Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
How to Handle Anger With God
When Kevin's four-month-old daughter
suddenly stopped breathing one night and died in her crib, a victim
of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), he was devastated. He
felt, however, that expressing any anger at God would show a lack
of faith because he "shouldn't feel that way." Having always considered
himself a religious person, Kevin did not want to add lack of
faith to his other problems. Therefore he clung tightly to a faith
which forbids any expression of anger at God, a faith which risks
becoming increasingly hollow. Unfortunately, his prayers run that
Brenda's college-age son fell asleep
at the wheel and was killed in a one-car crash. Brenda had no
trouble admitting her anger at God, but some of her friends, family
and co-workers were very uncomfortable with that anger. They began
to dread any conversation which might trigger a reference to Brenda's
dead son. In her own words, she "raised hell," asking God "a lot
of hard questions." Brenda expected some answers. Eventually she
found a few people who could handle her anger and decided to keep
going to church until she got the answers she sought. Brenda did
not consider being angry with God a good reason to quit praying.
What would you do if you were in Kevin's
or Brenda's place? What do you do when a family member, friend
or co-worker faces a similar tragedy? Do you automatically say
that these deaths were "God's will," that the grieving parent
shouldn't be angry, and should "get over it" and get on with life?
Do you send out the message that prayer is only for people who
have "calmed down" and "gotten their act together?"
Deaths such as Kevin and Brenda experiencedor
major losses such as an amputated limb, blindness or a mastectomyforce
religious people to one of three reactions: (I) denying their
faith, (2) going through the motions or (3) reaffirming their
faith in a new way.
This Update will try to help
readers see that what we call "anger with God"their own
or someone else'smight not mean the death of faith but could
actually represent the awkward start of a deeper, more honest
faith. Only if we can admit that we might beor have beenangry
with God, can we truly share the faith journey of a friend, relative
or co-worker who finds himself or herself in that uncomfortable,
stressful and lonely situation.
As we begin, some clarifications are
in order. It's important to make a clear distinction between the
human feeling of anger and the human decision to
act hatefully toward another person or God. Also, when the word
anger is used here, it does not necessarily imply hatred. It can
be simply a feeling of frustration, anguish or annoyance, however
deep, in face of the evil confronting us. In the Christian code,
of course, it is never moral or Christlike deliberately to act
hatefully toward another human person, much less toward an all-good
We recognize, too, that our "anger
with God" is sometimes a bit of a misstatement. For often our
anger is really not directed at God, but at the cancer
or lightning or human behavior that strikes us,
or a loved one, down. The temptation to blame God for these tragediesor
for not averting themis often based on our incomplete understanding
of God and of "God's will" (which we will discuss later) and of
how God operates in nature and in human affairs. Although we don't
always think too clearly at the time of tragedy, we may need to
realize that the anger we first feel toward God should not, in
fairness, really be aimed at God but rather at the evil thing
or event afflicting us.
Keeping these things in mind, we offer
the following suggestions on how to bring our anger and other
honest feelings before God.
1. Admit your anger if that's what
Brenda's friends and Kevin assumed
that feeling angry with God is bad. Therefore, they told Brenda
so; Kevin chose to keep those emotions bottled up. "No telling
what might happen otherwise," he reasoned. Many people wrongly
believe that anger must always be destructivethat it is
clearly a "bad" feeling or emotion.
As such, every emotion has an important
function for us. It gives us important feedback about what is
going on inside us. As suggested earlier, we need to see that
our feelings are one thing, and our behavior in
response to them quite another thing. Feeling anger at someone,
for example, does not inevitably mean we will murder or harm that
person. Anger can be expressed constructively and could lead someone
to stop treating us unfairly. My expression of anger could even
help bring about a reconciliation.
We can decide not to face an emotion,
but we cannot stop that emotion. Even if we do not freely choose
which emotion to feel at any given moment, we still have many
choices about how to deal with that emotion.
Feeling angry with God, then, is not
bad in itself. In fact, our faith can never grow unless we are
honest about our feelings. Once we admit we can be angry with
God, we become free to see the many ways in which we can express
that anger. A person who feels angry with God has, in fact, many
options for expressing that anger: for example, turning one's
back on God, cursing the next person who says, "Don't be angry
with God," or expressing that anger honestly in prayer and coming
to terms with it and with God. Because some ways of expressing
anger are admittedly very destructive, we need to choose ways
which truly represent our deepest Christian values.
2. Don't restrict yourself to "nice"
Dividing our feelings into "nice" and
"not nice" categories encourages us to deny those feelings we
label as "not nice." Such a denial, however, severely limits our
possibilities of dealing with them.
"Nice people," Brenda's and Kevin's
friends may say, "don't get angry with God." But what price do
they pay for being "nice?" "Nice" five-year-olds, parents often
say, shouldn't become angry with younger brothers or sisters.
The truth is: five-year-olds sometimes become angry with their
siblings. This is an honest, healthy feeling, but now they feel
guilty and confused about it because it clashes with their self-imageor
their parents' expectations that nice children shouldn't get angry.
