Angry with God
- Thursday, September 27, 2001
Cheryl Johnston: What your grandmother suffered through was incredibly terrible. And it reminds us that the tragedy of September 11 is not the only tragedy or the only possible reason someone could be angry with God. Michele: Right. This wasn't the first. It isn't the last [tragedy]. In the book I try to let people know that it doesn't have to be something as big as genocide to be mad at God about. I have ministered to a number of people whose husbands have died. Whose kids have died or are sick. People who didn't get jobs they felt that they should've gotten. I've been amazed at the number of people in Christian ministry who have been cornering me. I was just at [a Christian counseling conference] and two really prominent people grabbed me and spent two or three hours pouring out their hearts that they had been really mad at God and have felt isolated because they're not supposed to be. And if you're not supposed to be and you are, prior to this point, there seemed to be very few places to go with that. So, I'm hoping that Angry with God allows people to be honest. And the part that seems to affect most people is when I talk about the fact that God already knows our hearts. So when we're mad at Him or disappointed or frustrated, we're not keeping that from Him by not bringing it out in the open. We're keeping ourselves from working through it. He already knows.
Cheryl Johnston: Is it OK to be angry with God or is it OK to admit that youre angry with God so that you can work on not being angry with God?
Michele: I think the basic premise is if youre not mad at God thats wonderful. If you can go through the suffering that my grandmother did and keep your faith, if when youre rocked to your very roots, if your roots are holding and you find comfort in God, thats the easiest way to go. Thats a wonderful way to go. And there are stories all over the place about people who are able to do that. Angry with God is written for people who arent doing suffering "right." Theyre not doing it the way theyre supposed to. In counseling we always meet people where they are and help to get them where they need to be. What we do in this book is to meet people where they are. We are not telling people who are fine and have faith in God to be angry. Yes, the Bible tells you not to let the sun go down on your anger. Its not great to be angry. But, were not supposed to do all sorts of things. This is for people who are or for people who know people who are. In the Bible there were people who wrestled with God. They werent right in the end. Everybody gets closer to God through the process.
Cheryl Johnston: What are some indications that friends and family can look for in a loved one to discern whether that person has anger towards God or perhaps is denying anger with God and isnt working through it?
Michele Novotni, PH.D.: The overt ones are easy. My grandmother was an overtly angry person. If you see someone start to change their behavior, or someone who was maybe enthusiastically involved in ministry and service and they suddenly arent.
I was talking to a grief counselor, and she flat out tells people that it is really common for some people to be mad at God. By saying it, it allows some people who are feeling it to be there.
By opening up the door of possibilities that youre OK to talk about it, you enable them to talk about it. And dont just patch a quick band-aid on it. A lot of people will just give a verse like all things work for good and it is very true and the person will be there, but they might be there slower, take more of a circular route to get there. Its not like Im saying those things are not true, its just that some people take a little longer.
I would say not going to church. If someone was active in Bible study and theyre not going. And a lot of time anger is cloaked behind wondering. Im wondering why God didnt stop it. What theyre really saying, if you poked a little bit, is God shouldve stopped it. Anybody who is asking those kinds of questions, I would open up the door of possibilities. It might not be full-blown anger. It might be frustration or just a little mad. It can be a barrier to a strong relationship with God if we dont work on it.
Cheryl Johnston: It sounds like it could easily be mistaken for depression or perhaps be a part of depression or causing that person to be depressed.
Michele Novotni, Ph.D.: That would be another one, too. Anyone who seems depressed. In counseling, I saw so many people who were mad at God. Usually they were my depressed or anxious people.
Cheryl Johnston: At what point do you recommend that someone seek counseling to help work through these feelings?
Michele Novotni, Ph.D.: I would recommend it way on the front end. In general, if they are not able to move beyond that and restore their relationship with God within a couple of months on their own. If they dont see themselves working, and again if they would read a book like Angry with God and open up to some of the feelings and talk to someone who lets them express things. If its been about two months and [they are] staying stuck, and not making movements. Healing takes awhile, but you should be making movements.
