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Angry with God

  • Cheryl Johnston Crosswalk.com Spiritual Life Editor
  • 2001 27 Sep
Angry with God
Last week I interviewed Christian psychologist Michele Novotni, Ph.D., about her book Angry with God. Michele offered advice on how to identify anger with God in yourself and in others, as well as how to work through this anger. Her book developed out of telling the story of her grandmother's tragic experience as a Christian Armenian girl persecuted by the Muslim Turks during the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1921. Click here to read her story.

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 you’re angry with God so that you can work on not being angry with God?

Michele: I think the basic premise is if you’re not mad at God that’s wonderful. If you can go through the suffering that my grandmother did and keep your faith, if when you’re rocked to your very roots, if your roots are holding and you find comfort in God, that’s the easiest way to go. That’s 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 aren’t doing suffering "right." They’re not doing it the way they’re 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. It’s not great to be angry. But, we’re 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 weren’t 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 isn’t 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 aren’t.

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 you’re OK to talk about it, you enable them to talk about it. And don’t 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. It’s not like I’m saying those things are not true, it’s just that some people take a little longer.

I would say not going to church. If someone was active in Bible study and they’re not going. And a lot of time anger is cloaked behind wondering. “I’m wondering why God didn’t stop it.” What they’re really saying, if you poked a little bit, is “God should’ve 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 it’s 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 they’re 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. Don’t 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 you’re upset with God. You seem like you’re 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 that’s 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 we’ve hung onto it and it’s gotten us through. But if you find you’re giving them something and it’s not working, a lot of people tend to get really frustrated. Be patient and realize that it’s really a developmental process for some and it’s slower. And just be with the person. Walk alongside the person. Be there to care for and comfort that person. And just realize that you’re not going to fix it really quick. That doesn’t mean that they’re 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, that’s 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 isn’t who we thought he was. When we really step back and realize what God said he would do, we realize he’s been faithful to us. Oftentimes we don’t get it. In fact my son has ADD and I’ve 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 would’ve thought having a child with ADD would be such a blessing. You know, I’ve ministered to thousands of people and I wouldn’t be in the ADD field if it weren’t for Jared. If you look at Grandmom’s horrible situation, and she was mad at God for a really long time, and yet I don’t know how many people have been touched by her story and it really is being used for good. It would’ve been nice if she could’ve seen it being used for good. But sometimes in God’s plan he has different timetables than we do. And I think that part of the healing process is understanding that God’s purpose is sometimes hidden from us. And that’s 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 it’s unfair, we can feel that it’s wrong. And that’s 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? That’s where the relationship has to be important to us. If it’s still something that just sticks with us that we don’t get, my grandmother came up with the term of “forgiving God” and wiping the slate clean and saying, I’m not going to keep score, I’m not going to hold you accountable for that because your relationship is important to me. It’s not the same forgiving that God does for us. People can do that easier than letting go of their anger. A lot of people didn’t know how to let go of their anger, but they knew how to forgive. It doesn’t have that theological concept, but most people know how to do that. It’s what works for some people.

Cheryl Johnston: It’s 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 isn’t or what he chooses not to be?

Michele Novotni, Ph.D.: And what she didn’t get. How could you let this happen? Where were you when this was here? I don’t get it. But it’s valuing the relationship enough to say, it’s not that important to me. I’ll put it aside. If we think about forgiving like when God tells us to forgive others, it’s more for our benefit. As long as we’re walking around mad or hurt by somebody, it’s taking up our mental energy.

Cheryl Johnston: Have you ever had cases in counseling when people’s 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, they’re 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 don’t know they’re angry. So, a lot of the people who don’t 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 weren’t angry with God and then as we went through counseling, it turned out that they were angry with God. But that’s not that uncommon. In regular counseling I’ll see couples and I’ll talk to someone and say, “You know, it sounds like you’re really angry with your husband.” And she’ll say, “Oh, no I’m not angry with my husband, we just want to work on this.” And then like two months later in therapy it’s, “You know, I am angry with him!”

As angry as our society tends to be, in our personal relationships we’re not allowed to be angry a lot. So many of us do other things with anger. And it’s worse to try to recognize that you’re angry with God because we’re 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 "don’t let the sun go down on your anger" means don’t be angry. And it’s right. It’s not good to be angry. [When we are], we’re outside of the little pasture where God has put us where we function the best. If somebody is there, they’re there. And I don’t 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. That’s why we have counselors. If you’re 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 they’re not a good enough Christian on top of being anxious because if they were a good enough Christian, they wouldn’t 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 they’re not anxious, but it’s 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 you’re 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 there’s 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 isn’t 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 aren’t there yet.

Christians need to realize that they’re 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 haven’t 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? I’ve 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 didn’t 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 didn’t change their songs, hymns, the sermon. And I thought, how many people came here seeking to understand and left figuring it’s 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 hasn’t 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 that’s 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).

Click here to purchase a copy of Angry with God online at CBD.