Coping With Missing Pieces

By: Stan Mast

November 8th, 2009

Scripture Reading: Habakkuk 1:12-2:1

The relatively obscure prophecy of Habakkuk is an intensely relevant dialogue between the puzzled prophet and his mysterious God about one of the central problems of human existence, namely the continued existence of injustice and the suffering it causes in a world ruled by a God who is allegedly just. Habakkuk asks the hard questions we’ve always wanted to ask God and God gives the forthright answers we’ve always wanted to hear. Last week we heard Habakkuk’s first question and God’s mysterious answer, which prompted the second question that we hear in our reading today.

To help you feel the pain of Habakkuk’s second question, let me tell you a true story. Brian and Connie knew that something was wrong when the clock passed 1:00 in the morning. Then came that knock on the door that every parent of a young person with a driver’s license dreads. There stood a policeman. He said, "Your son has been killed. His truck left the road. He smashed into a tree, and he was killed instantly."

Although I was no longer their pastor at that time, this family asked me to officiate at the funeral, which I did. After the funeral, Brian wrote me a letter in which he wrestled with his grief and with his questions. He gave me permission to read a part of that letter.

"We miss our son and we are trying to live with our basketful of regrets. We are also still asking why. If God is the enemy of death (that was something I had talked about in the funeral meditation) and if he weeps with us, and if he is all—powerful, why didn’t he prevent this? Or do we have to rethink our God and believe he is not quite so all—powerful? Or, believing him all—powerful, do we believe he chooses not to interfere in human affairs because the praise he receives he wants from someone with a free will, someone created in his own image, someone who can give him real praise? I don’t know. We are so finite, frail, and lacking in answers." Life can be such a painful puzzle.

Now, we’ve all put puzzles together, all the way from those easy 5 piece wooden puzzles a toddler bangs together on the floor to those 9,000 piece pictures of a polar bear in a blizzard that occupy the dining room table for months. My 4 year old grandson, Owen, has fallen in love with puzzles, especially if they are pictures of dinosaurs. He will spend many happy hours on the floor piecing them together, but the fun screeches to a tearful halt if we near the end and discover that we are missing the key piece that will make it a complete picture. Owen gets very frustrated if he can’t find the piece that completes the head of that fierce tyrannosaurus rex. It is much worse if we can’t find the missing piece that makes sense of the puzzle of our lives, particularly if life has been fiercely painful, as it was for Brian and Connie. What do you do when the puzzle of life is missing the crucial pieces?

That is the practical benefit of studying Habakkuk the prophet. He helps us cope with missing pieces. When he wrote this little book, the puzzle of his life and the life of his nation was missing the most important pieces. As you recall, the chosen nation of Israel had been split in two. The northern kingdom had been dragged into exile. The southern kingdom of Judah to which Habakkuk wrote was threatened by Assyria to the north and east and Egypt to the south and west. Caught in the middle of that international power struggle, Judah was shot through with injustice and filled with terrible suffering. Habakkuk saw the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. And God let them.

Habakkuk was terribly bothered by that, but rather than walk away from God because of it, he brought his hard questions directly to God. Last week we heard the first one in the first four verses of this prophecy. "God, why do you let these kinds of things happen? Why don’t you stop them? How long will it be until you do something about all these things that are wrong? Where is the God of justice?" In verses 5—11 of the first chapter we heard God answer Habakkuk’s question. God said to him, "I am doing something, and I am doing it right now, in your day, but you are not going to believe it even though you hear it from me." Because, you recall, God was reaching down into the swirling cesspool of the nations of the world and picking up the big ugly stick of the nation of Babylon. God said, "I am going to use this big ugly stick to chasten my naughty, disobedient, rebellious child, Judah."

If that answer doesn’t satisfy you, you need to know that it didn’t satisfy Habakkuk either. Indeed, God’s surprising answer to Habakkuk’s first question shocked Habakkuk into asking his second question. We hear that question in today’s Scripture. Habakkuk’s response to God’s answer was, "Lord, how could you do that? How could you use the more wicked to punish the less wicked?" Judah was wicked, but, as we saw last week, Babylon was super—wicked—ferocious in battle, cruel in victory, proud to the point of arrogance, idol worshipers who mocked Yahweh the God of Israel. So Habakkuk says to God in verse 13, "Lord, you are absolutely holy. Your eyes are too pure to even look on evil. You can’t stand to even see it. How, then, can you reach down and take hold of that filthy stick called Babylon, dripping with the slime of idolatry and immorality? How can a holy God use an unholy nation to chasten his holy people?"