Cheryl Johnston: In addition to encouraging someone to talk about how theyre feeling, in addition to opening that door to let someone express anger toward God, what can people do for or say to someone who is angry?
Michele Novotni, Ph.D.: Opening up the door for permission is the first thing. The second thing is what we call reflective listening, where you just sort of repeat what the person said. Dont try to fix it right away. If someone is mad, they need to verbalize that they are mad first. Just sit with someone and let them express it. Just say, You seem like youre upset with God. You seem like youre wondering where God is. That must be very painful for you to trust God your whole life and not feel that God let you down.
I would really encourage you not to just give them a Bible verse and assume that thats going to be sufficient. For some people, it really is. And I think each of us has had times in our life when someone has given us a verse of Scripture and weve hung onto it and its gotten us through. But if you find youre giving them something and its not working, a lot of people tend to get really frustrated. Be patient and realize that its really a developmental process for some and its slower. And just be with the person. Walk alongside the person. Be there to care for and comfort that person. And just realize that youre not going to fix it really quick. That doesnt mean that theyre not going to be in a different place in time. Be patient.
Cheryl Johnston: At the root of most of this anger is blaming God for letting this happen. So is fixing the problem resetting our expectations?
Michele Novotni, Ph.D.: Yes, thats a big piece of it. We expect it differently from God. In the book we talk about mistaken identities. Oftentimes our anger is because God isnt who we thought he was. When we really step back and realize what God said he would do, we realize hes been faithful to us. Oftentimes we dont get it. In fact my son has ADD and Ive written two books about ADD and run around the country speaking on ADD. And someone wrote me the most beautiful letter and she said, "If God creates people for a purpose then God created Jared and gave him to you so that you could help people like me. Thank you, Jared." And I thought it was so neat. I never wouldve thought having a child with ADD would be such a blessing. You know, Ive ministered to thousands of people and I wouldnt be in the ADD field if it werent for Jared. If you look at Grandmoms horrible situation, and she was mad at God for a really long time, and yet I dont know how many people have been touched by her story and it really is being used for good. It wouldve been nice if she couldve seen it being used for good. But sometimes in Gods plan he has different timetables than we do. And I think that part of the healing process is understanding that Gods purpose is sometimes hidden from us. And thats tough. The biggest piece of it is understanding that God truly does love us, God truly is there for us, and we can feel that we have been treated unjust, we can feel that its unfair, we can feel that its wrong. And thats where we have to get a bigger image of God.
Sometimes we have to table our questioning of things like why this? or what about that? Thats where the relationship has to be important to us. If its still something that just sticks with us that we dont get, my grandmother came up with the term of forgiving God and wiping the slate clean and saying, Im not going to keep score, Im not going to hold you accountable for that because your relationship is important to me. Its not the same forgiving that God does for us. People can do that easier than letting go of their anger. A lot of people didnt know how to let go of their anger, but they knew how to forgive. It doesnt have that theological concept, but most people know how to do that. Its what works for some people.
Cheryl Johnston: Its an interesting concept. God forgives us for our sins. God is perfection. On the one hand, it seems difficult to forgive perfection, but it seems to be more of forgiving him for what he isnt or what he chooses not to be?
Michele Novotni, Ph.D.: And what she didnt get. How could you let this happen? Where were you when this was here? I dont get it. But its valuing the relationship enough to say, its not that important to me. Ill put it aside. If we think about forgiving like when God tells us to forgive others, its more for our benefit. As long as were walking around mad or hurt by somebody, its taking up our mental energy.
Cheryl Johnston: Have you ever had cases in counseling when peoples anger is delayed? For instance, a lot of people in TV still seem to be in shock from the September 11 attacks.
Michele Novotni, Ph.D.: Yeah, theyre not angry yet, but a lot of them are going to be, as the shock wears off.
Cheryl Johnston: In your experience, is that anger delayed by months or by years?
