Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I’m delighted to introduce you to a new voice in ACBC, Tom Sugimura. I’m so grateful for this brother, he serves as a pastor, church planting mentor, and a professor of biblical counseling at The Master’s University. He’s the author of The Church Behind Barbed Wire and Habakkuk: God’s Answers to Life’s Most Difficult Questions. He and his wife, Amanda are raising their four children in Southern California. Now, some of you may remember Tom and his name, he spoke at our pre-conference this past year, in 2021, in Hickory Grove. And I’m so grateful for this brother and his service to ACBC and his work in Southern California, both in his church and at The Master’s University. Tom, I’m really interested in this topic. First of all, welcome to the podcast.
Tom Sugimura: Thank you, Dale. It’s a joy to be here.
Dale Johnson: Listen, I am so grateful for this conversation, it’s always helpful for us. Sometimes we get as biblical counselors sort of in the weeds about passages and I’m not saying that as a negative thing, it’s a good thing. But oftentimes we forget to step back, look at the broader context of a passage or a broader context of the book, and just to see the beauty of what God is weaving in and throughout the book. And so, I’m looking forward to how we’re going to dive in to see counsel from this particular Old Testament prophet. And let’s be honest, are many of you out there making your counselees memorize some passage from Habakkuk or one of the other so-called minor prophets? Probably not. So, this is going to be a fun exercise.
I want to start here by talking about suffering. Habakkuk is definitely talking about this issue, as you know, God and Habakkuk are going back and forth and he can’t believe, the prophet cannot believe that God is going to do this sort of thing. He is definitely talking about suffering. So, why do suffering people relate so well to the prophet Habakkuk in the Old Testament? What are some of the difficult questions that people still ask today when faced with problems, like we’re becoming very acquainted with in this world right now?
Tom Sugimura: Well Dale, I think it’s because Habakkuk is an everyman. He’s an old-timer, he’s a minor prophet like you said, but his name is only mentioned twice in all of Scripture, and yet he speaks openly and honestly with God. He’s a friend of God, he has a relationship with God, and the book begins with the oracle that Habakkuk, the prophet saw. An oracle is a vision. It’s a revelation, but it could also be translated as a burden, and so, just like us as biblical counselors, we’re seeking to bring revelation to people that we have received from the Lord. But at the same time, we see it as a responsibility, a burden to minister to suffering people.
Dale Johnson: Now, I want you to flesh that out a little bit, as we think, about the things that we learn. We can all relate to the issues of suffering. Sometimes we act like our suffering is different, but when we boil things down to human suffering, there’s nothing new under the Sun in the ways in which we deal with suffering. So, what are some of the primary things that not just that we learn about our suffering or that people had relatable suffering. What are some of the things that we learn about the Lord from the book of Habakkuk?
Tom Sugimura: We see that the Lord can handle any of our questions. But it matters how we asked them. We’re not to complain about the Lord, but we can bring our complaints to the Lord. And so, we see that Habakkuk the prophet laments before the Lord in prayer, but he never loses his faith in God. And so, we see messages about the Lord in the book of Habakkuk. In chapter 1, we see His unchanging attributes, we see that He is everlasting. We see that He is eternal. Habakkuk addresses Him as my God and my Lord, and there’s a personal relationship there and so, we can help our counselees see that there is an interaction and imminence there that we can connect them to this God of the universe. We look at God and we see that He’s faithful, He’s called the Rock or “O, Rock” as Habakkuk addresses Him directly. And so, we can see that this God is a Rock and we can take that metaphorical imagery and we can help our counselees see that He’s stable and He’s secure and He’s a place of refuge. And not only that, but He’s a firm foundation and a place on which to stand. And so, we see that this God is faithful, but He’s also Sovereign.
In Habbakukk 1:12, it says He ordained. He established. He is in control of this universe. And in addition to that, He’s holy, His eyes are pure than anything else. He is sinless. He’s a holy God, and so, Habakkuk cries out to this God even in the midst of his suffering, he knows that God’s attributes do not change, His character never waivers, and so, when he asked these difficult questions of the Lord, he ends up realizing that the Lord Himself is the answer to those difficult questions.
Dale Johnson: Now, there’s a reason Tom that I did not ask you to give me counseling practices and principles first. And I want to point this out, I think this is really important for those of you who do counseling a lot. We don’t walk into the Scripture trying to find some sort of counseling principle. What you’ve done here and answering some of these questions, I think helps even us on a very basic level to think hermeneutically about the Scriptures first. And then, out of the meaning of the text, the things that we learn that God reveals about Himself and about people. Now, we start to get to counseling principles. Okay. So, I appreciate the way that you work through this.