Habakkuk says, "That doesn’t make any sense. I know you, God. I know your covenant. I know your mighty works. I know the truth about you. And this answer of yours doesn’t fit the empty places in the puzzle of my life. I know it is your word, Lord, but it doesn’t make sense. What’s more, it doesn’t change the facts and it doesn’t change the way I feel."

He describes how he feels using the imagery of a fish, gut—hooked and caught up in the fisherman’s net. He says, "Lord, that nation you are going to raise up is like a mighty fisherman who has hooked a fish. He has scooped it up in the net, and that fish is now flopping around helpless, knowing that its time has come." He said, "That is how I feel. I hear what you say, God, but it doesn’t change the facts. It doesn’t change this feeling of helplessness I have. And frankly, God, it doesn’t make sense that you would do something like that."

Well, how do you cope when life’s puzzle is missing the most important pieces and even God’s precious infallible Word doesn’t fit those empty places? Habakkuk does three things. They are the only things to do when there are missing pieces. He shows us, first of all, that you have to profess your faith. That is what he begins to do in verse 12. He looks away from the problem that he cannot solve, and he focuses on what he believes about God. He reminds himself of his faith—his faith in the person of God, and his faith in the plan of God.

That’s what he is doing when he says, "Oh, Lord. Oh, Yahweh." He reminds himself that his God is that ancient covenant God who said, "I am what I am." "You are from everlasting," he says to God, "you are the holy one. You don’t do things wrong. You are the rock, the Almighty One." Do you hear what he is doing? He is bringing up out of the recesses of his memory the articles of his faith in God.

Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones, the famous Welsh preacher of the last century, put it very well when he said, "There is nothing quite so consoling and reassuring, when you can’t make sense of human history, when you can’t solve the mystery of God’s way in your own life, than to remember that the God whom we worship is outside the changes and powers of history. He preceded history, he creates history, and he himself is above time, and his throne is outside this world." That is exactly what Habakkuk the prophet is doing with the words that we’ve just read—remembering the articles of his faith in God.

But there is one more little phrase that is essential. If you don’t profess it, you won’t be comforted by all the other things that you might believe about God. It is important to believe that God is sovereign and holy and just and almighty and all of that, but it doesn’t help when life’s puzzle is missing pieces, unless you can say, "My God." "My God," that is the article of faith that gives you the ability to cope with missing pieces. This God whose ways are mysterious is the God to whom you belong, the God who loves you. One of the most beloved confessions of the church, the Heidelberg Catechism, summarizes what Habakkuk means by those two simple words in its first question and answer. "What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ." When the puzzle of your life is missing the crucial pieces, you cope by professing your faith in God as "my God."

So, Habakkuk professes his faith in the person of God and then in the plan of God. He summarizes that in four words at the middle of verse 12, "we will not die." "Whatever these Babylonians might do to us, I believe this—— we will not die. They can do bad things to us. They can drag us away into exile like fish on a stringer. But they cannot destroy us because God controls them. God is the one who is raising them up, and God will keep them from destroying his people."

On this side of the cross, you and I might say something like, "I don’t understand God. I don’t understand why he has let this thing happen to me, but I am sure neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities nor powers nor things present nor things to come, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." "I know that God will make this work for my good, because I believe that God sent his Son to die on the cross for me. If he did that, I know he means this for good."

When the pieces are missing in life’s puzzle, Habakkuk begins by professing his faith aloud for God, his friends, his enemies, and for himself to hear. That is the first thing.

