In Philippians 4:4-9, Paul gives 6 principles for dealing with stress. They are presented as imperative verbs, which means they are commands, not suggestions, not good ideas, not helpful hints. They are more akin to military marching orders! The first one is “Rejoice” (v.4). Next is “Let be known” (v.5), then “Be [not] anxious” (v.6), followed by “be made known [requests] (v.6), “let your mind dwell” (v.8), and finally, “practice” (v.9).
We introduced the first of these 6 principles, “Rejoice!” here. Now we want to look at the life of an Old Testament Prophet in order to get a shining example of how to rejoice when our circumstances don’t seem to allow it. If we go to the end of the book of Habakkuk, we see a man who is doing what he is supposed to be doing: rejoicing in the Lord!
“I will exalt [(greatly rejoice)…where? IN THE LORD (Philippians 4:4)] in the Lord: I will take joy in the God of my Salvation. God, the Lord is my strength; He makes my feet like the deer’s; He makes we walk in my high places.” (Habakkuk 3:18-19).
Interesting that in verse 19, he says that God is my strength. He did not say, “God is my anesthetic; my numbing agent”. He didn’t say, “My God is to me like strong liquor, or a good joint, or a good movie, or great music, or anything else that captivates my mind so that I don’t have to think about the harsh realities of life.” He said, “God is my strength!” In other words, God has the strength and the resources to take me through the stuff I have to go through, so that I can know the kind of joy that is truly available to the Christian.
So, how did he get there? In Chapter 1 of Habakkuk, he is a very confused prophet. He is looking at his native Judah, full of violence, sin and corruption. Men are flagrantly disobeying the Law of God and distorting justice. They seem to be getting away with it. As the prophet of God, He is outraged by this! He’s confused. So, in verses 2-4, he cries out to the Lord,
“How long O Lord will I cry for help? Where have you been? What is going on? I don’t understand, You’re a Holy and Righteous God. We are your people, the chosen race, and your nation is full of corruption, violence and sin, and there’s no response from you. You are silent to us! And sin just goes on, unpunished!” (IB paraphrase)”
He is confused, and his circumstances are not good. His emotions at this point are not characterized by joy.
Then God answers with a dizzying description of a military power in verses 6-11, that will sweep through like the wind and pass on. Wait. What? Imagine Habakkuk’s thoughts: “Now for a long time we’ve had injustice unpunished, but now you’re going the bring a military super power to discipline us?? How can that be??” So, he asks another question of God. The second half of v.13 says,
Why do you look with favor on those who deal treacherously? Why are you silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they?”
With this news, Habakkuk is even more confused. He may be thinking, “its bad enough that you let our sin go unpunished, but now your’re bringing people who are more wicked that we are, and you’re gonna let them destroy us?!? So, he has questions about the holiness of God. Earlier, in verse 12, he said,
“Are You not from everlasting O LORD, my God, my Holy One? (v.12). Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You cannot look on wickedness with favor. (v.13a).
He is very subtly reminding God that He is supposed to be a holy, righteous God who cannot look on evil and it HAS TO BE WRONG to bring in these wicked sinful people to wipe out sinful Judah! He is confused! He is questioning his God!
Consider what this news would mean to Habakkuk. The Chaldeans, or Babylonians, would come and destroy his entire way of life, his entire culture, kill many of his family members and friends, wipe out society as he knew it. This is a catastrophic event that he is facing. “There is a foreign army coming to town and is going to obliterate us, our history, our culture, our family, our country…. ” This means that Habakkuk has failed! He is a prophet of God tasked with proclaiming the warnings of God so people would repent. If they did repent, guess who would NOT come destroy them?? Their enemies!
In not so many words, God is saying, “I’ve sent you to these people, you’ve proclaimed your message, they haven’t repented, they’re wicked and they need to be judged.” In other words, “You’re done, Habakkuk.” Nothing could be more all-encompassing, as far as his future was concerned, than what he is living at this particular time in his life. And it causes him to cry out in confusion, and seriously question the character of God.
And then God responds again, in one of the most powerful responses in all of Scripture,
“The righteous shall live by his faith. (v.4b).
So, there ends all of Habakkuk’s questions. The remainder of the book is him getting his heart and mind in line with the will of God until we come to the end of chapter 3. He has not forgotten his circumstances. He isn’t denying his circumstances. He isn’t asking God to take his circumstances away. Verse 17 says,
“Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food, the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls…”
That is the description of an agrarian community going down the drain – destroyed. THAT’S IT, WE’RE WIPED OUT! And then we come to verse 18:
“Yet I will exult (greatly rejoice) in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation”
Here is the principle: when you and I face significant situations that impact us in such a way that we begin to experience the symptoms of stress and anxiety, God does not want us to run into our room to have a Bible study, and have a prayer time and try to obey so that He can somehow anesthetize us to (or shield us from) the reality of the hardship of that coming event! That is not what your God is in your life to do.
Rather, we are to go into our room, have our Bible study, have our prayer time and get our life obedient. Then we are to put on our boots, put on our helmet, and suffer through the reality of whatever we’re facing, knowing that we have a sovereign God, (not fully understanding all that He is doing) and grab on to Him by faith and say, “God, wherever you are taking me, I’m happy to go!”
Nowhere in scripture does the idea of rejoicing in the LORD mean that God shields us from the terrible things we face. God is ALWAYS seen as the One who can give us the strength, and build in us the character to go through it with purpose and meaning to the glory of God. Allow the hardships of our circumstances to drive us to faith in God, so that we hang on to Him in such a way that He gives the strength to move with purpose in the midst of our hardship.