Michele Novotni, Ph.D.: It would set in a lot sooner, but it might take the form of depression. The people who are going to be flat-out angry are going to be flat-out angry really soon. And they are actually quicker to heal than the people who dont know theyre angry. So, a lot of the people who dont yet know they are angry, they might take awhile. They might not even go to counseling for anger with God. In fact, a lot of the people I talk to said they werent angry with God and then as we went through counseling, it turned out that they were angry with God. But thats not that uncommon. In regular counseling Ill see couples and Ill talk to someone and say, You know, it sounds like youre really angry with your husband. And shell say, Oh, no Im not angry with my husband, we just want to work on this. And then like two months later in therapy its, You know, I am angry with him!
As angry as our society tends to be, in our personal relationships were not allowed to be angry a lot. So many of us do other things with anger. And its worse to try to recognize that youre angry with God because were really not supposed to be angry with the big guy. Grandmom was really mad at him for a really long time and there were no lightening bolts in our house. I just saw such a compassionate loving God at the end bringing her to him.
Cheryl Johnston: What should churches do to help? It sounds like we need to make Christians aware of what they tend to do and how it can hinder more than help.
Michele Novotni, Ph.D.: That would be wonderful. A lot of people feel that a verse should do it. Or a statement like "dont let the sun go down on your anger" means dont be angry. And its right. Its not good to be angry. [When we are], were outside of the little pasture where God has put us where we function the best. If somebody is there, theyre there. And I dont think that somebody should turn their back on them and tell them they should be here without helping them to get here. Some people need help. Thats why we have counselors. If youre anxious and you come to see me for therapy I could tell you that the Bible says "be not anxious." Is that going to help a whole lot? And then people are going to feel like theyre not a good enough Christian on top of being anxious because if they were a good enough Christian, they wouldnt be anxious anymore. What we do therapeutically is meet the person where they are and we help walk them through to become less anxious. We get them to the point where theyre not anxious, but its a developmental process of meeting someone where they are and I would love it if churches would look at the possibility that some people are really upset with God. If they could talk them through it, they could meet God and find God much easier than just being told that youre not supposed to be.
Cheryl Johnston: Would you advise churches to start grieving support groups or emotional support groups?
Michele Novotni, Ph.D.: I think theres never been a time in the world when churches could draw more people to them. The opportunities right now for churches to minister is huge. And I think they could reach both kinds of people: the people who are needing to trust God in all things and seek comfort in God and the disenfranchised. The disenfranchised are out there saying, Yup, see -- God isnt any good. So if churches wanted to run groups to discuss where is God in the bad times? Where was God? This is a huge group of people who want to be committed Christian people and yet just arent there yet.
Christians need to realize that theyre going to have more people popping into church, popping into prayer groups, coming to workshops the churches might offer. This is an incredible time to increase their membership and open their doors to a lot of people who havent been there before. This is going to draw people who are looking to see if this [church] could be part of the answer to what they are seeking. And that might even be one of the goods that comes out of this. Who knows? Ive never seen God talked about so much on TV. This is an amazing opportunity if churches would take advantage of it.
We went to a church the Sunday after the hijacking and they didnt change their service one bit. And I thought, here you have a lot of people who have never been to church before, in fact we brought a couple, and they had planned an information thing about the Jewish holidays and they did that. They didnt change their songs, hymns, the sermon. And I thought, how many people came here seeking to understand and left figuring its not here? So churches really need to be aware that there are hurting people with a lot of questions and if they can change their schedule, meet the needs of the people, I think they can do an incredible service right now and reach out in a way that the community hasnt been served in a long time.
Cheryl Johnston: Should we look for the good in bad experiences?
Michele Novotni, Ph.D.: I believe so. In everything that happens, there is also good. See God in the heroes. See God in all the nations that are coming together. See God in all that is still beautiful in the world. We tend to really focus on the negative, but there is incredible beauty and incredible wonder that is still here, too. Definitely encourage people to see everything thats there. There is incredible beauty and strength and wonderful people here, too.
Michele Novotni, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the graduate counseling program at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and a licensed psychologist in private practice. Michele is a frequent speaker at local, state, regional, and national conferences and workshops on faith-based issues related to emotional and psychological growth. She is the coauthor of Adult ADD (Pinon Press) and author of What Does Everybody Else Know That I Don't? (Specialty Press).
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