Leadership in Hard Times: Lessons from Habakkuk’s “I will” Statements
We do not know what the ultimate effects of the coronavirus pandemic will be, but surely no one can doubt that we are currently living in difficult times. I have spoken a lot lately about the five-fold crisis that America currently faces—(1) health, with hundreds of thousands of lives at risk; (2) economic, with millions of jobs lost and an uncertain economic field ahead; (3) social, with continual demonstrations on the street and deep race and class divisions that do not appear to be soluble, (4) political, with government paralyzed with partisan division and gridlock, and (5) spiritual, with regular religious life disrupted and at risk of permanent change in patterns of involvement. How should leaders respond to such a time of crisis?
The prophet Habakkuk in the Bible offers a compelling set of lessons in his response to the crisis of his time. Apparently living around the year 605 BC when Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians defeated Pharoah Nero at the Battle of Carchemish, Habakkuk had a revelation from God that things would not get better, but rather worse during his time. Indeed, within about 20 years, the Babylonians would sack Jerusalem and carry the leadership of Judah off to captivity, putting an end to the Davidic era of Judah’s independence.
Habakkuk complained to the Lord, “How long must I call for help and you do not listen ... the law is paralyzed and justice never prevails?” (1:2). God responded by telling him to “watch and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe even if you were told.” Then God laid out the destruction that would soon come at the hands of the Babylonians. Bad news indeed. But Habakkuk’s response illustrated what God spoke to him, that “the righteous will live by faith” (2:4). Mostly through a series of statements starting with the words “I will,” Habakkuk declares his intentions to stand firm through the time of trial.
First, Habakkuk maintained a high view of God’s character, despite the contradictions to his theology that he experienced. “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong” (1:13). In hard times, Christian leaders must not lose sight of the goodness of God. No matter how difficult things get around us, God remains pure and holy and good—as we must remain. The more disorder we see around us, the more crucial it remains for us to keep our lives ordered aright.
Accordingly, Habakkuk remained attentive to receive a response from God: “I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts. I will look to see what [God] will say to me” (2:1). Notice the odd mixed metaphor: Habakkuk would “see” what God would “say.” Whether by showing or speaking, God has always communicated his will to the righteous. As Hanani said to Asa, “The eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chronicles 16:9). In Psalm 32:8 God says, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with my eye.” Whether by seeing or by hearing, Habakkuk expected God to speak, and I have always found that God will not remain silent toward those who fix their attention on God.
Although Habakkuk knew that God had decreed the coming of hard times, he called out to God to reveal his power and glory: “I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy” (3:2). Habakkuk continued to call out to God for the rescue of his people, and leaders should maintain a constant posture of prayer for the people they lead, especially in hard times. Often God did the greatest miracles in times of trouble. The exploits of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha—the very deeds Habakkuk made reference to—came during times of trouble and even judgment for God’s people. We have very good reason to believe that God will hear our cries for him to make his fame great in our time.
Habakkuk patiently believed in a better day in spite of the reversals he might have to suffer: “I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come upon the nation invading us. Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls” (3:6). Note carefully here that Habakkuk’s better day involved the eventual judgment of Judah’s enemy, but implicit in that comeuppance would be the end of aggression toward his people. The arrival of hard times never means, as Conway Twitty used to sing, that “all the good is gone.” (Country music singers seldom bear much resemblance to Old Testament prophets.) A better day will come, and we need not despair in the meantime, because we know that God remains with us.
Finally, Habakkuk declared that he will continue to live in joy despite the hard times that he was destined to live in: “I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (3:18). In that joyful spirit he concludes, “The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to go on the heights” (3:19). Despite the fact that he might have felt “down in the dumps” because of the observations his original complaint detailed, his dialogue with God has left him determined to go up on the heights. Christian leaders do not have warrant to descend into depression and doubt. Their dialogue with God will give them strength. We should never evaluate the privilege of hearing from God based on the content of what God shows us. Whether we will lead in good times or hard times, we do so in the honor of being found trustworthy by God. God has placed us in leadership amid the institutions we guide for a reason—because God’s eyes roamed the world until he found hearts that were thoroughly committed to him, that is, us. In hard times, leaders should commit their hearts to God even more, live by faith, and follow in the footsteps of Habakkuk, all the way up to the heights.