Secondly, he talks to God. That’s what he is doing there in verses 13 through 17, just talking to God. In one of his books, Charles Colson tells a story about a little boy named Steven and a little girl named Brandie, brother and sister. They had been brought in to their pastor for counseling after the divorce of their parents, to help them express their feelings about that earth—shaking event. The little boy was very ready to talk about it. He said, "Man, it made me mad. It’s the pits." Little Brandie, eight years old, looking bored, said, "Oh, it’s not so bad. It just means you get more moms and dads." Little Steven said, "You’re lying, Brandie, to a pastor." And then Brandie said, "I know, but I don’t like to talk about it. I just take the sad thoughts to my secret place, and then I lock them up."

That is how some Christians handle the missing pieces, "I don’t want to talk about it." Well, Habakkuk the prophet talked about it. Did you notice how he talked to God about it? He doesn’t ask for anything. He can’t ask for anything, because he doesn’t know what to ask. He is so confused and hurting that all he can do is sit down and pour out his heart to God: his questions, his complaints, his feelings. "I feel helpless like a fish in a net." There is nothing proper about this. You wouldn’t even call verses 13 through 17 a prayer. It is as though he sits down at the kitchen table over a cup of coffee and pours out his heart to his next—door neighbor, except it is God.

What do you do when all of your Bible study and prayer and counseling and going to church and talking to your friends doesn’t make the problem go away? You just can’t understand what is happening? God doesn’t make any sense? Well, you don’t conclude that there aren’t any answers, that God isn’t righteous and holy and merciful and gracious and just. What you do, says the prophet, is talk to God. Tell him what you feel, as if he were a real person sitting by your kitchen table.

The third thing Habakkuk did when the pieces were missing was to climb up into his watchtower. That is how the first phrase of Habakkuk 2:1 reads. The NIV says, "I will stand at my watch." The RSV says, "I will climb into my watchtower." There seems to be a break between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. It’s as though the prophet stops and talks to himself. "I am going up into my watchtower. I am going to watch and wait for God’s answer and God’s action.

What do you do when your belief doesn’t fit what is happening, when the facts of life and the articles of your faith don’t fit? Well, you could stop believing in God. Anybody can do that. It is very easy, when there are pieces missing, to let yourself sink into the valley of despair, and spend so much time looking down at the problem that you forget about God, and let doubts lull your faith to sleep. Habakkuk says what you need to do is climb up, climb up into the watchtower, take your stand on the walls of your life, and keep watching. Keep your eyes open for God’s action. Never stop watching for God’s movement in your life.

Your watchtower might be a figurative place, but it might be an actual place that you go in your home or outdoors. It might be a time of the day. It might be a season of prayer or a time of studying the Bible. Whatever it is, Habakkuk says, don’t come down too soon. Don’t miss God’s answer because you are impatient. When life’s puzzle is missing pieces, we need to say, "I will climb into the watchtower, I will station myself on the ramparts, I will look to see what God will say to me."

As you scan the hills and valleys of your life looking for that answer, don’t ever let your eyes stray for very long from that hill far away. Do you know the one I mean? "On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame. And I love that old cross, where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain. So I’ll cherish that old rugged cross ‘til my trophies at last I lay down. Yes, I’ll cling to that old rugged cross, and exchange it someday for a crown."

That’s what you do when life’s puzzle is missing pieces. You profess your faith, you talk to God, you climb into the watchtower, and you cling to the cross, because that is the missing piece. We often hear people speak about the God sized hole in the human heart. We try to fill it with many things, but only God can fill it. The question is, which God? The answer is, the God who sent his Son into this world to save us by dying on the cross. Only that God can solve life’s puzzle. Only the death of Jesus can finally answer all our questions about injustice and suffering. Only the cross can complete the puzzle. So cling to the cross of Jesus, because he is the missing piece.

About the Author

Stan Mast

Stan Mast served as the Minister of Preaching at the LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church in downtown Grand Rapids, MI. from 1990 until 2012, when he retired.  He graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary in 1971 and has served four churches in the West and Midwest regions of the United States.  He also served a 3 year stint as Coordinator of Field Education at Calvin Seminary.  He has earned a BA degree from Calvin College and a Bachelor of Divinity and a Master of Theology from Calvin and a Doctor of Ministry from Denver Seminary.

He is happily married to Sharon, a special education teacher, and they have two sons and four grandchildren.  Stan is a voracious reader and works out regularly.  He also calls himself a car nut and an "avid, but average" golfer.

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