Tag Archives: #despair

Is it OK to feel anger towards God?

Our emotions are strong. They are messy and chaotic. They seem to act on their own – something happens and our emotions just take over. Sometimes they seem to rule our responses.

I’m not talking here about “good” anger – that is, the kind of anger we feel when we see an injustice and the feeling of anger we get that compels us to act for change. That kind of anger has driven the civil rights movement, got the votes for women, started charities like International Justice Mission and A21, it has opened hospitals and orphanages. This kind of anger is a spur to change the things that break God’s heart.

I am talking about our instinctive anger in response to people and events around us that appear out of our control. I am talking about anger that comes from fear, frustration, despair, anxiety, emotional exhaustion and stress.

And these are all feelings that can, in times of trouble, be directed towards God.

Anger is a natural reaction. But it is important to recognise that it is a secondary emotion – there’s something else happening underneath.

The Anger Iceberg
Source: Gottman Institute – https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-anger-iceberg/

Why is there a link? Why one emotion and then another? It’s because we are built to do something with those emotions. Emotions are not just emotional feelings, but also physiological responses. When we feel under threat, anger floods our body with adrenalin and all the chemicals we need to fight or flee. Anger pumps our body with the energy we need to respond.

When we don’t need to physically fight or flee though, where does that energy go? We can turn it inwards, or squash it down, which is terrible for our mental health. It’s like drinking acid and arsenic.

Or, we can direct it towards others. This can involve disproportionate responses over something tiny, having a giant row, having a controlled discussion (I’m talking all the usual stuff here, not the abnormal responses where impulse control can be an issue which are not-not-not OK). We can cry and blame and accuse. We can resent and bear a grudge and hate.

And when we direct this towards God, is that OK?

Partially, yes. Does that surprise you?

There are so many psalms that include some variation on “how long, Lord?”. In that phrase is captured all the pain and fear and anxiety and anger that a person can feel. Look at Psalm 13: 1-4:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

The psalmist feels ignored by God. Things are so bad, they feel as though God has abandoned them. They are crying out to God in their sorrow but there is also implicit blame.

And there are many of these psalms – Psalms 6, 35, 74, 79, 80, 89 and 90 are just a smattering.

Does this mean that the psalmists were a whiny bunch of whingers? Not at all. The Psalms are God’s words. They are the words He gave to us to say when we have no words of our own. They allow us to express anger, frustration, hurt, doubt, anxiety and despair. He wants us to throw this at His feet. He wants us to open our hearts in all the rawness of our emotions.

But He doesn’t want us to stay there. See the end of Psalm 13:

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.

We cry out and throw our negative emotions at God, and then we remember. It’s like a pressure valve. All that adrenaline needs to go somewhere – it goes to God. And when the energy is drained from us, we remember that He is there, and He is in control. And he still has us in the palm of His hand. We release all that bile and bitterness and acid and arsenic. And then we rest.

You see, it’s worth remembering that often we get angry because “this is not how things should be”. I should not have lost my job. My relationship should not have ended. That person should not have acted like that. They should not have treated me that way.

These hurts are based on our expectations of how things should be. But its not how things are. God is there for us in how things are. But He will also bring about how things should be. Just not yet. That is what we look forward to. Its where our hope lies. We are His now, but we will be with Him in eternity.

So, when you are wrangling with your anger and negative emotions, here’s a few tips:

  • Remember anger is a secondary emotion – what is going on underneath?
  • Recognise that your emotions are causing physiological responses – and that energy needs to be directed somewhere.
  • Direct the energy in ways that cause the least harm to others or yourself (its worth reading more about tools and tips for anger management in the moment. There are lots of useful articles on this, for example at this link).
  • Know that anger is a natural response and don’t feel bad or blame yourself for feeling it.
  • Know that it is OK to express those emotions – in all their ragged and raw honesty – to God. He even gave us the words to use if we have none of our own.
  • Pour it our to God. Don’t try to hide it from Him. Don’t think that He will somehow think less of you. He wants you to pour out your soul to Him – not in a formulaic way – just let is pour out. Blame Him, accuse Him, ask Him where He is. This in itself is an act of faith because you are taking your pain to your God and not ignoring Him in favour of a self-help book.
  • Remember a lot of our anger can stem from the way we think things should be, but not how they actually are.
  • Remember that God is with us in how this are, but He is also bringing about how things will be.

Given that we know that God is bringing about how things should be through His sovereign plans, and that we know God is faithful to His promises, know that it is good to pour out our hearts – but don’t stay there. We don’t want to wallow in our pain or celebrate it – and God does not want that for us either. Remember the end of the “How long” psalms. They all end with the psalmist resting in the Lord.

We are safe in Him, spiritually – and emotionally. Our God is patient. He gives us time. Your hurt lasts longer than a prayer. So keep praying. Keep talking to God. Give God your fears and anger. Give Him your prayers. Give Him your time. But know that He is there in the darkness with you.

