The Just Shall Live by Faith

In the Book of Habakkuk, the prophet wrestles with God about the unjust world in which he lives. Habakkuk complains about oppression and violence against the weak, but he is unclear about the actual cause of those problems. Sometimes, he appears to lament the injustice of the Judean rulers, who allow criminals to get away with murder. At other times, he bemoans the imperialism of the Babylonians. In any case, he wonders why God does not do something to bring justice to the world.

As we read along in the book, we see that the aggressors have their own inner problems. They appear to have a God complex, which influences them to view themselves (not God) as the source of justice. They continue to gather nations and plunder into their net as sacrifices to themselves. They are looking to the wrong thing, wealth, for their security, and they are never satisfied. Although they have a lot, they never seem to have enough, but they always want more and more. Habakkuk 2:4 sums up the situation well when it says concerning the wicked, “Their spirit is not right in them” (NRSV). Wrong thinking is leading them into wrong actions.

But Habakkuk 2:4 contrasts the wicked with the righteous. Whereas the wicked are continually grasping for more and more, the righteous live by faith. The wicked are looking to this life and their own efforts to help them maintain a sense of self-esteem and security, but the righteous trust in God.

I have two reactions to Habakkuk 2:4:

1. I struggle with Paul’s interpretation of the passage. Paul uses it to argue that people do not become righteous before God through their obedience to the law, but rather by faith. In Galatians 3:11-12, Paul states: “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, ‘Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.'”

Paul may be arguing here that one gains eternal life by faith in what God has done through Christ, not through obedience to the law. For Paul, God declares a person to be righteous solely on the basis of his faith, whether or not he has done the legal demands of the Torah. Paul says in Romans 4:5: “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”

But I’m not sure if Habakkuk 2:4 means that a person is righteous by faith alone. The passage may be saying that righteous people trust God in addition to performing the other righteous commands that God has given. Of course, if I accept that righteousness is based on works in any way, shape, or form, then I am faced with an inevitable question: How good do I have to be before I can finally receive the label of “righteous”? Can anyone have security before God, if good works are a prerequisite to becoming righteous in his sight?

I agree with Paul that faith has to come before good works. On some level, a person has to trust God in order to submit to God’s commands. When someone obeys God, that person is saying that God knows the right way for us to live and rewards those who diligently seek him.

Also, faith is a God-centered perspective, whereas trusting in anything else is human-centered. Habakkuk was contrasting those who had faith in God with people who worshipped and trusted in themselves. Similarly, Paul was attempting to counter the Galatian heresy, which emphasized self-righteousness rather than praising God for what he had done.

But God wants us to have not only faith, and not only good works, but faith and good works. In every writing of the Bible, there is the message that God deserves our trust and upholds a righteous standard. God is patient with us when we do not obey, but there are bad consequences if we continue to practice wickedness. Isaiah encouraged wicked King Ahaz to have faith that God would deliver Judah from the SyroEphraimite alliance (Isaiah 7). At the same time, Jeremiah was clear that trusting God while continuing to be wicked was not a path to national security (Jeremiah 7:4ff.). God invites us to trust him and to make him our refuge, but he still enforces a righteous standard.

So how can I have spiritual security? To be honest, I don’t entirely. But I try to tell myself that God loves me and sees me as a work in progress. Is God satisfied with the way that I am right now, at this very moment? No, for he knows that I should be better. And, even if I often don’t obey God as I should, I still long to be better. And God can at least work with that. When people turn their backs on God or reject righteousness, as Israel did on numerous occasions, then God may see a need to take drastic measures.

2. Does faith mean that I cannot doubt? One thing I admire about many of the biblical characters is that they are not afraid to doubt God. The Psalmist asks God why he isn’t bringing justice to the world, as does Habakkuk. Job looks at the world around him and wonders why God allows the wicked to prosper. You would think that, if there were a God, this world wouldn’t be so bad.

The biblical characters strike me as real because they feel pain and express their emotions to God in an honest manner. A lot of these happy-happy Christians, on the other hand, are a turn-off to me, for they just don’t seem to be real. Maybe their happy-happy demeanor is a mask. Perhaps they have never questioned their own faith. Or, on a positive note, maybe they don’t take things as personally as I do, or Christianity just makes sense to them. I can’t really judge them as wrong simply because they don’t approach life the same way I do. But I would hope that they’d have compassion towards me rather than judging me for not being happy-happy.

We may wrestle with God and wonder why the world is as it is, but, somewhere along the way, we just have to trust him. That’s how we can become whole. I can only grumble about the world for so long. Doing so on a continual basis can be detrimental, to myself and others. I don’t want to be like Simon Stimson, the alcoholic choirmaster in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Both before and after his suicide, he focused only on the negative aspects of life, even though he knew better. I would like to be real and honest about the problems of life, even as I offer hope and wisdom to myself and others.

But I don’t think that my life is so neat that I can completely leave behind a stage of bitterness before I go on to a stage of hope. The two feelings can coexist. Often, hope emerges in the midst of my bitterness. I may rant and rave against life, when suddenly a thought comes forth that gives me the strength and hope to keep on keeping on.

So I should try to trust in God, even as I fearlessly ask him my questions. And, to bring this post full circle, this is what Habakkuk demonstrates in his book: faith in progress.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to The Just Shall Live by Faith

  1. Anonymous says:

    do you think Paul sometimes used Gezerah Shewa? And if so, the original meaning of the text was only of secondary value. -Jake

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  2. James Pate says:

    Hey there, Jake.

    I have a book called The World of the New Testament, or something like that (it’s currently buried under my other books), and it presents a fairly decent case that Paul uses Jewish exegesis. He uses qal vachomer, for example, when he rhetorical ask that, if the results of Adam’s sin had a big effect, how much more would Christ’s righteousness.

    At times, Paul seems to rest his argument on a contextual approach, as when he emphasizes that Abraham was justified by faith before his circumcision. At other times, he doesn’t really focus on context at all. For example, in Galatians 3, he says that God made the promise to Abraham’s SEED, not SEEDS, indicating that the text sees seed as an individual person. But he’s not always consistent on this. He sees seed as collective when he tells Gentile Christians that they are Abraham’s seed, or when he says that he himself is the seed of Abraham.

    I wonder at times what the boundaries for arguments were in those days. A lot of times, when I read the rabbinic sources (and there is much that I’ve not read), it seems that it doesn’t always present argument and counter-argument, and then another counter-argument, but rather a list of possibilities.

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