We are continuing to learn about anger so that we can make progress through the angry phase of grief. We are taking the experience of anger in response to profound pain and turning it like a diamond under a lamp. But, in this case, we are not mesmerized by its beauty; we want to find freedom from it ruling our emotions.
As we take the next step in our journey, let’s consider five facets of anger. We will arrange them in a progression to help us grasp the logic of an emotion, anger, that isn’t always fond of explaining itself.
- Anger wants certainty.
- Anger is confidant.
- Anger (artificially) makes fuzzy things clear.
- Anger demands answers.
- The absence of answers is interpreted as cruel.
Let’s unpack this progression.
Anger wants certainty. Anger doesn’t want to hear, “Maybe it was this or maybe it was that.” Anger declares two things about a situation: (a) it was wrong, and (b) it mattered. Whoever anger is talking to or about is expected to give a clear explanation of their actions. “I don’t know,” feels like someone is weaseling out by pleading the fifth in a courtroom to avoid saying something incriminating.
As we think about living with a partial understanding for why things happen – as we all do – this becomes problematic. This takes a situation that causes anger – the original hurt – and multiplies it by a dynamic that provokes more anger – life doesn’t come with a commentary of explanations.
Anger is confidant. Anger makes no apologies for asking its questions. The retort emerges, “Why should we apologize for our questions?” We shouldn’t. This whole series has been about God welcoming our questions. But we can ask our questions with such force that it makes any response feel like a debate. Anger often brings this force. Then it feels like any helpful response to our pain is “God winning” and, therefore, “us losing.”
We’re not saying we have to speak to God reverently so as not to offend him. We’ve seen the psalms are too raw for that logic to stand. This is the appeal that we need to ask our questions with a dash of humility so that we are able to have a fruitful conversation about our questions. Its about our receptivity, not God’s fragility.
Anger (artificially) makes fuzzy things clear. Anger doesn’t waste time connecting the dots. If there are two dots on the page: dot one, I was hurt and, dot two, God was involved; then anger scribbles the line between the two dots bold and deep, “God hurt me. God is not safe. Everything I was told about God was a lie!”
At one level, this is understandable. Confusion and uncertainty add to the painfulness of a situation. It feels like, if we establish meaning – even if its inaccurate – it will lessen the pain. But that’s like the student who consoles themselves after failing a test by telling themselves, “The teacher doesn’t like me. The test wasn’t fair. This class is stupid and is never something I will use in real life.” The temporary relief of this meaning making system comes at the cost of a life marked by suspicion and futility.
Anger demands answers. “Then you tell me why!” is the next retort. Again, anger wants certainty. Anything less makes the scales of justice feel permanently out of whack. Sometimes, in this phase, we get fatigued with anger and this fatigue feels like relief. Emotional exhaustion can take the edge off our questions and feel like humility. We get the short-term relief of less edgy questions, but because its only fatigue, it doesn’t last.
We can take some encouragement from this. Asking our questions differently can get us somewhere more productive. We just need to root the change in character more than weariness. But it is nice to have a bit of pre-verification that there is fruitfulness to change.
The absence of answers is interpreted as cruel. “If God won’t answer my question, that just proves how little God cares.” This feels like the culmination of our emotional journey. At best, we would move from being hot-angry with God to cold-aloof. When we’re stuck in the anger phase of grief, this feels like the best we could hope for.
This approach assumes there should be a Mr. Miyagi moment, reference to the classic movie Karate Kid, for all our hardships. We want to know that all the, “Paint the fence. Wax the car,” pain has a “learn some essential skill central to my life” outcome. Until we get this answer, we assume God is cruel.
What if there was a different and better way to approach the question?
Embracing a Partial Understanding
As we try to approach the question of partial understanding differently, let’s use a comparable progression of logic to what we just completed. It is not a point-counterpoint progress. Instead, it is a new, unique approach to the question.
- We have a partial understanding in an unfolding story.
