Is It Okay to Be Mad at God?
On a Sunday in November 2010, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson was so angry after having bobbled what would have been a winning touchdown against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers that he tweeted this to his many thousands of followers: “I praise you 24/7!!! And this is how you do me!!! You expect me to learn from this!! How?? I’ll never forget this!! Ever!! Thx tho!”
No word on whether God actually follows Steve Johnson on Twitter, but apparently a lot of God’s followers do.
After his digital outburst, Johnson received a barrage of criticism not only from Bills fans but also from sports talk show hosts and callers from around the country. One guy who posts comments online under the name “A Bit Concerned” reflected the backlash when he wrote, “Steve should start attending Sunday school or Bible study more often to get better acquainted with GOD. Or perhaps even a hearty chat with the Bills’ chaplain will help him cope better. More importantly it is time to grow up and own his mistakes.” Receiving little support, Johnson retreated days later and responded to the criticism with a new tweet: “No, I did not blame God, people. Seriously?”
Too bad. Steve Johnson should not have backed down. Before he buckled under the pressure from those too nervous or too timid to express anger and frustration toward God, Johnson was in the company of angels.
The Bible is full of heroes who took their relationship with God seriously enough to honor their Creator with honesty. In fact, anger between the Creator and creation is older than the Bible itself. For example, years before the Bible was even written down, Moses and God quarreled after the children of Israel got drunk and bowed down to a graven image of another god. After all God had done to free the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, his people wanted to replace him with a golden calf. God was as angry as someone who has just come home from a hard day at work and catches their spouse cheating in the marital bed. God declared to Moses that this was the last straw, and that, as God, God was going start again with humanity. A lesser prophet might have stepped aside and let the Creator wipe out creation, but Moses had the chutzpah to challenge God on whether or not God’s reaction was fair. God backed down.
Now, you might be saying, Moses’s cause seems more righteous than a dropped football pass--and you’d be right (unless you’re a Buffalo Bills fan). But the lesson is the same: God can handle the occasional angry outburst. God can handle being questioned.
The biblical story of a righteous man named Job is another example of somebody who stands up to God and lives to tell about it. In the not-so-surprisingly titled book of Job, God and Satan treat our protagonist like a lab rat. Why? To determine whether a prosperous, faithful man would curse God if everything he loves is taken away. So, long Bible story short, God allows Satan to wipe out Job’s fortune, kill Job’s seven sons and three daughters, and then cover his body in boils. Job feels that God was unjustified in making a good man suffer, and he tells God exactly how he feels--despite tremendous pressure from his friends to keep his mouth shut. Job’s wife, on the other hand, has another thought. She suggests he “curse God and die.” Job does neither. Instead of cursing God, he calls God out on the series of tragedies he has suffered and he demands answers.
Let the battle begin! Job jabs with “Why?” God counters that “God is God,” and God could crush Job’s head like a grape if God felt like it--an argument Job has a hard time refuting. Yet after a few rounds Job wins the match (arguably) because he is not punished for questioning God as his friends had feared he would be. In a surprise ending, instead God sides with Job and rebukes Job’s friends for being such candy asses (I’m paraphrasing here). Subsequently, Job’s suffering is turned into a blessing--he ends up with even more stuff than he had before, including seven new sons and three new daughters (the Bible even makes the rather tacky point that the new living daughters are better looking than the old dead ones--yikes). Job lives another 140 years boil-free. The Bible doesn’t concern itself with how Mrs. Job feels about God. Just sayin’.
So what’s the moral here? Well, there are many, but one is that God wants us to speak our truth when we are experiencing disappointment, resentment, and anger and that it’s perfectly fine to express our beliefs in times of crisis. In the end we have to get good with what God has planned for us, but we do not have to go quietly. Quick side note: The theme of “I will not go quietly” is powerfully represented in the movie The Apostle, written by, directed by, produced by, and starring Robert Duvall. In a pivotal scene, a charismatic, slightly psychotic Pentecostal preacher argues so loudly in prayer with God that he wakes the neighborhood. The preacher’s mother, played by June Carter Cash, answers a complaining call from an angry neighbor by saying, “That’s my son, that is. I’ll tell ya, ever since he was an itty-bitty boy, sometimes he talks to the Lord and sometimes he yells at the Lord. Tonight, he just happens to be yellin’ at him.”
Even Jesus of Nazareth--hands-down the most obedient son who ever lived (“Wait, you want me to find twelve friends who are willing to die, perform lots of miracles, pick a fight with the local officials, and then get myself nailed to a tree? Sure, Dad.”)--does not go quietly either. Crucified, bloodied, and thirsty he cries out in agony quoting the first line from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is one of the saddest, most desperate prayers in a Bible full of pain, frustration, and anger.
In fact, prayers of the pissed off are everywhere in the Bible, so this is probably a good time to talk specifically about the Book of Psalms, a collection of 150 Hebrew songs and prayers that are some of the best-loved spiritual writings of all time and a source of inspiration for billions of members of different faiths around the world. Commonly the psalms are broken up into five or six main “themes,” including but not limited to psalms of praise, psalms of thanksgiving, royal psalms, psalms for special occasions, so-called “curse psalms,” and psalms of lament.
Most of these categories are self-explanatory, but two need more illumination because they interconnect. Let’s look briefly at the curse psalms and the psalms of lament.
