One Foot in Front of the Other

Read: Habakkuk 2:1-4; 3:16-19

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith (Habakkuk 2:1-4, NRSV).

“The righteous live by their faith,” the prophet Habakkuk assures us.

That’s one of those things that is true until it isn’t. If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you feel like your faith is pretty much running on fumes, you’ll know what I mean. “I know that I’m supposed to live by faith,” you say to yourself. “But it’s my faith that’s flagging. How am I supposed to live by something so unreliable?”

The irony here is that we often make faith into a kind of commodity—or worse—an achievement. If you’re familiar with the role this verse played in the Reformation, this is mind-blowing. Martin Luther famously relied on this verse to argue that we are justified by faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ—and not by our own works. New Testament writers blazed the trail for this important point by also quoting this pivotal verse from the prophet Habakkuk (see Romans 1:17, Galations 3:11, and Hebrews 10:38). I suspect all of them would be horrified at this tendency to make faith itself one of the “works” by which we seek salvation.

I’m not here to pick a fight with Martin Luther, or much less, with these New Testament writers. Like Luther, I am one of those people who is cursed with a low sense of guilt and a high sense of responsibility. Works are exhausting. I could out-do all the do-gooders in the world and it would still not be enough. I’ll take faith over works any day. And yet….

We’re right back where we started, aren’t we? If the righteous are supposed to live by faith, then what happens when our faith is not always as strong as we’d like it to be?

There is help here, I think, in taking a closer look at Habakkuk’s word choice. The Hebrew word, emunah, is one of those words that can mean two things at once. Yes, it means “faith”; but it also means “faithfulness.” In our hurry to hear the canonical echoes with the New Testament, we often fail to listen for this equally important meaning. “Yes,” Habakkuk is saying, the righteous shall live by their faith. But at the very same time, they shall live by their faithfulness.

If you want an example of what he’s talking about, read all the way to the end of his little book. There, in a few verses of poignant poetry, the prophet gives us a glimpse of this kind of “one foot in front of the other” faith/faithfulness. Even if you’re not a farmer, I think you’ll appreciate the pain and the courage of these words:

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and there is no fruit 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; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

and makes me tread upon the heights.

What’s the message here? Maybe it is simply this: When faith flags, keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes faith is less of a feeling than it is an act of gritty determination. And both, in the end, are a gift from God.

Ponder: What does living by faith/faithfulness look like in your own life right now?

Pray: I believe. Help thou my unbelief. Help me to be faithful even when faith is in short supply.