In his first complaint, the prophet reveals that he has been praying for a long period, apparently without an answer from God. The delay in receiving an answer is made more difficult because the contents of his prayers are logical and based on a love for God’s law. It is logical to assume that the holy God will act to defend his law and love for the Lord will cause his people to pray to him for protection of his people. These things were true in the prophet’s day and they are true in our day. Yet the response from heaven to Habakkuk seemed to him to be one of silence and we too can deduce the same assessment as far as our prayers are concerned. But was he right, and are we right, to do so?
Habakkuk’s first complaint raises two common questions in the outlook of Christians. First, why does the Lord sometimes take a long time to answer a repeated prayer request? We don’t know how long the prophet had been praying in this manner. Second, why does the Lord allow his devoted people to see horrid sins, even among the professing people of God?
The concern about delays in answered prayer is a common one and usually is very difficult to experience. It is easy to indicate the different ways in which God answers. He can say ‘yes’ immediately and we receive what we ask, he can ‘yes’ but adjust his answer from what we requested, he can say ‘yes’ but not answer for a long time, and he can say ‘no’. The problem with the two final aspects is that we don’t know if he has said yes or no. So we have to keep on praying and wait.
One reason why he delays in sending an answer is to test our love for him. The reality is, do we love God more than the thing we are asking for, or do we love the thing more than God. The ‘thing’ may not be evil in itself, but it becomes evil if it replaces God in our affections.
A second reason why he delays in sending an answer is connected to us using the right arguments. Imagine a child coming to his father and asking for something. The father asks the child why he should it and the child replies, ‘Because I want it.’ That might be acceptable in a three-year-old, but not with an older child. The child has to explain why he should receive it. What arguments should we use in prayer to God? His glory and his promises. I am certain that a failure to use them is why our prayers are often not answered. God delights to honour his own promises. This is what it means to pray in faith. Praying in faith is not convincing myself that God will listen to a prayer, rather it is realising that God has made definite promises about certain matters and I can pray with confidence about such things.
A third reason for delays in answering prayer is that the Lord knows what we are asking for would not be good for us. Having been a Christian for forty years, one of the details of my experience for which I am very thankful is that the Lord did not answer yes to some of my most earnest prayers. If he had said yes then, I would not be here now. The Lord waits until we are more mature and then we will stop making some requests.