Up until recently, I have had a fairly easy pastorate. Sure, things arose from time to time that would put my seminary education to the test, but by and large the weeks have flowed into months without major hiccups. Until recently. Within the span of a few weeks, there were six sudden deaths within my small village; a burglary at the church; the loss of a pregnancy; strained relationships within the congregation; and pastoral care needs including homelessness, domestic violence, and severe drug abuse that have challenged my skill set. And I have heard, more than a few times, of people being pissed off at God. Not just angry. Not just upset. Not just disconcerted. But pissed off.
What do we do with these emotions? I find it wholly unhealthy to respond with fear, to convince ourselves that God cannot handle the breadth and depth of human emotions. We should recall when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, the agony that he felt in having to drink from the cup set before him. The message to us should be clear: God can handle it, and with God we can handle it too. One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Psalm 88, the only lament psalm that does not have a doxology. It begins in the Pit, dwells in the Pit, and remains in the Pit. I read it each year on the anniversary of my brother’s death, a schizophrenic who took his own life. Sometimes, we just need to stay in the Pit.
But holding onto anger, the Buddhist saying goes, is like drinking poison and expecting it to harm someone else. Our anger at God can be a bridge to faith, a vehicle we use to travel through the experience to arrive at a more holistic place. I gently say to those for whom I provide pastoral care that wild anger leads to destruction; investigated anger leads to revelation. Are we angry because we feel wronged by God? Are we dealing with grief–an experience I know all too well, having lost a loved one to suicide caused by a devastating mental illness–and feelings of despair? If so, what are our expectations? Did we want God to spare our loved one, yet allow the affliction to happen to someone else? Do we feel that we are deserving of something? If so, what are we doing in our lives to embrace the fullness of the blessings already present? When we pray, do we open ourselves to God’s response, understanding that things may not unfold in the ways that we envision, but that does that mean that God is not at work?
Sometimes being pissed off at God is our starting point. We are pissed off because God “allowed” our family members to disown us because we are gay. We are pissed off because God did not stop the painful illness and death of a loved one. We are pissed off because we work hard and stay locked in desperate circumstances while others seemingly have it so easy. They are blessed, we are cursed. We don’t deserve it, and neither do they. We start in anger, but let us not stop. Let us ask ourselves if something larger might be occurring. The family that disowns us may be replaced by a family that God fashions for us, a possibility Jesus points us toward in Mark 3:31-35.
So often, I see members of the LGBTQ community lashing out at God or their church communities by engaging in risky behavior, sleeping around without using protection or turning to drugs to ease the pain. All of which, are serious by products of their oppressed marginalized experience. That is when allies need to pay attention to the vulnerable members of our community, reaching out in love and understanding without judgment. I often see straight people upset at the LGBTQ community. This is also when allies need to pay attention, reach out in love, acknowledging the anger, and help to bridge the gap of harmful misunderstanding. For others, the painful illness of a loved one may have been the catalyst for a person to rectify fractured relationships.
It may appear that our work at a low-paying job is for naught, but our example inspires those around us to not succumb to drug or alcohol abuse, to avoid the gangs and to work hard while treating people well. To be sure, I am not advocating an acceptance of disease or low-paying jobs—God calls for us use our gifts of the Spirit to help alleviate suffering and to bring about justice—but if we surrender our anger we are able to see more clearly the ways in which God is at work. God brings people into our lives and leads us into the lives of others to fashion miracles. Sometimes we are the answer to other people’s prayers, just as they are the answer to ours.
This is not meant to offer a comprehensive answer to theodicy; it is not a systematic approach to human suffering. But as I have encountered the anger of so many people in the past weeks, I’ve come to understand that God can handle it. God expects it. I dare say that God might want it, if anger directed at God will prevent us from channeling it toward others and wreaking havoc in the midst of our despair. But God wants to lead us past the anger, into the strength and power that only faith can provide. So often, we are angry at God because we want stasis. We want security. We want assurances. We want to be shielded from the difficult things in life. As Christians, though, we can take comfort in the idea that God understands intimately the nature of our suffering. The agony of Christ is the agony of God; we follow not a distant, uncaring deity, but rather one who is inextricably connected with the human experience. Even for God, things could not remain happy and pleasant. Even for God, the suffering and pain of life was unavoidable.