Sermon of the Week
No Insignificant Question: Is it Okay to be Angry At God?
Keywords: Suffering, Anger, The West Wing, Jonah, Jacob wrestling with God.
The thing that particularly struck me in researching this sermon
is how much pain people are carrying.
I read a lot about people’s anger,
and that, in turn, is often about their pain.
Anger is often in reaction to something that hurts
some wrong done
some loss that we experience.
Anger doesn’t just come out of the blue.
It is a response to something.
A dictionary tries to put words of definition to this emotion
by saying that anger is an intense emotional state induced by displeasure
but that’s kind of soft.
We can be displeased by things, or by people,
or often by circumstances caused by people,
and it’s not really accurate to say we get angry at things.
I stubbed my toe really badly the other night
when I was rushing around my kitchen too quickly doing something or other
and I wasn’t wearing shoes.
For a moment, I felt rather intense displeasure at that blimey stool that I hit rather hard
but I wasn’t angry at the stool.
I know better.
Anger, as an emotion, is reserved or directed at someone, at a person,
sometimes at ourselves,
for something that is done, or left undone,
or maybe for conditions that someone has control or responsibility over,
something that they can impact, or effect.
I should have been wearing shoes around my kitchen, you know?
And it is a powerful human emotion.
Anger itself can cause intense pain and hurt,
prompt us to make choices we otherwise wouldn’t.
Unresolved anger often is at the root of a lot of our ailments.
Sometimes it lingers, for days, for years
and if unresolved it can be one of those emotions
that bursts out of us.
People who study our emotions—
psychologists, ethicists, philosophers, advertising executives—
they tell us that anger can also be good thing, at times,
like the emotion of fear, or dislike of something,
because these emotions clue us into what is going on in our world.
Fear is important, right, because it helps keep us safe, when it’s working properly.
In a similar way, Anger tells us of a powerful disconnect
between what is and what ought to be
not just hurt about a situation, but a disruption of what is right, or just, or appropriate
or, sometimes, what I hope for, yearn for, dream about.
Those psychologists, ethicists, philosophers, advertising execs
tell us that these emotions, among others, are what they call basic emotions.[i]
These include happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, disgust, and anger.
They’re hardwired in us,
part of our evolutionary history,
and they form the building blocks of all of our other feelings.
Anger isn’t always a bad thing.
It can prompt us to do something important,
take on constructive work to tackle a problem
address an injustice, stand up to a bully.
There’s this great sentence in the book of Ephesians
that encourages people to “be angry, but do not sin.
Do not let the sun go down on your anger,”[ii]
by which the author was trying to make some of these distinctions
to acknowledge that anger can be a helpful thing sometimes
to distinguish between anger and sin…
not always the same thing.
That passage, in Ephesians
talked a lot about justice and righteousness
basically about the shalom or the peace that God intends for the Kingdom of God
and how we need to act in order to bring it about,
Thieves give up your thieving.
Don’t share evil talk with each other.
Use your words to help build up good relationships.
There’s another sermon about forgiveness in there
and maybe a third sermon about what might motivate us to seek the good.
Jesus himself showed flashes of anger, we might remember,[iii]
when he entered the temple
and saw that the moneychangers were taking advantage
of ordinary, everyday people
people who just wanted to be able to have the right dove
for the particular offering that God expected them to offer.
Sometimes anger is justified, is helpful,
and if it motivates us to do something about the wrongs in our world
something constructive and helpful and true
then the author of Ephesians might just commend you for it.
We’ve spoken before about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work,
and this summer we read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail[iv]
in our Social Witness Roundtable discussion series,
and there you hear Dr. King channeling his anger at centuries of injustice
done to black and brown people in the United States
into eloquent pleas to join his non-violent movement of righteousness.
To give one example.
But then we take a step back and start reflecting on what it might mean
when we are angry not at another person, or at a situation that they might influence,
but at God.
What is that like?
Where does that come from?
And is it ok for us to be angry at God?
That’s today’s Significant Question.
The person who submitted it actually phrased it:
Is it bad to be angry at and with God
and so I’ve turned it around a bit: is it okay to be angry with God?