This also reinforces the idea that "not nice" feelings automatically
lead to "not nice" behavior.
Adults often deny the existence of
conflict so that they can be "nice." But is a relationship between
two people which is so weak that it cannot withstand any quarrel
worth maintaining? What kind of God is so fragile that we cannot
admit, as Brenda did, honest feelings of anger before this God?
Who really fears such anger? God? Or the "nice" person trying
to "save" his or her faith? Such a "nice" person will probably
deny the existence of many emotions which continue to work quietly
If someone is angry at God because
of a personal or family tragedy, denying that anger as Kevin did
may encourage a faith which "goes through the motions" without
any deep, inner conviction. Such a person may not "lose" his or
her faith in the sense of becoming an atheist but may settle for
a faith which refuses to face life with any real depth or honesty.
That is the risk Kevin took in the way he dealt with his daughter's
In the late 1960's, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
discovered that "nice" people who do not want to admit that a
friend or relative is dying actually hinder that person from going
through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression
and acceptance). Her book On Death and Dying showed that
often dying persons have fewer problems in admitting their condition
than friends or relatives who cling to denial in order to protect
their own feelings. In the final stages of a terminal illness,
in fact, a dying person who has come to acceptance will avoid
people whose own need to deny the situation is stronger than the
dying person's need to live honestly with it.
3. Be wary of a faith which is always
The following story may explain why
I fear a faith which is forever "nice," a faith which prides itself
on avoiding any expression of anger with God. This story may help
some readers get in touch with any unresolved anger with God and
to see their faith in a new way.
By the time I was a junior in high
school, I had done my share of complaining that "life isn't fair,"
but nothing really shook my faith in God until two nephews were
born several months prematurely and died a few days later. What
did I believe about God now? What could I say to my grieving brother
I was away at school, and I remember
my father's letter saying that my nephews had been born, named,
and baptized immediately, and that I should pray for their survival.
Up to that time I had prayed for various people but never for
someone literally in a life-or-death situation. Earlier petitions
might have concerned more trivial matters, but this was big-league
Here was the clearest and most painful
case of innocent suffering I had ever encountered. How could God
not hear my prayers and those of our whole family for those tiny
infants? For some reason I felt confident that they would make
it, and therefore I was devastated when I learned that my nephews
How could a good God let this happen?
I asked with hurt and anger. To say that my nephews died of "natural
causes" seemed heartless and dishonest. Furthermore, I could not
believe that their deaths were "God's will," at least in the sense
that that's what God really wanted. Nevertheless, at that time
I thought that "nice" people never get angry at God. Though puzzled
and hurt, they somehow "get over it" and "life goes on."
Besides, the Catholic Church teaches
that baptized infants who die go straight to heaven. Who was I
to complain? Slowly my confusion and anger subsided and life returned
to a new kind of normalcy. Two years later my brother and sister-in-law
had a healthy baby girl, and I was ready to let God off the hookso
to speak. Years later when I read Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's book
and reflected on other experiences of loss, I began to see the
danger of a faith which is more "nice" than honest.
Admitting our anger with God does not
destroy faith but rather forces us to clarify what we believe
and why, to move from a child's faith to an adult's faith. Though
refusing to admit anger with God may seem to protect one's faith,
I am convinced that in the long run it does more harm than good.
4. Let your honesty lead to growth
In 1986, Sister Suzanne Schrautemyer
went to a doctor because of a lump under her left arm. Tests showed
that cancer had spread to her bone marrow. Earlier, she had undergone
a partial mastectomy, a bilateral mastectomy, radiation treatment
and chemotherapy. At this point, Sister Suzanne (age 39) decided
to accept her coming death and discontinue chemotherapy.
She had gone through several months
of low-grade anger and depression, having difficulty talking about
this with anyone. "I had to be assured it's okay to be angry,
to doubt, to be broken and down," she said. "I don't believe now
that my faith is insulted by my anger and doubt. I had to move
through itthose real human experiencesbefore I could
let go of it."
When she told the sisters in her community
about her decision to discontinue chemotherapy, they felt angry
and depressed. "I told them I needed them to be real. If they
were angry at me for being sick again, that's okay, I said. If
they're angry at God because I might be dying, that's okay. And
it's okay to show that to me. I told them I wanted themand
needed themto be real."
Had her faith changed during that two-year
ordeal? "Yes, it's simpler," she told a newspaper reporter. "I
used to think some places, people, times were more sacred than
others. My experience of faith now tells me that everything, every
moment is sacred. Everything that happens is a sacrament, a moment
when God becomes tangible and life is real. That's what's different."
