Yesterday, I had a conversation with a dear friend about how our families are coping during this pandemic. Our (text-based) conversation started with her saying something like this: “I feel bad about it, but right now I just feel so angry and PISSED at God for letting this pandemic happen.1 I’m absolutely miserable...”
My immediate reaction was to give her a big hug and tell her that I understood and that this truly feels impossible at times; we are communal beings made for relationship, not for isolation. Social distancing is necessary to protect the vulnerable, but it’s excruciating in many ways. I wanted to climb down in the pit with her, but there’s no hope of doing so in person right now because of the reality of our situation.
Instead, after empathizing, I offered a little advice from my days of theology coursework and my experience as a theology teacher. That expanded advice led to this piece.
The main takeaway from our conversation is this: It is OK to be angry with God, because prayer is a living relationship. God would rather you be honest about where you are than hide what you’re going through. Furthermore, the biblical tradition (and the saints who follow it!) is full of saints, patriarchs, heroes, and women and men who, through the course of trials in their lives, expressed their anger and desperate need to God.
God would rather you be honest about where you are than hide what you’re going through.
It is easy to think about prayer as the words we say, or how many rosaries we pray, or how much time we spend reading Scripture. However, the fullness of prayer is the “living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond measure, with his Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit” (CCC 2565). Prayer is not just what we say and when we say it; prayer encompasses our entire relationship with God. This is why St. Paul says we can "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
All of Christian life is meant to further our relationship with the one God who is Father, Son, and Spirit and who has created us out of love. If the point of all Christian life is to draw us into relationship, then it follows that we want to be authentic in our relationship with God, as we would hope to be in any other. If I find it important to be honest with my spouse and dear friends, if I try not to hold back with them but to let them know how I am really doing (including when I am angry with them), how much more should I be honest with the God who has created me and who already knows what is in my heart (Psalm 139)?
If the point of all Christian life is to draw us into relationship, then it follows that we want to be authentic in our relationship with God, as we would hope to be in any other.
Simcha Fisher puts it this way:
“I do know that it’s never useful to lie to God. It’s never useful to lie to ourselves about what our relationship with God is. It’s never useful to run away from God, and refuse to talk to him, if we feel like we can’t say the right things or feel the right things. No one has time for that, and it’s an insult to God to even try it. If you feel like you have to hide, then tell him that. If you feel that he’s not fair, tell him that. If you aren’t even sure he exists, tell him that. There’s no time for anything less than the truth.”
In summary, prayer is not simply what we do or even what we say; prayer consists of our living relationship with the God who made me and everyone and everything else, where God calls out to me and I respond to Him, who loved us first (John 4:19). I should respond relationally and cry out to God in my joy, in my sorrow, and yes, even in my anger, because the Holy Spirit has made it possible for me to respond to God. I ought to be — I must be — honest with God in order for that relationship to continue growing (Romans 8).
I should respond relationally and cry out to God in my joy, in my sorrow, and yes, even in my anger, because the Holy Spirit has made it possible for me to respond to God.
The Witness of the Biblical and Christian Tradition
Now that we have established that prayer is a living relationship (not just the words we say), that the Holy Spirit helps us to pray in the first place, and that honesty with God is paramount, let’s move to the second concern.
Maybe I have convinced you that you can be honest with God (even when that honesty involves your anger), but you still feel alone in that. Maybe your thoughts go something like this: “Surely, really holy people don’t have these kinds of struggles, right? If I had more faith, maybe I wouldn’t feel angry at God? What if I’m so angry that I want to curse at God and just be done with Him for now?”
You are not alone in that! The biblical tradition and witness of the saints outside of Scripture show us that despair, sorrow, and even anger at God are moments within the life of those who love God. Listen to the words of the psalmist:
“How long, LORD? Will you utterly forget me?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I carry sorrow in my soul,
grief in my heart day after day?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look upon me, answer me, LORD, my God!
Give light to my eyes lest I sleep in death,
Lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed,
’lest my foes rejoice at my downfall.”2 (Psalm 13:2-5)
Others in the biblical narrative who struggle with despondency and anger with God include the prophet Jeremiah and the famous Job3. When dealing with imprisonment and the isolation heaped upon him after he preaches as God called him to, Jeremiah angrily cries out to God, “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped!” (Jeremiah 20:7). Jeremiah goes on to detail the extent of his isolation, his doubt, and his loneliness. In 1 Samuel 1, Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, laments in her prayer so “bitterly” that the Temple priest Eli presumes she is drunk!