Curse psalms are dominated by expressions of anger and frustration, and are characterized by grievances directed at others and at God, sentiments that can get really ugly. The general consensus among scholars is that Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 109, 137, 139, and 143 are grouped together as curse psalms, while other psalms have curse elements to them. Lament, on the other hand, is a tricky word in relation to these prayers because lament means “an expression of sorrow or grief.” The problem, then, is that there is a difference between saying, “I am sad, God,” and saying, “God, this really sucks that I am so sad, and you really could be doing something about it, God, but you’re not.” Lament psalms are often laced with anger toward and resentment of God. For example, Psalm 5 doesn’t just lament God’s seeming unwillingness to strike out against the enemies of the person who is praying; it tactfully (more or less) schools God on how God should be dealing with what the writer perceives as bad people:
For there is no truth in their mouths;
their hearts are destruction;
their throats are open graves;
they flatter with their tongues.
Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of their many transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you.
Suffice it to say there are many such prayers for the pissed off in the Bible, demonstrating that there is a long history of praying in anger to God and at God. There’s also a long history of skittish theologians trying to contextualize those angry prayers in order to “take the curse off them.” Case in point, Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, director of Joyful Heart Renewal Ministries and author of Experiencing the Psalms, argues in his writing that the angriest psalms are an example of “pre-Christian attitudes” and are “not to be examples of our lives as Christians.” Not surprisingly, I disagree and find that attitude intellectually dishonest and unproductive. First of all, if we follow Wilson’s Christian logic, anything in the Old Testament could reflect a “pre-Christian attitude,” so all the psalms, the writings of the prophets, and even the Ten Commandments could be ignored. But doesn’t common sense dictate that we should expect psalms that reflect anger toward God if anger is a natural emotion experienced by everyone from young children to sports heroes to saints?
Dr. Julie Exline, professor of clinical psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, explained another aspect of the debate about angry prayer in an e‑mail: “A national survey included an item on anger toward God back in 1988 and revealed that about two thirds of Americans admitted that they were sometimes angry at God.” But Exline’s recent research into “God focused anger” indicates that “there is some reason to believe that these estimates are on the low side. For example, people who see anger toward God as morally wrong say that they would be less comfortable admitting these feelings to others (including researchers).”
Even in the comfort of prosperity, some people find it difficult to maintain a relationship with the Divine. In maddening times, as in the events of war, natural disasters, famine, and family crisis, faith can be so problematic that prayers can be a lot less “Holy Bible” and a lot more “Holy $h#!”
If you have ever found yourself so angry at God that you have lost the ability to pray, you may have been standing on the threshold of a new level of faith (although it might have felt more like a breakdown than a breakthrough at the time). Oftentimes in our human relationships, the tighter the relationship, the tighter the tension, and it’s no different with God.
I can speak from experience. My breakdown/breakthrough came at the tail end of my high school graduation and continued through my first year of college. During that period an older man from my church who had been like a father to me was fighting for his life in a hospital. Because my real father lacked the emotional resources necessary to be a fully dimensional dad, this neighbor had been a very important and beneficial influence in my life as I was growing up. He was my role model. And this great man was now on the verge of death at such a relatively young age? He was married, could be such a great father--how could God do that? In a just universe, why would God do that?
I was angry so I prayed. I begged God to allow me to switch places with him. If there were a magical cliff from which I could have thrown myself, and my death would have meant that he could have been restored, I would have jumped without hesitation. But as things got worse for him and my prayers became more desperate, I began to lose my faith that there was any point to trying to be righteous at all.
The breaking point came when in the depth of my anger I became what is called a “protest atheist.” It’s not that I stopped believing in God; rather I had stopped believing in a God who was worthy of being worshipped. Every day I simply did what I wanted regardless of whether it was consistent with my family’s values. I stopped paying any real attention to my studies. I even lost my virginity to a registered nurse I barely knew on the hood of her Corvette under a full moon just to make sure God would notice.
And yet, from appearances anyway, my life kept getting better. To paraphrase from the book of Job, I cursed God but I did not die. I was offered jobs, raises, parts in college performances for which I didn’t even have to audition. I had stopped going to church, I had stopped reading the Bible, and I had stopped praying, but nothing bad happened. In my religious worldview leading up to college, this kind of cause and effect would not have made sense at all.
At some point I realized that I still yearned for my relationship with God. While there was a slim hope for this man who had been like a father to me, though, there didn’t seem to be any hope for me and the Lord. As it turned out, my mentor indeed did survive, albeit with lasting damage to his body. For a period of time after that, however, I didn’t have faith; I had an empty box where my faith used to be.
Eventually, feeling as though I was hurting myself more than God, I became nostalgic for my robust prayer life. My first tentative prayers to God were in selfish gratitude for having this man back in my life. Before long I was back to praying for guidance and direction, solace, repentance, and a sense of connection to something larger than myself. While I have never fully reconciled with God for the pain and sorrow that my friend was put through (and probably never will), in other ways my connection with the Divine has never been deeper, more productive, or more dependable.
God and I still have our moments, but I know that I am not alone in that. Many of us have been, are now, or will be, at some point, pissed at God. The reasons will vary: feelings of abandonment; the loss of a child, a spouse, or a mother or father; financial setbacks, the stock market crashing, or somebody looting your 401K plan; loneliness or natural disasters that wipe out hundreds of thousands of innocent bystanders; or lost opportunities (like Steve Johnson dropping a winning touchdown pass). Sometimes these feelings work themselves out on their own, but when our resentment toward God festers--which it often does when it goes unexpressed--that resentment can lead us to shut down a part of our souls. Without a spiritual road map back to the emotional Promised Land of peace and prosperity in faith, many people lose their relationship with God simply because they feel as though they do not have a right to quarrel, to demand answers, or to question, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Excerpted from How to Pray When You're Pissed at God by Ian Punnett. Copyright © 2013 by Ian Punnett. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.