Now, let’s talk about what particular counseling principles and practices can we learn from this book? And here’s the reason is because again, people don’t think about Habakkuk as one of their top 10 list of where counseling principles can reside. But, this shows the beauty of the Word in every case, the principles that the Lord teaches us about Himself and about us where we can see how those things apply to life. So, talk a little bit about those principles and practices.
Tom Sugimura: Habakkuk is asking questions, such as, “God, where are you when I need you? Are you blind to the sin in this world, the evils in this world? Are you deaf to the prayers of your people? Are you even there?” And he’s asking this, this question of, “Will I make it through this trial? Why do bad things happen to good people? And why did good things seem to always happen to bad people?” And then, he comes to this conclusion in Habakkuk Chapter 2, “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.” And this is a picture of Habakkuk turning to the Lord in prayer, and he’s standing on the truth of Scripture, and he’s standing on the truth of who God is, and he’s standing firm in this earnest prayer of lament before the Lord. If you will, he’s on the watchtower on the walls of the city of Jerusalem. He’s looking out, not for the enemies that are coming, but for the Lord who will surely come and answer his prayers. And so, we see that the practice of Habakkuk in the midst of these difficult questions, turning to the One who has the answers.
We also see in Habakkuk 2:4 the answer that he gets is that “the righteous shall live by his faith.” One of the things I love about the Old Testament is that it’s quoted often in the New Testament. And this verse, we see it in Romans 1 and Galatians 3, and Paul is talking about saving faith. He’s describing how the faithful are declared righteous through the ministry of justification. But then, you see that the writer of the Hebrews, he’s speaking about a persevering faith. In Hebrews Chapter 10, he shows how the righteous are kept faithful, and this reminds us and our counselees that the same faith that justifies is also the faith that sanctifies. It’s remind us that Habakkuk 2:4 which says that “the righteous shall live by faith” ministers to us both in our righteousness at the moment of salvation as well as the righteousness that carries on throughout our life. And so, we see that the Lord throughout this old book and throughout Habakkuk’s life is the answer to life’s most difficult questions.
And I love how the book ends, even in Habakkuk 3 verses 17 through 19 at the end, it’s talking about the “even thoughs” of life. And sometimes we come to our counselees and we say to them. “What if the worst case scenario did come true? What if you know the fig tree no longer bears fruit? And what if the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food and the flock be cut off from the fold? What if all of these terrible things do happen? Can you still trust in the Lord? Can you still hold fast to the truths of Scripture? Do you know that He loves you no matter what else is going on in your life? And so, the book of Habakkuk ministers to sufferers and we see how all of this works out in the context of the book.
Dale Johnson: Now, I found that unbelievably encouraging. And as we think about you know, counseling and people changing and moving, is the God that spoken about in the Old Testament is not a different God than what we talked about in the New Testament. And He still has those same goals Habakkuk 2:14 “His glory spreads across the earth as the waters cover the sea.” And this is a part of the work in counseling that we do is seeing people conformed to the image of Christ, and I appreciate several of the things that you mentioned about God’s work in accomplishing this in the ways in which we were involved in the accomplishing this.
One thing that you said at the very end, I think it was really helpful for us to know and I think it speaks something about methodology and counseling is, God fully acknowledges with the if-then happens, or if that happens. Okay, that’s how we perceive it from a human perspective, counseling from the Bible is case wisdom, it’s wisdom applied to the variability of life and some people want modern counseling methodology to be infused where it’s systematic and it seems to make sense in orderly fashion. Biblical counseling is not set up that way because the earth is like a shifting shadow, the only thing that doesn’t change which we anchor ourselves to is God. And I think that’s helpful for us to realize and I think the way that you’ve helped us to look at Habakkuk from a broad perspective really helps us to see that flow and that God’s wisdom is sufficient, and God’s character is unchanging, which meets all the demands of our daily life, which fluctuates. The circumstances that fluctuate and the earthly things that come and go and pass away.
Now, in counseling, we often think specifically about the individual and how we apply the Word individually, and sometimes we discount the beauty of corporate worship and the way in which we are encouraged and grow and change in this way. But talk for just a second about how God has designed soul care really to be a corporate adventure, a corporate practice among His people.
