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the fig tree

What responses are open to us when everything goes wrong?

Though we regulate our existence, reduce risks and take out insurance, much that happens to us in life is beyond our control, like illness, redundancy or accident. Sometimes disasters strike simultaneously, like a fiendishly co-ordinated terrorist strike might, to leave us reeling. These present our most seriously challenging spiritual moments. Significantly, the Book of Job begins with multiple, overlapping traumas and leads into an existential crisis which, though written in ancient times, is timeless in its preoccupation.


The Canadian author Douglas Coupland has said his greatest fear in life is that God exists but turns out to be nasty. People who face layers of suffering may be less prone to this imagination than a more commonplace concern that God’s promises must have a different audience in mind, as if the small print at the bottom invalidates their own claim. Those caught in this way deserve respect, understanding and prayer. None of us knows how we are going to respond to multiple crises until we encounter them and so we should listen carefully to the experiences of the bereft, to gain insight.

The Book of Habakkuk ends with these rousing words:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and not fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength; (3:17-19a)

This is a story of a land afflicted by drought, harvest failure and income loss. There is every reason to question God in the spirit of lament which distinguishes other biblical prayers of distress, yet something different unfolds. The writer decides he will confront adversity itself with the defiance of a believer assured of the love of God; he cloaks himself against the icy winds with praise and thanksgiving. God is good and worthy of trust, his strength is greater than the crises which threaten life itself.


It would be presumptuous to say a false note is struck in this prayer, for we cannot hear its tune as perfectly from a distance. There may well have been great sadness and distress in Habakkuk’s heart; anyone faced with such danger would wobble. Yet he chooses to witness to the character of God and to cast himself upon God’s endless mercies as the only response he has control over.


In the 2003 Iraq war, we learned of a new bombing doctrine of shock and awe, where overwhelming force is used to cow a population into submission. In Habakkuk we find a different kind of doctrine: one where the shock of loss prompts a spirit of awe and where the individual finds new strength in defiant worship of the divine.



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