Sometimes the sermons I preach Sundays result in some soul-searching in the Wallace household as well.
A recent Sunday was an example. I preached on prayer—that if we believe prayer really makes a difference, then we’ll pray; for God’s Word, God’s Workers and God’s People.
The fact is, I struggle with the very issue I challenged others with on that Sunday. Jeanie and I have prayed for the salvation of people for decades at times without seeing any substantial change. I confess that since I can’t be mad at God about these things, I’m sometimes mad at the people who don’t change!
But to be fair to God, I also noted that we had uniquely seen God’s faithfulness in the salvation of our own three children. Not a small feat in the spiritual environment of our world today.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to ask, “How long, O Lord. When will we ever see answers to some of these prayers?”
On the following Monday, an early morning text came from my dear friend Barb. Normally, her texts are a Scripture reference. But this time she added a little note: “Good reminder about prayer, Jim. Psalm 130:5.”
Suspecting what I had received might be relevant to my questions about unanswered prayer, I immediately looked it up: “I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, and in His word do I hope.”
Well, you couldn’t hardly be any more on target about our questions than that. A lot of times we pray . . . and wait. And wait some more!
I shared this Scripture with Jeanie just before we did our Bible reading that morning. Then, of all things, we encountered another biblical passage relevant to the topic in the relatively obscure Old Testament book of Habakkuk.
Guess how it begins?
“The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received. How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?” (Habakkuk 1:1-2, NIV).
So others have asked this question before, and others will ask it again. God, in these two nearly simultaneous exposures to His Word, was personally answering my questions from the day before, assuring me He not only had heard our prayers, but even our questions about not-yet-answered-prayers.
You better believe I read the whole book of Habakkuk that morning. In those three chapters in very vivid language, the Lord assured Habakkuk that He was at work. Habakkuk likely prophesied as he was repulsed by the recurring evil propagated by King Jehoiakim of Judah about 606 to 609 B.C.—a wickedness and disregard for God’s law that had by now become the norm in Israel.
Habakkuk prayed, “Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted” (Habakkuk 1:3-5).
God’s answer was that He was indeed at work, and that Habakkuk would see incredible answers in his lifetime: “Look at the nations and watch and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own” (Habakkuk 1:6-7).
When the prophet questioned why God would punish his own people with another nation more wicked then they, God assured him that Babylon would get what it had coming to it as well.
The prophecy proved to be frighteningly true. In 605 B.C., Babylon invaded, defeated and subjected Judah to its rule, the first of three invasions which would ultimately result in the destruction of the temple and the exile of most of Judah’s people. Then in 539 B.C., the Media-Persian Empire invaded and conquered Babylon on the night of the legendary handwriting on the wall that the prophet Daniel interpreted and predicted regarding Babylon’s overthrow (Daniel 5).
Maybe, just maybe, the tumultuous times we are experiencing right now are parallel to what Habakkuk experienced back then. Wickedness seems to abound everywhere. You can’t watch TV without being exposed to images of people of the same sex kissing or hearing the slanderous name-calling so evident in our presidential election in a nation divided like it hasn’t been for 160 years. Violent protests in our streets destroy businesses and tear down statues of our founding fathers while the protestors themselves are often unopposed because police are being undermined by the very authorities who were elected to keep peace in our cities. And a pandemic threatens to bring our country to its knees.
Yes, God is at work. Though we may not see it today, we may see it tomorrow, or in years to come. Most assuredly, as He promised Habakkuk, all the godly will see His marvelous work, in the day when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14b).
Now confident that the Lord was at work, Habakkuk concluded his book with this praise:
I heard and my inward parts trembled,
At the sound my lips quivered.
Decay enters my bones,
And in my place I tremble.
Because I must wait quietly for the day of distress,
For the people to arise who will invade us.
Though the fig tree should not blossom
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will exult in the Lord,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
The Lord God is my strength,
And He has made my feet like hinds’ feet,
And makes me walk on my high places (Habakkuk 3:16-19).
The truth is that unanswered prayer is so often not-yet-answered prayer, and that as the Lord says to Habakkuk, our prayers will make such a difference that we will someday “watch and be utterly amazed” (Habakkuk 1:7).
If only we will persevere in prayer!