My first field placement was in a local hospital not far from seminary; that summer, I had already discerned that I was not emotionally ready for CPE quite yet based on what I had been told from “upperclassmen” friends as well as from my home pastors, and so I decided that I would spend the summer prayerfully discerning whether hospital chaplain was “my thing” (aka whether I was called to this by God) by working one-on-one with a Presbyterian minister and PTS grad. To this day, this man is a mentor in ministry, someone I look up to and even someone I call a close friend. He taught me that a part of being a Chaplain means frequently giving permission to both love and be angry with God simultaneously. Initially, I brushed this off, as in the average, white-picket fence Christian Church in WASPy suburbia, how oft is this message truly preached to the bobble heads in the pews?
The need for this type of message hit home on a particular patient visit which still sticks to my memory like glue, even two years and countless patient visits and trauma calls later at two different hospital centers. Who the patient was and what he/she was suffering from is inconsequential (not to mention a breech of pastoral confidentiality – something I have come to hold quite highly having been a patient and on the receiving end of pastoral care in hospitals; I’ve also seen a breech of this on social media sites to the shame of legal contracts and the sacred bond between the body of Christ); what does matter is that this person was suffering, both physically and spiritually, and was on the verge of divorcing his/her faith entirely because they didn’t know expressing anger to and at God to God was perfectly acceptable. His/her understanding of God was that of, “if I do everything right in my life, God will reward me,” and yet, because they were struggling with a potentially terminal diagnosis, God had somehow missed all the right stuff and skipped straight to punishment. In this moment of deep sorrow, grief, fear of the unknown and what must have felt like God’s total abandonment, this person did not know that it was appropriate and acceptable to express their emotions to the Divine One who was still very much there, despite the world crumbling beneath his/her feet.
Expressing anger and frustration accompanied with our admiration and appreciation for God is not a concept dreamed up by a team of pastors underneath the cone of silence (yes, a Get Smart reference…) for use only in certain circumstances. Feeling a sense of anger and sorrow toward God is a common and prominent theme in the Scriptures, especially noted by the Psalmists.
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed;”
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13:1-6, NRSV)
Or, the most notorious and sympathetic Psalmist voice of them all…
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest…
But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
“Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver –
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!” (Psalm 22:1-2, 6-8, NRSV)
Even those chosen for ministry, as Jeremiah was (albeit against his will and prior to his creation, see Jeremiah 1:4-10 if you don’t believe me!), struggle with God’s at times irreconcilable inconsistencies, or so they seem here.
O LORD, you have enticed me,
and I was enticed;
You have overpowered me,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long;
everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out,
I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the LORD has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot…
O Lord of hosts, you test the righteous,
you see the heart and the mind;
let me see your retribution upon them,
for to you I have committed my cause. (Jer. 20:7-12, NRSV)
The Psalmists and Jeremiah give us today the permission we desperately need to bring our heartaches, our sufferings, our sorrows, and perhaps most urgently, our anger with the creator of our innermost beings. Culture teaches us that we should keep things to ourselves – out of fear of judgment, that others are far more burdened, and that our voices in times of struggle are not worth hearing. In certain church circles, our struggles seem prioritized, as though their is a list out there, either written or unwritten, and to voice them publicly is trivialized. But scripture teaches that God listens and can handle the struggle, the darkness, the dirty nitty gritty anger and everything in between that we as humans face each and every day. The Triune is in it for the long haul with us – His Creation – and needs to hear the struggles of our heart, even though He knows it already.
The Church is the very place where human struggles – both with one another and with God – can be voiced, prayed over, properly discerned and dealt with. The thing is, it takes an act of great grace to create such a place from the ground up, to reform what is being preached from the pulpit, and also the mentality of those entering the doors each and every Sunday. Like the saying goes, it takes a village to support an individual, just as it takes the Divine to support an individual through what feels like the World War that is a personal or familial crisis, whether it be illness, a divorce, or a major life change.
But God can take the anger, can take our despair, and can weather the storm ranging within, and might even prefer to hear us voicing our concerns, just as the Psalmists poured out their emotions to their beloved God when they felt most grieved. Because God is greater than His Creation, He can not only take our grief, our anger and our sorrow, but He can provide us with the cracked door to find our way out of those emotions again, even if the situation itself is still underway. God cannot always make the bad, nasty, not so good things in life go away, but He can certainly act as the protector, shepherd, Father Almighty, companion and guardian in those situations.
The patient ultimately didn’t survive his/her illness, but was able to reveal his/her anger and frustrations to God. We sang, prayed, cried and read the Psalms together in a spiritually intimate moment I will never forget as a pastor. In those moments, they were able to come to terms with the fact that their anger with God were signs of a deeper faith and the markers of a budding faith waiting to bloom forth out of a place of deep suffering and great promise.
As pastors, we learn from these parishioners and their strength; their willingness to express their fears verbally, out of places of great sorrow allows us to realize that a life of faith is not perfect, but rather is filled with bumps, bruises and anger – with ourselves and with God – and that both is perfectly fitting and acceptable. We shouldn’t be afraid to model anger with God, so long as we too can model imperfection in this faith, and that our lives with God include these bumps, bruises and something on the other side, just as the Psalmists and Jeremiah so boldly showed as well.
Thanks be to God.