We know that many of the saints, in the midst of their lives of heroic virtue, also experienced anger with God. Take, for example, this popular anecdote about St. Teresa of Avila (one of the female doctors of the Church):
“As St. Teresa … made her way to her convent during a fierce rainstorm, she slipped down an embankment and fell squarely into the mud. The irrepressible nun looked up to heaven and admonished her Maker, ‘If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder You have so few of them!’”
Most importantly, in the Incarnation, God Himself takes on human nature in the person of the Son. He stoops down to us and walks with us in the entirety of what it means to be human (except for sin). Jesus understood the depth of the sorrow and loneliness of the human condition, and in his human nature he, too, experiences (righteous, not sinful) anger.
Jesus understood the depth of the sorrow and loneliness of the human condition, and in his human nature he, too, experiences (righteous, not sinful) anger.
I surmise that sometimes the anger we feel toward God in times like this is actually rooted in our fear of what is happening. If so, this is a fear that Jesus understood when he cried out in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his passion, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). God Himself knows what it is like to cry out in anguish.
I’ll say it once more: Anger at circumstances in our lives and even anger with God is something that we can be truly honest with God about. If anger is where we are, we should be whole-heartedly open about it. God would rather experience the bluntness of our lament and anger than have us walk away from Him.
It Doesn’t End in Anger
If you’ve made it this far, I would be remiss if I did not tell you the true ending to all the prayers of those who came before us: You can express your fear and anger in all honesty to God, but you are called not to stop there. I encourage you not to lose heart with the subsequent words of the same prophets, saints, and heroes of faith whom I have already mentioned.
You can express your fear and anger in all honesty to God, but you are called not to stop there.
The psalms of lament do not stop with cries of anger or sorrow or desolation; they almost always end in a sense of hope and trust in God4. In the midst of ranting at God, Jeremiah reminds himself that “the Lord is with [him] like a mighty champion.” (Jeremiah 20:11). Hannah, after the priest Eli blesses her, “left [the Temple]. She went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and no longer appeared downhearted” (1 Samuel 1:18). And Jesus, the one who is not only our example but the one who makes it possible for us to become true sons and daughters of God, ends his prayer in the Garden with, “yet, not as I will, but as you will” — three times (Matthew 26:39).
So yes, it is permissible to be angry with God and to be transparent with Him about your anger. But whatever you do, don’t stop praying. If possible, I encourage you to end your own “psalms” of lament and anger at God like the psalmist does in Psalm 42: “Hope in God, I will praise him still, my savior and my God.”
Nothing — not the “regular” sorrows and trials of our lives and families, not our individual anger with God, not war, not social isolation, not our own illness or death or those of our loved ones, not even the effects of a global pandemic — can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:35-39). You can be angry and honest about everything with God, but fear and rage are not the end of the story. The end of the story is the victory of God over all that holds us back, including death and all its effects (1 Corinthians 15:26).
You can be angry and honest about everything with God, but fear and rage are not the end of the story. The end of the story is the victory of God over all that holds us back, including death and all its effects.
And for right now, in this time of pandemic, as we struggle in the day to day? For right now, if that’s where you are, it is OK to be angry with God. He can handle it.
1. This deserves multiple other pieces in and of itself, but we should be utterly clear that God does not desire our death and our suffering; in fact, after the Fall, the entire history of salvation is God reaching out to us to overcome sin and death and to be restored to right relationship with Him, each other, and creation! The Christian tradition distinguishes between God’s active and permissive will. When we talk about evils that occur, the Tradition distinguishes between natural and moral evil. I can’t possibly do justice to this in a footnote, but the Tradition would say that a pandemic is a natural evil that God does not desire but that God does permit for reasons that we cannot fully understand now. “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist” (Augustine, Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love).
2. In case you’re thinking, “But, I don’t have ‘enemies’ in my day to day life right now,” one of the many ways of reading and interpreting Scripture (a biblical hermeneutic) is to interpret “the enemy” of the soul as sin or death. Think of how even outside the narrative of faith, the medical community has been referring to fighting the Covid-19 pandemic as “fighting a war.”
3. Job’s story is treated extensively elsewhere, so I’ll leave him aside, save for mentioning him now.
4. If, however, you can’t imagine moving beyond a lament of sadness or anger right now, you still have a place within the narrative of Scripture: The book of Lamentations contains no such hopeful ending. Though there are moments of remembering God’s promises within the short book, it ends with this: “Why have you utterly forgotten us, forsaken us for so long? Bring us back to you, LORD, that we may return: renew our days as of old. For now you have indeed rejected us and utterly turned your wrath against us” (Lamentations 5:20-22).