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Faith and Despair In America

But I have never known a Communist who was not acutely aware of the crisis of history whose solution he found in Communism’s practical program, its vision and faith.

—Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952)

God’s answer thus is addressed to the problem of hopelessness and despair.

—Rousas J. Rushdoony, Law and Society (1982)

faith and despair in america

Why Doesn’t God Do Something?

Moral corruption.  Social injustice.  Judicial paralysis.  Violence on every hand.

So why doesn’t God do something?

This was Habakkuk’s question.  Habakkuk prophesied in the last days of the kingdom of Judah.  Popular religion had become a matter of superstitious formality, political corruption was rampant, and sexual perversion was a matter of course.  To the north and east, the terrible power of the Chaldeans, the neo-Babylonian empire, was growing.

When would God act?  Where were His promises?  What had become of His plan of redemption?  Where was the Messiah?  Was there nothing left for the world but a downslide into greater and greater violence?

Habakkuk turned to God and asked Him exactly this.  It was a bold question.  And God answered it.  That answer was startling.

God’s Answer

This is what God said:

Behold ye among the heathen, and regard, and wonder marvelously: for I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you. For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, which shall march through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwelling places that are not theirs (Hab. 1:5-6).

Judah had broken God’s law and profaned His covenant.  She had provoked His wrath, and her time was up.  God would shortly surrender Judah to the armies of the Chaldeans.  The land would be devastated; the nation would die.  Her people would go into captivity.

Habakkuk was stunned and perplexed.  Yes, Judah deserved judgment, but the Chaldeans were far more wicked and violent than the people of Judah.  The Jews at least had a form of godliness and a veneer of morality.  The Chaldeans were “terrible and dreadful.”  How could a holy God use such a horrible instrument?  And wouldn’t this wicked nation boast in its own power and in the superiority of their own god?  Didn’t God value His own glory?  What was God doing?

Waiting for an Answer

“I will stand upon my watch” Habakkuk wrote, “and . . . watch to see what He will say to me” (2:1).  The answer, when it came, required serious meditation.  First, Yahweh told the prophet to write down the vision plainly on wooden tablets.  God’s answer was for the whole covenant people, then and on into the future.  There would be no short-term fixes.

Second, the fulfillment of the vision would come in God’s time.  The prophet must wait patiently.  “Though it tarry, wait for it!”  God’s people must live in patience with a view to the larger scope of history.

Third, God scorns all pride, whether Jewish or pagan.  Those possessed by pride aren’t upright, but “the just shall live by his faith” (v. 4).  The righteous man is the one who lives in terms of God’s promises rather than his own reckoning.

In other words, God knew what He was doing.  He hadn’t abandoned His people or His promise.  He hadn’t given up control of history.  The Babylonian invasion was one more step toward Messiah and His kingdom.  But the timetable was God’s.  What God required of the prophet, of all His servants, was to live by faith; that is, to trust the promise and power of God and to live in terms of that trust.  Those who did so were the just, the righteous.

Habakkuk’s error was to define God’s holiness and glory from his own limited point of view.  He couldn’t see past his own generation or his own people.  We often succumb to the same error.  As Rushdoony points out, men tend to “read events in relation to themselves rather than to God.  Men feel their grief and hurt, and they easily give it priority.  God, however, cites as basic to any understanding of history ‘the vision,’ or prophecy” (283).  And the heart or spirit of prophecy is the testimony of Jesus Christ (Rev. 19:10).

The Nature of Prophecy

Most Americans, even most evangelicals, think of biblical prophecy as fragmented and frantic glimpses of Earth’s end.  The words “apocalypse” and “Armageddon” have become synonyms for the end of the world, whether that end is tied to the judgment of God or not.  Books on biblical prophecy often appear on the same bookstore shelf as the oracles of Nostradamus or Jeane Dixon.

But biblical prophecy is rooted in God’s covenant law.  God’s law promised blessing to the faithful, and wrath and destruction to the wicked (Lev. 26; Deut. 28).  The prophets appeared as lawyers of the covenant to indict Israel for her sins and to point out the proper consequences already designated in God’s law.  But the prophets also pointed beyond the negative sanctions to the coming of the Messiah, who would merit all of God’s blessings and pour out His Spirit in abundance to bless the whole world.  The negative sanctions cleared the ground and paved the way for the ultimate positive sanction:  the coming of Jesus Christ.

