has a good purpose in so allowing it, even if that purpose is one of judgment. I know it’s going to be very hard for people to accept that it was God who sent this pandemic, in the same way that Habakkuk had great difficulty accepting that a holy God would use wicked Babylonians to punish his own people. But the Bible is very clear on this: God is holy, God is righteous, God is good, God is not the author of sin. Nevertheless, it is God who creates calamity: “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)
The other objection I anticipate has to do with rejoicing in spite of disastrous circumstances because God’s purpose in allowing calamities is to grant salvation to his people in the end. So many verses actually support this “joyful and triumphant” attitude in defiance of circumstances. Habakkuk of course rejoices in God his salvation, the possibility of a life-threatening famine notwithstanding. So does Paul in the latter part of Romans 8. The life of Joseph and his sufferings is all about this truth: “You meant it for evil, God meant it for good.” And of course, Romans 8:28 is the all-encompassing basis for joy in all circumstances. And the supreme example of all this is Jesus, who “Out of the anguish of his soul shall see and be satisfied” that the result of his sufferings will be the salvation of his people (Isaiah 53:11).
Even so, this might be of small comfort to people who are in the thick of suffering. I remember reading somewhere something to this effect, that even if Job in the end had children again in lieu of the ones he lost, that would never really compensate for the loss he suffered. That’s the same objection I’m anticipating, and the problem is if I try to answer it in a straightforward manner, without taking into account the ravaged emotions of people who’ve suffered greatly in this pandemic, I would come across as insensitive. I have no intention of minimizing or belittling anyone’s suffering. We should weep with those who weep. But at the end of the day, one simply has to reckon with the Bible’s claim that the greatest sufferings God’s people endure in this world are simply not worth comparing to the glory which will be revealed in them someday (Romans 8:18).
Finally, there’s the problem of evil. Even if we assume that God is going to produce something wonderful out of all this evil and suffering that he allows in our world, does the end really justify the means? All I can say is, that’s actually what Habakkuk’s second complaint in his book is all about. How could a holy God use a people more wicked than his own people to punish his people? What happened to God’s justice? And God’s answer in this book is, “The just shall live by faith.” “God is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab. 2:20). He is God after all; he knows what he is doing and no one can stop him. All we can do is pray and ask for mercy: “In wrath, remember mercy” (Hab. 3:2). And rejoice, even if the worst happens, because those who have faith in him will live; they will not die (Hab. 1:12; c.f., John 11:25, 26). God is the God of salvation to the just who live by faith (Hab. 3:18).