February 15, 2017
Getting Mad at God
I told them it was okay to be mad at God. Afterward I got a phone call.
I spoke to over a hundred college students about the book of Ruth. After Naomi's husband and two sons died in Moab, she told her daughters-in-law (Ruth and Orpah) not go back to Israel with her "because the LORD's hand has turned against me!" On her return Namoi told the women in her hometown, "Don't call me Naomi. . . . Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter" (Ruth 1:13, 20).
There's just no way around it. Namoi was mad at God. She is one of the earliest in a fine tradition of psalmists who had been mad at God (Ps 22, 88, etc), prophets who had been mad at God (Lamentations) as well as the teacher (Ecclesiastes) and Job who had also been mad at God. Yet Naomi wasn't rebuked by God--she was actually given new joy culminating in a grandchild. Neither were David, Jeremiah or Job rebuked for their complaints.
The worst possible reaction to God is not anger but complete disinterest or apathy--to act as if he doesn't exist. To ignore our anger is not a solution. It is a false piety. It is to lie to God by pretending everything is just fine when it isn't.
When we engage God with our anger, we are not pushing him away. Rather we are grabbing hold of him even more tightly--if only to shake him when we think he is asleep or inattentive. God is angry at death, disease, falsehood and injustice too. He even came as a man to suffer to bring ultimate remedy to all that is wrong in the world.
That's what I told the group.
A few days later I got a phone call from some of the student leaders. They disagreed with what I had said. It was a sin to be mad at God. I was wrong to have said otherwise. They said they felt awkward rebuking someone so much older in the faith, but they thought they needed to do it. I thanked them for their response. Then we hung up.
Over the years, however, I really haven't changed my mind. When we see gross injustice, widespread acts of hatred, unrelenting violence, continued multigenerational poverty, the arrogance of the rich and powerful, anger is simply the right response.
The Psalms give loudest voice to this where there are over fifty psalms of lament, complaint or protest to God (just a few of which are Psalms 6, 10, 12, 22, 31, 42, 43, 60, 88, 89, 109, 123, 137, 140, 144)--more than there are psalms of thanksgiving or of praise.* John Goldingay writes this:
The psalms give people the means of expressing the pain that they need to express, but of expressing it to God. . . .
The example of the protest psalms illustrates how individuals and communities sometimes need to get angry on other people's behalf and on their own. The psalms encourage it. They presuppose that it is appropriate to get angry with God as well as with situations, on our own behalf as well as on other people's behalf. Being free to get angry with someone presupposes that the relationship is strong enough to survive it. It is a sign of strength in God's relationship with us if we can get angry with God, and the Psalms presuppose that this is possible. Their understanding of people's relationship with God contrasts with that of the people in Exodus and Numbers, when Israel gets angry but never expresses its anger to God, and instead gets angry only with Moses.
The Psalms point us toward the idea that one significance of this expression of anger on our own behalf is that expressing it to God is better than pretending it is not there or taking it out on other people.**
I continue to find an odd comfort and release in praying the psalms of lament and complaint. They validate for me that in fact God is also angry about what is happening in the world. At the same time, by praying such psalms, it has therefore made it easier for me to pray the psalms of thanksgiving and praise.
So go ahead and be mad at God. And don't stop complaining to him about the oppression and unrighteousness you see and the unanswered prayers you've prayed. Keep complaining like the psalmists did about the suffering in the world. Eventually you may even hear him say in response, "Yes, I know. I hear you. I have suffered too."
* For a full list see John Goldingay, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 314.