Tom Sugimura: Sure, that’s a good question. Habakkuk, it seems like it’s just a prophet talking with his God. This is one of those prophetic books where there’s not any people in the nation involved. And yet, in Habakkuk chapter 3, we see an interesting note in verse 1, “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth,” which is a term, a musical term that speaks about the corporate worship of the body of believers. At the very end in verse 19, to the choirmaster with stringed instruments, which shows that this was not just a prophet talking with his God, but at some point, this prophecy was written down. It was composed, it was set to music, it was used within the corporate worship of Israel, perhaps even in the exile and beyond. We think about it, and this was one of the songs that Jesus must have sung in the worship practices of His day. And so, we see that one man’s struggle has become a nation’s song, and I think it helps us as we think about being a part of a larger body, being a part of the church that we are ministering one to another. And sometimes, our suffering, our struggle allows us to comfort others with the comfort that we have received.
One of the things I love about looking at the text of Scripture is that there is a connectedness to everything. And so, Habakkuk is able to remember God’s past faithfulness, as he endures the present suffering. And so, like all the prophets, he looks back to the creation, he looks back to the Exodus in the power of God and rescuing His people from the Red Sea and from the slavery in Egypt. He quotes the law in Deuteronomy, he quotes the prophets, he quotes the writings of the Psalms, and he has all of this foundational understanding of Scripture that he brings into his writings. And then, we as Christians today, we can look back as well at the broad span of history, and we can see the faithful saints and the exile like Daniel and Esther and Nehemiah and we can even look to the Cross. And we can see that the sufferings of Cross was redeemed through Christ, and these are all ways that we are interconnected as the body of Christ, not just within our local churches and not just within our denominations, but even across history and across time spans.
Dale Johnson: Now that brings me to the question, as I think about your use here of the Old Testament, but we have a tendency, sometimes in biblical counseling. Let’s be honest. And even in Christendom at large to major in the New Testament, and there’s good reason for that. We see the fulfillment, the mystery has now been revealed, right, in Christ, and that makes sense to us. We want to grab a hold of the fullness of that mystery, and that’s unfortunate in some ways that we would discount the Old Testament. And I think you’ve demonstrated today that we ought not do that. But for some of our counselors, we may say, “Man, I don’t know how to take account solely to bridge the gap to make sense of an Old Testament ancient world, reality.” Bring it to the present-day, talk to us a little bit about how we do that as counselors.
Tom Sugimura: That’s a good question as well. I agree with you, very often we don’t preach the Old Testament. We don’t counsel the Old Testament. By modern standards, the Old Testament prophets in particular were some pretty weird dudes. You got Isaiah who’s walking around without clothes on, Jeremiah with the wooden yoke on his neck, Ezekiel cuts off all his hair and throws it to the wind, and Hosea marries a harlot. And so, we look at these prophets, and we say, what could we ever have in common with them? What can they teach us? And it’s like, all of Scripture though, we need to first understand the context of when these books were written and when these prophecies were given, and so, we understand the cultural context and what was happening in southern Judah at the time. We understand the historical context that the Northern Kingdom of Israel is already been taken by the Assyrians, and the prophets are speaking the judgment that its to come and the Babylonian exile is only a few decades away. And we look at the literary context and and the ways that prophecy was used to communicate God’s word to the people of that time. And so, we need to understand all of these contextual understandings of the Scriptures. And then, we need as counselors and as preachers to bridge the gap, by translating whatever timeless truths there were into the present-day application.
One of those things I found in Habakkuk 2:6-20, what you see are five woe oracles and it’s an actual structure in the literary design of the text that shows how the greedy and the unjust, and the arrogant and the seductive and the idolatrous person, it’s all rooted in specific heart issues. And then, we see that the Lord brings consequences judgments to those people specifically for their sins. And if we didn’t have that little structure, we might get a sense of what’s going on, but we don’t get the specific precision that I think the author of Scripture wants us to understand. And then, once we understand precisely what that original audience was meant to understand, and then, it’s our job as counselors to help people see that and then apply that to their particular life situation.
Dale Johnson: Amen, brother, because all of it is the word of God and and we need to rightly divide and study and understand the word of God and the beauty of it. And oftentimes what we see is that when you’re studying Old Testament, certainly we see it meant truth about who God is, but also helps to bring to light the meanings, the fullness of the meanings of text description, the New Testament, and I really appreciate that. So, thank you for demonstrating that for us today. And I want to encourage you, my encouragement to you is make sure you’re reading, diving into the Old Testament and the beauty. What a treasure trove it is for us to even help modern-day counselees with modern day problems.
Thanks so much, Tom.
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