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4:8)

Take the time to feel the feelings

I’m English and we are commonly associated with the phrase “to keep a stiff upper lip”. This describes an implacable resolve, a refusal to show emotion and a stoic perseverance in times of trouble. We almost have a fondness for the phrase because it seems something so quintessentially English, especially with shows like Downton Abbey (because, you know, Maggie Smith = life goals).

The approach was drawn from Greek philosophy (Stoicism not surprisingly) and the phrase itself was first used in the early 1800s. It was the overriding philosophy in Victorian private schools and came to exemplify what was considered right and proper in a persons character.

In the west generally, there is an approach to emotions that is very private. We grieve privately. Our funerals are about individual closure. We read self-help books at home and see counsellors on sick days or in our spare time. And we soldier on with our stiff upper lip – whether we are English or not. A few years ago, another English classic from World War II was imported around the world:

That’s right. Keep Calm and Carry On was an inspirational poster from 1939 at the outset of the war. These days you see it on mugs and T-shirts and phone cases. The fact that this got such amazing up-take shows how this stoicism still infiltrates our culture, telling us how we should (or think we should) behave.

Our approach to emotions is also about efficiency. We seek to speedily move from feeling bad to feeling good again. Our goal is to process bad events as quickly as possible so we can return to normal functionality.

Partially this is a natural reaction. When we are hurting we want to take the pain away as fast as we can. When we are physically hurt, we put band aids on and we take pain killers. But we need to remember that those things only ease the situation – healing still has to happen.

The trouble is, we are emotional beings. It takes a lot of work to have a stiff upper lip. It takes an awful lot of effort to keep calm and carry on. In fact it does a lot of damage. We move too quickly from the pain before it has healed or, even worse, we suppress them for the sake of moving on quickly which means there was no healing at all. What would happen if we had a deep physical wound that we allowed only to partially heal, or not to heal at all?

In other cultures and in other times, processing negative emotions has been more communal. Mourning was public. Roman funerals could be quite elaborate and include up to five elements (a procession, a cremation and burial, the eulogy, a feast and commemoration).

Similarly in ancient Jewish culture. One of the best gifts we have for helping us to process emotional pain is the Psalms. This is God’s gift to us to have words to express how we feel, even when in anguish and despair – even when we want to shout and scream and protest and question God. Given our cultural discomfort with negative emotions, we tend to mainly focus on the happy Psalms. They’re good for inspirational posters and giving comfort to those in pain when we don’t know what to say. But that’s the beauty of Psalms. God did give us words to say when we’re in pain so we don’t need to jump straight to the happy Psalms to make things better. God taught us a different way.

Nearly half of the Psalms are lament psalms. These Psalms acknowledge the deepest pain and despair, confusion, grief and loss. They give us a journey to process our emotional pain. They allow us to acknowledge the pain and what fears we have. They name fears specifically for us – fear of attack, fear of loss, fear that God will not answer and so on. They acknowledge the feelings – confusion, emotional exhaustion, despair, longing and deep yearning.

Then, and only then, when the psalmist has brought our pain into the light and we have stayed in it a little while, does then the poetry move us to a more hopeful conclusion. This conclusion can only happen after the pain has been processed.

Have a look at Psalm 13 to see some of the things I note above:

Psalm 13

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for he has been good to me.

What we can also remember is that many of these Psalms are good for individual lament and healing. But many are also communal Psalms of lament.

Our pain doesn’t need to be private and it doesn’t need to be processed quickly. Now obviously there is a line. If we swing the pendulum too far we’ll be parading our pain and could end up celebrating it. In addition, if we allow ourselves to stay in the feelings too long, we can end up wallowing and living there.

The Psalms give us a shape and a tempo to processing though. It acknowledges us and gives validation to our feelings. It allows us to stay in them for the purposes of healing. But then the words move us very definitely on to the next stage. And there are over 60 of these types of Psalms! Which means there are Psalms for a whole range of painful emotions, and for repeated use of them – because it’s not as though we just read one psalm and then we’re good to go. We would always have repeated counselling sessions, or GP visits. So we should stay in these Psalms for as long as we need to, allowing God to give us the words to speak and urging us to seek him when we are at our darkest points.

The Psalms give us so much more than just celebration and praise. The next time you are seeking to comfort someone, read lament Psalms with them. Sit with them in their pain. Help them to access the tempo of processing our hurt provided to us by God himself.

And the next time you are seeking comfort for yourself, go to these Psalms. Know that God sees your pain and knows your most negative emotions. He wants you to acknowledge him in the darkness and speak your pain into the light, but he doesn’t want you to stay there. He wants you to trust and move forward, even an inch at a time and for as long as it takes.

You are his and he will never leave you in the dark. Give yourself permission to feel the feelings and let God lead your healing.

I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.