Some time ago at our home church the congregation was asked to forward any questions they might have, that they would like the pastor to preach about during the summer. The pastor and I divided the questions between us. This was the question that was submitted by two different persons from the congregation:
“Why does God let bad things happen?”
“How come bad things happen to good people?”
Here is what I said in response
First of all, it is true – bad things do happen
Bad things happen to all sorts of people. The good, the bad and the ugly. Forest fires and floods are indiscriminate. Tornadoes too. The tragedy of war is the same: soldiers & civilians get killed or maimed and families are devastated. On top of all of that, wicked people do terrible things to their victims, and careless people can leave horrific damage in their wake. Then on top of that, illnesses of all sorts take their toll of health and happiness.
That is bad enough on its own, but when we believe in God, the problem becomes much greater. In the face of so much human suffering the question becomes crucial, “if God is so powerful, why does he not intervene? If God is so powerful, why does he not protect the innocent millions from such suffering?
Those are legitimate questions. The questions have gone on for a long time. They have picked up a kind of symmetry. It goes like this:
If God were all-powerful, He could stop the evil.
If He were all-good he would want to stop the evil.
If the evil is not stopped, then one of two things must be true.
Either He doesn’t want to stop the evil, which makes him evil.
Or he cannot stop the evil, and that makes him impotent, weak and powerless.
Our disappointment with God.
Our next response is disappointment with God, and sometimes outright anger. We yell, “life is not fair!” And that can quickly move to the conclusion that God is not fair! Our disappointment and anger at God is sometimes veiled. We dare not admit it to anyone. We can’t even admit it to ourselves. It seems to be so improper. In fact, most people will not even admit to themselves that they are angry at God.
We are not alone.
It is not our generation alone that has felt sufficient cause to be angry at God. Anger at God is one of the tap roots of atheism. Our emotional anger is often the thing that leads us to intellectual doubt. “A good God who was all powerful would never have allowed such a thing to happen, therefore there must be no God. This was a major cause for atheism in Europe after WWII. Where was God when Hitler ordered the slaughter of 6 million Jews? Where was God when Stalin ordered the death of 11 million Ukrainians? Where was God when over 60 million soldiers and civilians were killed during that terrible war? Anger at God arose like a mushroom cloud!
But anger at God occurs not just over macro-events, but also at the micro-level of our private lives. Elisabeth Kubler Ross, and those that have improved on her findings, speak about the stages that people go through in the process of death & dying. She notes that anger is one of those stages; anger at nurses and doctors, at life in general, and at God. It is the second stage of grieving. Denial, followed by anger, followed by bargaining, followed by depression and hopefully acceptance. But this sequence is so universal, that anger against God takes place in those dying, or those who are losing a loved one, or at a time of job loss, loss of a spouse through divorce, loss of health, or loss of a home.
The Biblical Testimony
If we feel angry at God, we are not alone. Can I point us to a strange phenomenon in our Bibles? People in the Bible who are called “saints” are angry at God at times.
Jeremiah 12:1-4, The prophet shouts out at God, “Let me lay my charge against you.” – 15:16-18 He calls God “a deceitful brook”
– 20: 7 He says to God, “You have seduced me.”
Habakkuk cries out in his opening words to God (1:2-4)
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore, judgment comes forth perverted.
And then there is Job’s wife who counsels her husband to “Curse God and die!” And the list goes on, particularly in the book of Psalms. A dozen psalms express in one way or another their disappointment and anger at God. (see Psalms 13:1- 4, 22:1-21, 60:1-3, 74:1-11, 77:1-10, 79:1-13, 88:1-18, 89:38-51 for classic examples.) But let me read to you one of the most vivid examples of disappointed anger.
1 O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
2 let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
3 For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
5 like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah
8 You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9 my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you? Selah
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
13 But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
18 You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
my only companion is the darkness!
Yet strange to say, such songs are placed in the hymnal of a nation intended for frequent use when they gather for worship. They are in the Bible for all time to give us guidance in our own praying. It is as though God wanted our anger at him to receive some sense of approval. It is as though to be angry at him was not only allowed, but even encouraged. So God gives us guidance how to be both good and yet mad at God. Why would he do this?
