How can someone find joy after they’ve lost everything? That’s the mystery in the last verses of Habakkuk. It seems both impossible and unthinkable to find joy when everything we’ve worked for is gone.
Habakkuk 3:17 begins with, “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 …”
This verse is about total loss and abandonment. No figs. No fruit. No olives. No food. No sheep. No cattle. No livelihood. This passage is about losing everything. Having nothing to eat. Nothing to sell. Nothing to build a life on.
What does Habakkuk say to the Israelites about this devastating situation? One would think he would tell his people not to fear because God will restore their fortunes. Or remind them of God’s future deliverance. Or perhaps mention God’s great plans for them as Jeremiah does in in Jeremiah 29: 11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Words like that would give them incentive and comfort to press on.
But that is not the comfort that Habakkuk brings. He is not looking past the circumstances of today towards a better day when God will redeem everything. Habakkuk offers hope in the midst of the wreckage, not simply hope for the future. Habakkuk says that even in the middle of this terrible situation, he will find joy in God. After detailing the utter destruction that Israel is experiencing, he declares in Habakkuk 3: 18-19: “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.”
Habakkuk is rejoicing in the Lord amidst total loss. This may sound both insane and impossible; it doesn’t make worldly sense. But that’s the beauty of faith in God. For Christians, our deepest joy is not in what we have or what we do. We know that nothing in this world is permanent. While things may be going well and everything may seem under control now, we realize that could quickly change. Our control is only an illusion.
We are all one phone call away from disaster. One phone call could inform us that our savings have vanished due to fraud or a market crash or fire. One phone call could give us the unexpected diagnosis that we are gravely ill. One phone call could notify us that one of our loved ones is gone. One phone call could change our lives forever. Our happiness is a lot more tenuous than any of us would like to believe.
This fragility is why Habakkuk 3 is so comforting. Habakkuk shows us that joy is not rooted in our circumstances. We can have joy even in sorrow. And sometimes our joy can deepen in sorrow.
Habakkuk is not happy about his circumstances. And he is not pretending that he is. He’s also not saying that he will make it through, dragging himself through the day, hoping for a better tomorrow. Habakkuk says that he will rejoice in the Lord today. In the midst of the devastation. When everything looks dark.
How is that even possible? How do you have joy when life is in shambles? How can anyone look past the raging storm when they are in it? How does anyone rejoice when life is falling apart?
It’s not easy. It will not just happen naturally. For me, what happens naturally is resentment, frustration, envying others with easier situations and wondering why God hasn’t delivered me yet. Naturally I imagine that the worst will happen. Naturally I feel sorry for myself.
When disaster strikes, I can’t just sit back passively, letting my natural tendencies take over. If I do, my fears and sin will control me. I must deliberately choose to focus on the Lord, taking my eyes off the wind and the waves, and fixing my gaze firmly on Jesus. I must take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, asking him to guide and direct my mind. I need to ask God for help, and then listen for his voice through prayer and reading Scripture.
When I keep my eyes and thoughts on Jesus, my perspective radically changes. Only then can I find happiness apart from my circumstances. I can experience joy in simply being with Christ, poring over his word, talking to him constantly, sensing his presence everywhere I go. And this joy strangely grows deeper in adversity. I have found that when the intensity of the storm has passed, I have later longed for the fellowship I had with God in the hurricane.
In adversity, I have learned to rely on God’s strength, which is made perfect in my weakness. My dependence on the Lord has grown and my faith deepened as I learned what relying on God truly meant. It’s one thing to hang a plaque on the wall or memorize a verse about trusting God; it’s another thing to live and breathe it.
Finding joy in God alone, completely depending and relying on him, made little sense to me as a young believer, when much of my life seemed idyllic. Though I had a disability from infancy, my twenties were exceptionally easy. Life was good. I had financial stability. A flourishing career. A strong marriage. Meaningful relationships. Fun activities. While I knew the Lord and he was important to me, I could also could go days without much time in his word or in prayer and scarcely notice.
Yet over the following decades, as life grew more difficult, I began to understand what Habakkuk was talking about. There were years when the olive crop had failed and there were no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls. Years when every day was filled with struggle and pain. Years when nothing I did was successful or bore fruit. And it was in those years that I first experienced real joy. A joy that deepened and became surer and more lasting through my suffering.
Habakkuk 3 is an exquisite example of this joy and hope. A hope not based on the assumption that tomorrow will be a better day but rather a hope based on the assurance of God’s continuing presence in our lives. This hope will never disappoint us because it points us to the greatest joy in the world: being with Jesus, now and in eternity.