The term “cognitive dissonance” has become lamentably familiar in our culture. It describes a sense of conflict in our thinking, a feeling of being unable to line up what we see with what we believe; how we feel with how we know we should behave. Given the weight of world headlines and the proximity of the issues it describes, it is little wonder that this experience is so common.
As Christians we are not immune from this. Sometimes our experience of the world, its sensations and vexations, seem to contradict what we know to be true, and seem to complicate what we have come to trust in. This is a horribly disorienting feeling to have.
Of all of the biblical prophets, Habakkuk is perhaps the individual whom we could best describe as experiencing cognitive dissonance. His is a book on the brink, a book that is at breaking point, inhabiting the interface between thoroughgoing faith and outright fear. Habakkuk’s prophecy gives voice to the concerns and questions of thoughtful people within the nation who can see injustice, have cried to God for help, and are left confused at the outcome.
In this post I want to reflect a little on Habakkuk’s experience, showing the emotional and lyrical range that Old Testament prophecy can achieve, and finding points of contact with our own experiences. Habakkuk can help us as we weigh the woes of our world against the character and conduct of God, providing a good starting place to find firmness where we might have begun to falter. Habakkuk’s work also provides inspiration for those whose calling is to create, showing how words which speak our deepest doubt can often engender the strongest faith.
The poet, prophet, priest
Habakkuk is the grey man of Old Testament prophecy. Apart from the tiniest glimpses provided by his writing, we know nothing about him at all. We don’t know anything about his family, his biography, or even his chronology. Crunching the numbers and assessing the state of the nation of Judah that he describes, lands him within the lifetime of Jeremiah, but that is about all that we can capture of him. What we do learn of him in his book, however, is highly revealing.
Like a good jazz pianist, Habakkuk can employ dissonance creatively and beautifully, and gives us space to think tough thoughts. Andrew Roycroft
Habakkuk was a creative man and, as often goes with that temperament, a deep thinker. He was not a prophet who could content himself with surface explanations, or who could discipline his mind not to probe into the “why” of God’s actions as well as the “what.” He had access to a word hoard which could depict the ferocity and sovereignty of God in frightening terms, and he had sufficient musical nous to translate these reflections into music. The whole third chapter of his book is a song which manages to combine cultural references, personal confession, and a sense of literary balance which is astonishing. The book of Habakkuk is what happens when the Spirit of God enables a creative thinker with the soul of a poet to take a clear eyed view of the chaos of the world. The outcome is not always comfortable, but it is compelling.
As we might expect, Habakkuk writes from a distinctive angle. He dispenses with the usual formula of “God told me, now I’m telling you,” and instead writes a book which is akin to a spiritual journal. We are allowed to listen in on the prayer life of a poet-prophet, and to see the flex and fear which calling God out on his actions engenders, and the result is gut-wrenching and soul-inspiring by turns.
Wicked and wickedest
Habakkuk knows that his nation is in trouble, and he longs for God to intervene. The nub of the problem is justice and righteousness. The Law, designed to govern the hearts of those who would follow God, has become horribly inert, a monument to a past morality and nothing more (1:4). Cultural and judicial paralysis follow with the needs of the neediest neglected, while the appetites of the wealthiest are sated. The poor, the righteous, the godly, have neither recourse nor ally, and the trend of Judah seems to be inexorably downwards. Habakkuk can’t handle this, and so he offers his complaint to God, asking for an answer. The response he receives is not the one he had wished for.
God’s answer to Habakkuk is total and terrifying. He is going to discipline Judah by sending the Babylonians. They are a fierce nation, who pay their bills in the blood of their enemies, who consume continents and cultures with voracity and viciousness. Their machinery of warfare is nightmarishly efficient, their cavalry combining the speed of leopards, the rapaciousness of wolves, and the acuity of eagles. They fish in the ocean of the world with hooks, netting nations, slaking their blood-thirst and exploiting the needy.
Habakkuk is horrified. His solution for injustice was not more injustice, his antidote to arrogant leaders was not more despotic rulers. His revulsion, his confusion and discombobulation are palpable as he writes. Does God’s decree not contradict his character? How can this be justice? How can this be so? This is cognitive dissonance 101.
What is refreshing for us is that Habakkuk records all of this. He doesn’t closet or privatise his fundamental struggle with the ways of God, and he doesn’t mute his voice as a poet in portraying it. As a prophet, Habakkuk excels at honesty, and as a poet he is a master at lament, liberating others within Judah to say the unsayable: namely that at a national and moral level, God doesn’t seem to be working righteousness, and his solution seems contradictory of his character.
This gives us a space to breathe in the biblical account, especially if we have to handle an inner voice which insists on answers. Like a good jazz pianist, Habakkuk can employ dissonance creatively and beautifully, and gives us space to think tough thoughts. Given our national crises, given the ubiquity of injustice and inequity across our world, given the political sleight of hand which many spiritual leaders whom we have lionised in the past have pulled off, Habakkuk is a book which reestablishes our right to not remain silent when things aren’t just.
Even though, even so
The conclusion of Habakkuk’s prophecy greatly elevates his relevance to our own times. Having asked, and having been answered, he now composes a song for the choir to sing. It’s a song of the terrifying justice of God, the mountain-melting righteousness of his name, the tsunami sending shockwaves of his action in the world—a piece of such power that it leaves the prophet trembling in its wake. Then the conclusion sweetly dawns, and the goodness of God is planted in the bitter soil of present circumstances.
Habakkuk has to handle the “even though”—even though the fig crop has failed, even though the olives are cast away, even though the cattle are destroyed, even though the symbols of national welfare will be trampled by the horror of warfare, even though. Habakkuk sings a barren harvest which dwarfs the dustbowl desolation of Steinbeck, he casts a cold eye on the hardship of our world which makes the modernist playwright or poet appear positively cheery, and he does so in the context of faith. “Even though this is where we are” is the motif of his poetry, a recurring refrain which grinds the reader’s nose further and further into the pain and penury of their times.
Habakkuk is not, however, a Buddhist or a fatalist. There is an “even so” which matches the “even though,” a bedrock joy which journeys with him into a future which seems to belong to Babylon. This is the knowledge that God will strengthen him, and equip him to work through these tough times, and wait for the salvation which has been promised. Habakkuk uses Psalm 18 as a “found poem,” taking some spare parts from it to compose his own praise. God will give him the feet of a deer, so that he can scale the heights away from harm, God will not abandon him, God will uphold him, and in this there is joy.
Strike up the band
What is wonderful in all of this is that the choir would sing these sentiments. In the sunset years of Judah, when the the streets of Jerusalem were doomed to destruction, when injustice increased more and more, what sounds could be heard from the Temple choir? “Even though, even so.” Theirs was neither anthem nor dirge, but the deep certainty that suffering would come, but that God would be there. The joy that the string instruments would strum, that the raised voices would declare, would not be the easy joy of harvest, but soul-wrought joy from hardship. Habakkuk’s art would neither embellish difficulty nor abandon hope—he told things as they were, and as they would be.
All of this can both help us and move us to action. Habakkuk enters into the pain of a questioning mind, a broken heart, and a creative soul, but he also gives us a pattern for our own output in a world devoid of justice and teetering on the edge of final unbelief. Habakkuk takes us to the edge of a world which could be without God, but manages to affirm sincere faith. On our part, this demands stories, songs, poems, and paintings which opt for no quick or easy answers, but that can articulate a faith strengthened in its weakness and watching its world through tears, yet with hope.