Admitting her anger did not cure Sister
Suzanne of her cancer, but it allowed her to live honestly, to
choose how she would deal with her feelings rather than try to
pretend they didn't exist. Such honesty led her to a more adult
faith, to a fuller appreciation of the present moment and of God's
providence. Thus, her initial anger with God led not to denying
her faith or "going through the motions" but to a deeper, richer
faith able to put its arms around all of lifeeven her coming
5. Be careful how you speak of
In dealing with tragedies such as
Kevin, Brenda and Sister Suzanne facedor the ones we have
suffered or observed very closelyreligious men and women
often describe them as "God's will." Unfortunately, people who
readily speak of "God's will" in such circumstances are frequently
the same people who acknowledge only their "nice" feelings. Thus,
because "nice" people never get angry with God, the suffering
person may feel that he or she can "keep" the faith only by denying
that anger, as Kevin did when his daughter died of Sudden Infant
Death Syndrome. Or the person may express that anger and thereby
"lose" his or her faith.
People who refuse to admit any anger
with God and who immediately describe a tragedy as "God's will"
may have the best of intentions. Experience, however, shows us
that people most often speak about suffering as "God's will" when
they are talking about someone else's suffering.
In a three-panel cartoon, an old and
bearded God is shown as sitting on a cloud, thinking. Then he
picks a number from a rotating device similar to the kind used
by people calling bingo numbers. The final panel shows part of
a balcony falling on a man walking on the sidewalk. When many
people use the term "God's will," they are not saying that God
sends suffering to people whose number comes up. But that is often
the message which the suffering person hears: "My number has come
up. 'Nice' people, however, never get angry."
We can describe any suffering as "God's
will" in the sense that God has not intervened to prevent that
suffering from striking some individual. Or God "allows" the laws
of nature to follow their normal course. But that is very different
from "God's will" as described in the cartoon above in such a
Doesn't it make more sense to describe
"God's will" as "what we know God wants"that each person
share in the divine life and reflect the image of God in which
he or she was created? God wants people to be healthy and fully
alive. The famous parable of the Good Samaritan certainly expresses
"God's will" for our suffering brothers and sistersthat
we be ready to inconvenience ourselves as we try to relieve human
suffering. Glib talk about "God's will" for other people can easily
excuse us from the works of compassion and mercy which Jesus praised.
God has made a world where men and
women can use their freedom constructively or in destructive ways.
But tragedies such as Kevin, Brenda and Sister Suzanne faced are
not anyone's "fault" in the sense that they result from the abuse
of human freedom. Their tragedies, plus others resulting from
floods, earthquakes and cancer, strike saints and sinners alike.
Sweetly telling bereaved people that they will he united with
their loved ones in the next life may only end up shaming grieving
brothers and sisters into denying the deep pain they feel right
now. "You shouldn't feel that way" could be the worst thing we
can say under such circumstances. Standing by them in their grief
and helping them see their options for expressing their sorrow
is probably the most faith-filled response we can make.
6. Express your feelings honestly
when you pray.
Because most people think that prayer
should always be a peaceful, serene experience, they have trouble
imagining that an angry person could really pray. Better to wait
until he or she has "cooled down" before praying. Unfortunately,
grieving people who accept that message frequently try to pray
(communicate with God) without ever mentioning the most important
things or feelings which need to be communicated. Such an attitude
leads either to superficial prayers ("being nice" at all costs)
or abandoning prayer as dishonest. People who pray honestly in
anger can grow into a faith which is perhaps not as "nice" as
before but is obviously more honest. Moreover, these are the people
who are most ready to understand and assist others who are bandaging
up life's physical or emotional wounds.
If I can face an emotion like anger
with God, see my own freedom in responding to that emotion, pray
honestly if not elegantly, then I might be able to help a suffering
person put his or her life back together. But if I refuse to recognize
"bad" feelings in myself, or believe that genuine prayer is always
serene, I will certainly become an obstacle to someone else's
faith. Moreover, I may unintentionally indicate a path which leads
not to deeper faith in God but to rejection of God or "going through
the motions" of belief because that seems easier.
Praying amid my own anger or encouraging
someone else to pray honestly in his or her anger may feel awkward
and not much like any prayer I've ever known. From such soil,
however, God may nurture a faith unlike the one I hador
the other person hadwhen everything went very smoothly and
there was no reason to pray in anger.
7. Recognize when it's time
to move beyond anger.
We become angry when we suffer a loss
such as Brenda or Kevin experiencedor a smaller loss. If
we try to deny the anger, we choose, in effect, to be forever
manipulated by it. Admitting the anger, on the other hand, does
not entitle us to "special handling" for the rest of our lives.
People frozen in anger can become as callous as people who prefer
"being nice" at all costs. Dealing with angerour own or
someone else'scan lead to growth, to deeper compassion,
to a deeper faith in God. Dealing with anger will not erase Kevin's
or Brenda's sorrow, but it will enable them to live honestly and
to help others who have experienced great loss. If anger becomes
a permanent condition, however, the person stops long before the
journey is complete.
Our goal is an adult faith in Godhowever
much that may resemble or differ from the faith in God we had
as children. Adults ready to grow in faith can face their anger,
recognize their God-given freedom in the face of it and encourage
others to do the same. Kevin could deal with his anger and thus
discover a more adult faith; Brenda may yet discover that God
wants to help her transform her anger into compassion.