We have skimmed the surface of this question a couple of times already in this series. Our operating premise is that anger with God is an early stage of grief about the loss or destruction of something good in our life. Based on this, our anger is a declaration of how good that now-gone person, role, or thing was. Unfortunately, we often get stuck in anger. We’re right. It was good. So, we don’t know what to do when we’re angry and we’re right. “Getting over it,” feels like admitting we were wrong.
That is where understanding anger as part of grief gives us a sense of direction. We can be right about the goodness of what we lost without remaining stuck. In this reflection you will be asked to be more vulnerable than previous times when we have addressed this question. Before, you were asked to be “factual;” that is, to give the who, what, when, where of the good things you lost. This time, I’ll ask you to be more “personal;” that is, to articulate the meaningfulness of what you lost.
Interview Your Pain
Often, we just let our pain ramble as it crashes over us in waves. In the early stages, that is appropriate. It is ineffective to think we are going to resolve something before we experience it. But at this stage in our journey, we have come to a place where just allowing the waves of grief-anger to crash over our heart is eroding away at our soul.
So, how is interviewing different from just listening? If done well, both are highly attentive, mentally and emotionally engaged, and informative. But when we “just listen” the person (or, in this case, emotion) sets the agenda (that is, if an agenda ever emerges). When we “interview” someone, we are asking intentional questions to get specific types of information. That is what we want to do now.
Go back to your “timeline and topography” exercise. Review the “before” time zone on your timeline. That is the time period we want to consider. Review the first 8 verses of Psalm 44 again, that is the disposition in which you likely experienced these events. The innocence of enjoying good things is often what makes us feel sucker punched by the events that created our loss.
In a moment, we’ll offer some questions to help you interview your pain. But first, it may be helpful to explain the concept of having a conversation with your emotions. It can feel weird. At its simplest level you are personifying these painful emotions. It is what you do when you claim to know what your pet would say in a humorous situation.
Personifying is a way to gain some objective distance from the painful emotions. It is what the psalmist did in Psalm 43:5 as he explored his pain, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” Too often in Christian circles we talk about the importance of preaching the gospel to ourselves (which is important) without teaching the skill of listening to the disruption we’re trying to apply the gospel to.Too often in Christian circles we talk about the importance of preaching the gospel to ourselves (which is important) without teaching the skill of listening to the disruption we’re trying to apply the gospel to. Click To Tweet
The basic question from which all the following questions take different angles on is, “If my pain could talk, what would it say?” More specifically, “What parts of this experience is my pain calling my attention to because they were or should have been good?” In relationships with others, it is rude to try to make suggestions before understanding their perspective. In relationship with our own pain, it is equally ineffective to try to change an emotion we haven’t taken the time understand. Be as kind to yourself as you would a good friend.
With that in mind, here are some questions you use to interview your pain. If the question that best fits your situation isn’t on the list, use the list as a brainstorming exercise to find the kind of question that does fit.
- Consider the people you lost to death or relational strain.
- Who do you miss?
- What blessings or joys did they bring to your life?
- What was unique about your relationship with each of these people or groups of people?
- Consider the social roles that were disrupted by the things that occurred.
- What did you enjoy about each role?
- What good emerged from you fulfilling each role?
- What relationships were facilitated by or attached to each role?
- Consider the possessions you lost or how their significance was altered?
- What made these things more valuable than their monetary value?
- What significance did these things play in your life?
- When and how was that significant forged?
- Consider the season of life when these things occurred.
- What are the normal or reasonably good expectations for this season of life?
- What dreams or aspirations did you have for this season of life?
- What current events feel different because of the disruption in this season of life?
- Consider the places where these things occurred.
- What are the normal or reasonably good expectations for these places?
- What other good things happen in these places that feel different now?
- What relationships occurred in these places that you feel less able to engage in?
Your goal as you reflect on these things is to allow yourself to be more sad than mad. As we consider these things, we want our internal experience to feel more like a funeral than a protest. As we listen to our pain, we want to honor the good things our pain is commemorating rather than searching for evidence we can levy as prosecutors in some grand trial playing out in our minds.
An important step toward processing profoundly painful experiences is to allow ourselves to be sad over what we lost. This is what allows others to come near us in our pain, which allows us to feel less isolated. If that is still hard for you, it is a theme we will come back to several more times. Don’t rush yourself. That only festers the transformation of grief into anger.
Articulating the Significance
The goal of the personification exercise is to make a transition in how we revere the significance of those things that were disrupted or lost. During the grief-as-anger phase of processing of these experiences, the force of our emotions conveyed how important these things were. Now we want the clarity of our words to communicate why these things were so important. This can have several benefits.
First, we may be surprised at why these experiences were so disruptive. Frequently, I’ve had people say to me, “I had no idea that [blank] contributed to me responding as intensely as I have to this situation.”
- Perhaps the “blank” is the violation of trust for someone who doesn’t trust easily, and the pain happened in a relationship where they felt safe.
- The “blank” might be aggravating the loss of innocence for someone whose childhood was marred by abuse and lived without the freedom of imagination that marks children who feel safe.
If this is your experience, then realization allows you to begin grieving what is at the root of your anger. Seeing your anger this way allows you to experience God’s compassion towards how you were hurt instead of sensing an innate sense of God’s disapproval because you’re angry (as if anger were inherently wrong).
Second, being able to articulate the significance of the good things that were lost or damaged allows friends to empathize and care for us in new ways. It is easy for friends to get distracted by the “events” of our story. When this happens, we can tell they’re listening, but still don’t feel like they “get” us. The result is that isolation persists even when we are with people who care. That only exacerbates the sense of distance we feel from God. Empathy from Christian friends can help dissolve the sense of indifference we feel from God (hence, we’re upset with him).
Third, being able to put these things into words helps our prayers and internal conversations focus on what is most important. When we can’t articulate the significance of what happened, we often get stuck looping through the memories of the events. Even our prayers feel like a news reporter reciting to God what happened more than a child seeking comfort from a parent who understands. Transitioning from anger-grief about what happened to memorializing-grief for the good things lost, allows us to engage in a more healing and restorative relationship with God.When we can’t articulate the significance of what happened, we often get stuck looping through the memories of the events. Our prayers feel like a news reporter reciting to God what happened. Click To Tweet
This transition doesn’t happen as all-at-once as we would like. It happens like any other developmental process, gradually. Initially, reminiscing-grief doesn’t feel that much better than angry-grief. If anything, it feels more vulnerable. But it does begin to open up a broader emotional and relational range of options. Anger is constrictive. The only options are over-power and power through. With grief, we experience more choices. We can let people in. Be sad, then focus on something else. We can appreciate the lessons hard times taught us. We regain some emotional elasticity. As that begins to happen, notice it, appreciate it, and be encouraged that you’re moving in a good direction.
Questions for Reflection
- How would you summarize the idea of interviewing or personifying your pain? How would you summarize the benefits that can come from it?
- What did you learn about the “why” behind the “what” of your pain as you reflected on the questions in this article?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled Anger with God: Grappling with God Amidst Life’s Greatest Pains and Betrayals.