- We want to be content with learning, not just knowing.
- We begin to realize how much faith is a relationship.
- We realize our choices impact the outcome.
We have a partial understanding in an unfolding story. The fact that we’re grappling with the question means our part in the story is not over. In our pain, we want to stop the story and refuse to continue participating in it until we get answers to our legitimate questions. Unfortunately, that is not how life works.
Life is not like the repetition of a science experiment. In chemistry class, we would stop at any point to ask the teacher, “Why is it doing that?” Because we were repeating a known experiment, the teacher could answer. Life is not a repeated experiment. Every life is its own unique journey. The struggles of life may be common to all (I Corinthians 10:13), but the story of each life is unique.
We want to be content with learning, not just knowing. This is what adds the dash of humility to our angry-grief. We don’t give up on understanding and creating meaning from our hardship, we just realize it won’t be completed as quickly as we would like.
If we’re honest, this helps whatever meaning we are able to make from our pain less insulting. Simple answers aren’t adequate for the kind of pain that warrants the journey we’re taking together. They come across as trite and cliché. Taking a learning approach rather than having to know honors the pain we’ve experienced.
We begin to realize how much faith is a relationship. We come back to the theme of doing anger “with” God about our pain. We realize we’re not screaming into the night; we’re talking to someone, namely God. We’re not trying to pass a quiz on the historical significance of key events in our life. We are trying to get back to the place where God is a source of rest and refuge rather than distress and consternation.We’re not trying to pass a quiz on the historical significance of key events in our life. We are trying to get back to the place where God is a source of rest and refuge rather than distress and consternation. Click To Tweet
Consider having a conversation with God that goes something like this:
“I know you know I’m hurting and confused. You’ve been patient with me as I’ve flailed in and railed about my pain. Thank you. But I still don’t get it. I still get lost in the pain and confusion. I know you made the ultimate sacrifice at Calvary for my sin. Because of that, I know you have felt the full weight of living in this broken world. I know you cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matt. 27:46). Jesus, you’ve been on both sides of this conversation. Help me understand the things I can now, be patient for the things that will be clearer in time, and lean on you for strength for the things that may never make sense.”
This is a relational approach to pain. It is an expression of faith. It doesn’t rush you. It accepts the tension of knowing some ultimate things (i.e., Jesus love and compassion towards us) and not knowing some important things (i.e., an explanation for our pain). It is better to ask for help in the real tension than to allow our anger to artificially resolve it.
We realize our choices impact the outcome. This final point addresses the powerlessness that is often at the root of our angry-grief. When we can’t choose what we want most – to make the painful thing to have never happened – we often feel like we have no choice or ability to meaningfully impact our world. This is not true.
As we said, our story is unfolding. A primary factor in how our story unfolds is the choices we make.
- Path One: If we remain stagnated in our angry-grief, we will make the kind of choices that further the deterioration of our life. This will add to the cloud of unfairness that hangs over our life and further reinforce the futility that fuels our destructive choices.
- Path Two: If we grieve the legitimate pain more healthily, it will result in a better life than Path One. It won’t make the sad things untrue. But it can begin to write future redemptive and satisfying chapters of life as an extension of the painful chapters of life we’ve been grappling with.
We wish we could do a comparative analysis of Path One and Path Two to get a qualitative assessment of the two resulting lives. But like any other major life choice, we will never know the other path. We will only know the results of the path we choose. What I hope is that our journey together has begun to make Path Two more appealing, not something you feel argued into, but that you genuinely embrace.
Questions for Reflection
- Which of the five facets of anger about uncertainty have been most sticky or difficult for you?
- Which of the four realities for embracing a partial understanding about our pain was most meaningful and helpful for you?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled Anger with God: Grappling with God Amidst Life’s Greatest Pains and Betrayals.
 If this concept is central to where you feel stuck and the remainder of this reflection does not provide what you need, consider the article “Making Peace with Romans 8:28” at www.bradhambrick.com/romans828.