But when I went through the questions you all submitted
this one came up a few times in a few different ways:
If God is all powerful and all loving, why are children starving in Africa?
Why did this extraordinary young man that I know die so painfully and too soon?
Those were some other questions submitted for this series.
And I was reminded about all that pain that we carry around:
The loved ones who no longer are with us.
Or the loved ones who no longer love us.
Abuse we’ve experienced at the hands of someone who said they loved us.
Or maybe it was miscarriage, or losing a job,
or yearning for friendship or a relationship and finding them out of reach.
These are often personal, often instances of suffering,
but expand our vision even just a little bit,
and there are so many examples of social or political
or environmental conditions that conjure up these feelings, too:
all those people who died in that tsunami back in 2005
all these gun deaths that are happening in our country
including eight year old Brian Bartlett
who was supposed to start 4th grade at Center Elementary School
the lack of care we are offering for people who suffer all sorts of ailments
and mental illnesses.
And it isn’t all that far of a thought
to begin to look to God and start seeking some answers.
There are many, many real life situations that we can tap into here
but maybe you would allow me to talk about a powerful piece of fiction for a moment
as a way to get into this without singling out any one of our personal examples.
I was re-watching The West Wing on Netflix.
The West Wing is one of my favorite shows,
starring Martin Sheen as a fictional president, Josiah Bartlett.
I love that show.
A few years ago, when our family travelled to Los Angeles for vacation
and we took a tour on the Warner Brother Studios set
I couldn’t believe it when I got to sit at the very desk they used to film the show
President Bartlett’s desk!
It was the highlight of my trip.
One of the most powerful moments on that show
was in an episode called Two Cathedrals.
Bartlett has had a really tough year,
is debating whether to seek another term,
and his aide, Josh Lyman, is recovering from a vicious attack.
It has been a tough year.
And if that’s not enough,
just prior to this episode, Bartlett loses his much-loved personal secretary
Delores Landingham, in a senseless car accident.
Landingham knew Josiah since he was a child.
She was his father’s secretary, before she became his.
And now, after a lifetime, she had saved up enough to buy her first new car.
She was so proud of it,
and President Bartlett hears her excitement and wants to share it with her
and so he asks her to bring it to the white house to show him,
and as she’s driving in
a drunk driver strikes her, killing her instantly.
And in Two Cathedrals,
they had just said goodbye to Mrs. Landingham at the funeral
and they’re all packing up, getting ready to go,
and Bartlett’s chief of staff tells him that they need to get back to the office
and he asks for a bit of time alone
for the agents to seal the national cathedral and give him a few minutes alone.
And when they’re all gone and out of earshot
President Bartlett turns to the nave
and curses at God:
She bought her first new car and you hit her with a drunk driver,
what, is that supposed to be funny?
“You can’t conceive, nor can I,
the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” says Graham Greene.
I don’t know whose [butt] he was kissing there,
because I think you’re just vindictive…
What, was Josh Lyman, a warning shot?
That was my son.
What did I ever do to Yours but praise his glory, praise His name?
He goes on. Calls God a feckless thug.
Lists the good that he’s done as President.
The work he’s accomplished at raising a family, trying to do good.
Bartlett wonders about what brought him to this moment,
turns his back, lights a cigarette,
drops it and steps on it, right there,
on the marble floors,
and walks away
bitter and angry and grieving.
The season ends with that emotion…
and you can feel, along with him,
the anger and the sorrow,
and you can empathize with him directing it up at God
the God who was supposed to have our back
and help us through it all
and protect our kids, and our loved ones
and maybe not let it all happen the way that it does.
So that’s our question:
Is it Okay to be Angry at God?
And it is an important question for a number of reasons.
We carry around a lot of pain with us, to be sure,
and no small amount of anger,
and some of that anger is directed toward God.
So this is a question that we experience ourselves from time to time.
But it is also a question that, for various reasons,
can cause us to feel conflicted, and anxious.
When I worked as a Chaplain intern
at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago,
Many of my conversations with patients or their families
tackled one form or another of this question.