Habakkuk needed to understand that God had greater considerations than the immediate comfort and happiness of His covenant people.  But this required a supernatural faith.  That faith is more than intellectual awareness or consent; it is, in Warfield’s words, “all that enters into an entire self-commitment of the soul to Jesus as the Son of God, the Savior of the world” (444).  Only those who commit themselves wholly to God in Christ can wait patiently and realistically through destruction and devastation for a hope they may never live to see.

The Goal of History

History moves from creation and Fall to redemption and consummation.  Because God is wholly sovereign over history, every fact, every moment, every detail, advances God’s plan of redemption.  While the apparent fortunes of the Church within history may seem to ebb and flow, God’s decree never fails.  Do the Chaldeans come?  This is God planning for victory.  Does Jerusalem fall?  Do her people go into captivity?  This is God preparing the world for the coming of His Son.

In contrast to the pagan world that saw history as endless cycles rising out of chaos and returning to chaos, Yahweh’s prophets spoke in terms of a linear history that moved forward in terms of His covenant and culminated in the victory of Messiah’s kingdom, both in history and beyond history.  In his commentary on Habakkuk, David Baker writes:

History is not cyclical, a constant recurrence of events in futile repetition, but rather it is linear.  It is moving towards the goal of the Day of The Lord and the establishment of God’s kingdom.  Specific historical events or appointed moments such as this are especially significant in the progression towards this final objective (59).

History moves toward victory and culminates in the Resurrection.  God wins.  So do His people.

Living by the Wrong Faith

In his classic autobiography, Witness (1952), Whittaker Chambers discusses his own motives for joining the Communist Party.  He says, “It seemed to me that the world had reached a crisis on a scale and of a depth such as had been known only once or twice before in history” (194).  “When an intellectual joins the Communist Party, he does so primarily because he sees no other way of ending the crisis of history.  In effect, his act is an act of despair. . . “ (191).  By “crisis” Chambers means “the problem of war or the problem of economic crises.”  In other words, at least in Chamber’s day, the intellectual who embraced Communism saw a very real and terrible problem looming on the horizon of history and—believing that all other answers have failed—turned to a vicious left-wing political movement simply because it claimed to have answers.  So Chambers embraced Communism, not merely as a point of view, but as a passion and way of life.

Chambers’s conversion to Communism came when he read a little pamphlet by Lenin.  It was called A Soviet at Work.  Chambers says, “In a simple and strong prose, it described a day in the life of a local soviet.  The reek of life was on it.  This was not theory or statistics.  This was socialism in practice (194).”  Chamber had found a faith to be lived out.

But there is more to the story.  Chambers later came to faith in Jesus Christ and turned on the Communist Party:  his witness dealt Communism in the United States a serious blow.  Chambers moved in terms of this new faith, but he continued to struggle with his vision of a bleak and terrible future.  Despite his new faith, he still didn’t fully grasp the promises of God.  He ends his Witness on a note of deep despair.  His poor theology left him no hope for history.

“Often Sad, but Not, at Bottom, Worried”

The just live in the light of the future Resurrection.  The godly man knows that he is not only on the winning side within history, but that everything he does has temporal and eternal consequences.  His labor is never in vain in the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58).  Even a cup of cold water given in Jesus name has its reward (Matt. 10:42).

Again, Rushdoony writes:

The just are the justified.  They are the redeemed of God in Christ.  They live by faith:  theirs is the vision of Christ’s triumph and Kingdom.  They know by faith that history is not a farce, nor man’s hopes destined to be confounded.  Their hope is from God, as is their faith.  They are covenant-keepers.  They move in the power of Christ’s first coming and His resurrection as the first-fruits of the new creation.  They themselves are, by their regeneration, members of that new creation.  They look therefore in the confidence of faith to the spread of Christ’s Kingdom and its world-triumph, and to His coming again in power (284).

In terms of such a faith and vision, sorrow and pain have their place, but hopelessness and despair aren’t part of the solution. Even more: The fat lady doesn’t sing until God gives her a nudge. Until then, we have Kingdom work to do… here and now. Jesus said, “Occupy till I come.”

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