Some Christians would say that we should have considered this category of disruption first. Their intent is good. They want to protect the importance of theology. Actually, we have been wrestling with theological implications in each part of this series. But we didn’t start with theological disorientation for a few reasons.
First, I don’t think it is where the fatherliness of God would have us start. Imagine a child has an accident on their bicycle and goes to the hospital. The father sees the child after surgery. If the child is upset with the father, for whatever reason, is that the father’s primary concern? If the child scolds, “You should have never gotten me a bike,” or, “You should have never bought a house next to a busy street,” those things can wait. The initial concern of a good father is the well-being of the child. We have structured this series to coincide with those fatherly priorities.
Second, alleviating the other disruptions helps us clear our head for this reflection. When our destructive thoughts are sticky, our emotions raw, our social sphere restricted, and our choices reactive, it is hard to refine our theology. We wouldn’t try to take a Calculus exam or complete a volatile Chemistry lab in those conditions. Once we gathered ourselves, we could do much better on the exam or lab. Similarly, decreasing these forms of disruptions puts us in a better position to wrestle with the real, hard questions about God that emerge when we go through profoundly painful experiences.
Third, in this reflection we will be looking at theology-proper. Broadly speaking, theology is the study of what the Bible has to say about something. For instance, Christology is the study of what the Bible has to say about who Jesus is. When we ask, “What does the Bible have to say about God?” That is the narrow use of the term theology. When we face significant pain and hardship, our answer to this question often gets skewed. That skewing is what we will be seeking to assuage in this reflection.
Articulate Your Questions
Asking questions, when our emotions are angry, about God can feel irreverent. This can cause us to either pull back or surge forward with our questions. If we don’t feel welcomed to ask our questions, it will be hard for us to assimilate the response to those questions. Our disposition when we ask a question impacts our willingness and ability to process the conversation that follows.
In light of this, take a moment to reflect – even visualize – the implications of Hebrews 4:15-16.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted [suffered] as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Imagine yourself walking to God to ask a question. Moreover, imagine God as a tender father coming to your room knowing you’re too upset to talk – that is the implication of the incarnation, Jesus entered our world. Notice that the Greek word for “tempted” can also be translated “suffered.” Notice that it is God’s ability to identify with our hardship that is the basis for the confidence with which we come to him in prayer.
Consider again the questions you want to ask. Are they worded in a way that expects a tender, compassionate response? How would you word the questions differently if they were in response to a loving father who came into your room, sat next to you, and asked, “I can tell you’re hurt; do you want to talk about it?”
We have done a lot of work on putting your questions into words. We’ve traced your history and examined life from as many angles as we could imagine. Now we want to work on wording our questions in a way that expects them to be received. We want to do this, not because God requires us to “ask nicely,” but because it helps us embrace the conversation that follows.
Distinguish Real from True
I remember teaching my youngest son to swim. He was an athletic little kid, but for some reason he was afraid of water. As I would pick him up and walk towards the pool, I could look in his eyes and tell what he was thinking, “This water is deeper than I am tall. That never goes well for the short guy. You’re taking me to the pool. You’re not to be trusted.”
He was having a real experience of fear. His heart was thumping so hard I could feel it against my shoulder. His pupils were dilated. His breathing pattern was changing. His fear was real. But not everything that undergirded his fear was true. But this wasn’t the time to truth-bomb his fear into submission by saying something like, “If I were going to drown you, would I do in front of this many people?”
Affirming the realness of his experience was an essential part of being able to speak to the falseness or, at least incompleteness, of his fear. That means saying something like, “This feels like a big deal, doesn’t it? Learning to swim is a new adventure. It looks like those kids are having fun, doesn’t it? If you can run faster than those kids, I bet you can swim as well as they can too. What if we take it slow and learn?”
We can honor what is accurate within an emotional experience, in this case that learning to swim is a new challenge, while not embracing the untrue content that gets embedded in those emotions; in this case that the pool is perilous or that I had ill-intent in taking him towards the pool. Now we turn the question to you, “What parts of your emotional experience towards and about God are real but not true?”
You may be surprised to realize that Psalms frequently live in this tension. The Psalms express things that are inaccurate about God but feel true to the author in their moment of distress.
- God is felt to be hiding from us in our troubles (Psalm 10:1)
- God is felt to be forgetful or uninterested in our suffering (Psalm 13:1, 44:24)
- God is felt to have forsaken those who cry out to Him (Psalm 22:1-2)
- God is felt to be asleep and therefore unaware (Psalm 44:23)
- God is felt to have abandoned His people forever (Psalm 74:1)
- God is felt to have aggressively “spiked” an innocent person in anger (Psalm 102:10)
What are your versions of these psalms? Distinguishing between what is real and true allows you to begin to doubt these statements about God. That is progress. That is what is happening in the book of Psalms. The author is doubting these statements. We know this because they are addressed as prayers to God. More honest conversational prayers, like these, are an important part of continuing in the process of grief.
Make Peace with the Tension
You will notice that in the psalms listed above, not all of them end with resolution. Some of them end raw and confused. That is the way that relationships are. Undoubtedly, you’ve experienced conflicts with a friend or family member where the issue was resolved – agreed upon – but your emotions were not resolved. It took time and more interaction for things to feel normal again.
This is where we return to a primary theme of this series, we want to do anger with God. That means, for the sake of a valued relationship, we live with the tension for a while. In the next section of this series, we will begin to explore what it looks like to have these more honest conversations with God and navigating the tensions within our experience to make more progress in our grief.
Tension doesn’t necessarily mean we’re stuck. Often it means we’re growing. Think of the tension that exists as an adolescent becomes a teenager. Too often this phase gets portrayed with futility, as if it is hopeless. But the increased tension means the young person is growing, becoming their own person, and learning what it means to embrace the next season of life. The tension may be uncomfortable, but it’s a sign of growth.
When we process profoundly painful experiences, it is a time when our faith becomes less innocent. We are less satisfied with the simple answers that once brought us comfort. Angry-grief is a lot like being a teenager. We’re not leaving the family, but we do want a more robust explanation for what’s going on. We may not be fully ready to understand or embrace it, but we want to be trusted enough to hear it.Angry-grief is a lot like being a teenager. We’re not leaving the family, but we do want a more robust explanation for what’s going on. We may not be fully ready to understand or embrace it, but we want to be trusted enough to hear it. Click To Tweet
In that sense, our goal in this next phase of our journey is to be a good teenager. That’s not an oxymoron. We want to ask our honest question, have the courage to say what doesn’t make sense, and engage life in a less innocent way that we have to this point. That’s not a bad thing. Much good and much growth can come from it. Less innocent faith can still be strong, God-honoring faith.
If you find yourself asking questions about God but feel ill-equipped to vet those questions, or if you find that your feelings about God aren’t rooted in as much knowledge of God as you feel like they should be, consider the minibook God’s Attributes: Rest for Life’s Struggles. It is a four-week devotional that is meant to be an introduction to the character of God. It looks at 16 attributes of God and of particular relevance to this series, offer questions to help you discern what it would look like for you to rest in (i.e., find comfort in) each attribute.
Questions for Reflection
- What are the questions about God that your hardship has introduced into your life? How safe or welcomed do you feel to ask these questions?
- What were some of the important distinctions you made in the “real versus true” section? How does validating the experience of pain or anger help you more objectively evaluate the truth claims those experiences push you towards?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled Anger with God: Grappling with God Amidst Life’s Greatest Pains and Betrayals.