And most of the time, the anger that they were feeling
was paired with worry that God was going to be angry too
angry at them for being angry, or not faithful enough,
or not trusting enough,
or not sacrificial enough.
If only their faith were stronger, they sometimes would reason,
maybe this bad thing wouldn’t have happened in the first place.
Maybe I’m being tested, and I’m failing because I’m so angry.
Maybe God’s anger will doom me for good,
and I won’t get better, or I won’t be connected with God any more.
You can see how these worries can be a problem.
There’s too much in there to unpack in this sermon time,
including an understanding of God’s activity in the world
that is more like a puppet master
where God plants this disease or heals that injury
where God throws that hurricane on top of that city…
Today we don’t understand God to be doing those things.
God weeps, alongside us in our suffering.
God empowers people to learn medicine and caring skills
and enables us to treat all sorts of ailments
sometimes with great success.
God organizes communities to respond to hurricane and earthquake and wildfire
hopefully to help their neighbor and reduce the risks these events portend.
But sometimes the worldview of our stories from Scripture
need more elaboration to help us make these distinctions
including this story from Jonah
were he is told to go to Nineveh and warn them
that God indeed is coming to tear the whole place down,
due to their evil, due to their abuse of one another.
When we want to explore our question of the day, though,
about whether it is okay to be angry with God,
this story from Jonah is particularly helpful
because it is one of those examples
where someone is actually very angry with God.
This is one of the stories many of us know
either from Sunday school or from people talking about it:
God comes to Jonah and directs him to go down to Nineveh
and tell them that their end is coming.
Nineveh is known the world over for their wickedness, their debauchery.
Preachers used to be able to point to Manhattan, or Las Vegas,
as examples, but they’ve cleaned up their act,
so it is hard to give a good modern analogy
but use your imagination just a little bit.
It was bad enough, in this story, to get God’s attention.
But Jonah didn’t want to do it.
So he runs away, the opposite direction
grabs a boat headed towards Tarshish
settles in for a nap during the ride.
There’s a storm, a bad storm, and the sailors get worried
and they cast lots to find out what’s what
and the lots point to Jonah.
Well then, off he goes,
walking the plank, out to sea
and with that the winds calm
and the sea stills
and the sailors continue on their way to Tarshish.
According to the story,
Jonah doesn’t perish that day.
God sends a large fish, right,
which swallows him up and gives him three days to think about all of this
and then spits him back ashore, on dry land, back where he started.
The story picks up with our reading today.
God tells him, again, to go to Nineveh
to tell them that God’s going to overthrow them.
And so he does.
And wouldn’t you know it,
they listened to him.
In a way, they WERE in fact overthrown
not by a powerful act of violence,
but by the word of a prophet, telling them that God wanted them to knock it off.
They all repent, the leaders, the commoners, even the animals.
And God saw it, and God “changed his mind about the calamity
that he had said he would bring upon them.”
Which is good news for the Ninevites.
Not only for their immediate future but their long term prospects,
a city more peaceful, more prosperous, where opportunity is shared
and shalom is possible…it is a wonderful thing!
But not for Jonah.
Jonah is angry.
The Ninevites were his enemy.
They had a history of cruelty, of licentiousness, of violent harm done to people.
This amnesty is not right.
This mercy is not appropriate.
And so he tells God all of this, bitter and rageful
I knew you’d do this!
I knew you’d let them off the hook.
How dare you do it, and how dare you use me as your agent.
There it is, the anger of a faithful follower of God.
There are other examples throughout scripture:
Moses shakes his fist at God for the enslavement of the Hebrew people;
Job rages at his pain after suffering is meted out to him,
the loss of his family, his farm, his health.
Here, look carefully,
what does God do when Jonah is so upset.
Well, he asks a question:
“Is it right for you to be angry with me?”
and then God causes a bush to grow
up over the place where Jonah sat down,
a bush to provide comfort, and shade, and respite as he seethed.
It is a remarkable act of gentleness, and mercy, and love.
Now, the story gets more complicated,
and the bush withers and God and Jonah have a face to face
where they work out this anger that Jonah has.
But I want us to linger a bit on that bush,
on what it means about the God that we follow
the God who is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger,
abounding in steadfast love.
When we ask the question:
is it Okay to be angry with God
the answer is yes.
God can handle our anger,
just like God can handle all of our emotions
our fear, our distress, our hopelessness, our uncertainty.
Here we don’t see God responding to Jonah’s anger with anger,
but with compassion, and with responsibility.
God explains what is going on,
why he couldn’t let an entire city get destroyed,
why his concerns may be bigger than what Jonah can comprehend.
Didn’t God ask Jonah:
Is it right for you to be angry?
Well, yes, but that’s not the same question.
“Is it Okay to be angry” isn’t the same question as “are you right to be angry.”
The second question asks if your anger is justified
if you’ve got the full context of what is going on
if you have balanced it properly with mitigating circumstances or other people’s responsibility or a host of other factors.
That’s not the same question as “is it okay to be angry.”
One of the most beautiful things about our Jewish cousins in the faith
is how they’ve developed a self-understanding as a religious community
of wrestling with God
of holding God to account for God’s end of the bargain, so to speak.
One of the places you see the roots of that
is in the delightful story that Donna read for us today
about Jacob wrestling with God at Jabbok.
Jacob is getting ready to confront his estranged brother Esau
but before that moment comes
someone comes and wrestles with him, all night long.
And at the end of the engagement,
Jacob gets a new name: “you will be called Israel,
for you have striven with God and have survived.”
The very name “Israel” means the people who wrestle with God,
and to this very day,
there is a sense that part of what it means to be faithful
is to engage with God,
to call upon God,
and sometimes to be angry with God, when situations warrant,
as they, unfortunately, sometimes do.
It is okay to be angry with God.
That doesn’t always mean that our anger is properly placed
or that God doesn’t mourn the very things we’re angry about.
But it IS okay to be angry with God.
The question is, ok, then what do we do about that.
If the story of Jonah tells us anything,
God appears to be big enough to hear that anger,
and to let us be angry,
and to respond with both compassion and a bigger picture
all of which may help.
Sometimes we can see that the anger is better placed at other humans,
how we treat one another,
how we’ve interpreted our religion,
how we allow some to take advantage of others.
Sometimes we see that the world we live in contains storms and disease
and that what God is doing is working to help us respond to these
with love and shelter and healing.
Sometimes we trust that, even if we cannot understand it today,
someday maybe we will see more clearly,
reunited with our loved ones,
enfolded ourselves in God’s everlasting care.
None of that is to minimize or dissuade us from our anger.
It is just to say that our anger isn’t the only thing.
That there is more. Because God is more.
So may we, dear friends,
know that it is okay to be angry with God
and may that anger find comfort
and maybe redirection
so that we can grasp a larger vision for what is possible
something bigger than our anger
where something good can come from it, perhaps
and hope deeply that that is so.
May we know that it can be very very faithful
to care so very much that we are angry when things hurt, and harm, and break
and may we hear that God mourns those very moments too
and walks along side of us
until we can find space in our spirits to move forward beyond our anger
and work together to build God’s kingdom.
May it be so. Amen.
[i] For instance, see https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201601/what-are-basic-emotions. The graphic is called Plutchik’s Wheel. More about Robert Plutchik’s work is available at wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Plutchik
[ii] Ephesians 4:26. A helpful reflection on this topic that didn’t make it into the content of this sermon was an essay in the Washington Post entitled “It’s Okay for Christians to be Angry. What Matters is what you do with that anger.” by Ryan McAnnally-Linz available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/07/26/its-okay-for-christians-to-be-angry-what-matters-is-what-you-do-with-that-anger/ (accessed August 24, 2019).
[iii] See Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, and Luke 19:45-58. Wikipedia has an entry on this episode at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleansing_of_the_Temple
[iv] The text of the Letter from Birmingham Jail can be found at https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html For more about the letter, Wikipedia has a page athttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letter_from_Birmingham_Jail.
Image Credit: From the Disney movie Inside Out