Anger and Hurt
Perhaps one of the reasons is that life is unfair. People are unfair. We are unfair. But anger turned against others in retaliation, can do even more damage and add more injustice to the world. Anger turned in at ourselves is the cause of so much emotional illness and so much personal pain. We may not be angry at our partners or our children or the dog, but we will often take out our anger on the first safe person we see. Anger is irrational, though understandable!
So God offers Himself, as he did at Calvary, to take upon himself our sin and our hurts. We are like a little child, yelling at his parents, “I hate you!” and beating on the body of a parent with feeble fists. And all the while the parent is saying “But I love you” and takes the angry and crying child into their embrace to attempt to bring peace in place of pain. God is like that!
Some time ago, I had an article published in a Christian magazine. Can I read it to us? It is called “Christ the Boxer”. It may illustrate what I mean.
I had a dream. I saw myself in the boxing ring with Jesus. I have no use for the violent sport, but there I was, nonetheless, dressed for the occasion. The gloves I wore looked larger than life. They were red and swollen and made me look like an ancient warrior with two clubs for fists. I was angry with him. There we were: he in his corner and I in mine. The sound of a bell rang out, and in a surge of intense hatred I raced across the ring and began to rain blows at him. High levels of adrenaline propelled those blows that I aimed at his body and at his head. It seemed that all the pent up anger of a lifetime came to focus in those blows. He put up his arms to take the hits, but I just aimed my shots where there were no defences. During this barrage, not one of his blows got through my guard. I drew blood. Soon his eyes were swollen. He staggered under my onslaught. He fell against the ropes. I hit him at will. The bell rang, and I went to my corner. I felt tired, but I felt great. He was going down next round. He was bloodied and bruised and looked exhausted.
The bell for the second round sounded, and I was on him like a tiger. I held nothing back as the onslaught continued. But soon I felt the anger abating. I felt the adrenaline receding. I began to feel the tiredness in my arms. They had been flailing non-stop, but now they were beginning to feel like lead weights. I kept on hitting him, but the hits were now ineffectual. I was running out of energy as my legs began to weaken. But the bell rang to end the round, and we both sat down, tired to the bone. I examined my body. It was unbelievable; he had not been able to hit me with one punch. There wasn’t a bruise on my entire body. He was cut in several places. His trainer was working feverishly on closing his wounds, but without success.
The third round began, and I moved towards him, but I wasn’t angry anymore. I was just tired. No, not just tired; I was afraid. I was spent. I could hardly keep my arms up. I could only paw at him with my diminished blows. And I had seen enough of the Rocky movies to know that if he had any strength left in reserve, I was a dead man. If he woke up, and took the offensive I would be in deep trouble. I could hardly move my legs or lift my arms. And then the thing I feared began to happen, he moved towards me. I began back-pedaling to stay away from his long arms. They reached out seeming to measure the distance for the fierce blow I knew was coming. But I had learned my lessons well. When tired, go into the clinches. Don’t give any space between his body and your own, so he cannot hit with any force. I moved in to hang on to him. There we were holding on to each other in the middle of the ring. I hung on to catch my wind, to regain my strength, to just stay up on my feet. And he hung on too.
But the way he clutched me disturbed me. I was hanging on to protect myself; he was hanging on as if he never wanted to let me go. He hung on to me as though I were a lover, not a back street brawler. Round and round we went in this terrible embrace. Our heads were close, and I tried to bang him with my head to reopen the wounds that marked his face. But he put his cheek along side of mine as a parent does to a child who is ill, just held it there. And then horror of horrors, he turned his face towards mine, as we shared this fierce embrace, and he kissed me.
He kissed me on the forehead, and then again, on the cheek, then again on my mouth. I was horrified. What is this boxer up to? He saw the horror in my eyes, and he spoke. And I heard his words; “I love you!” I was even more scared. He held me closer and then he said it again. “I love you. I could never hurt you.” I stepped back in anger. He just stood there. His arms opened as though to receive me back into his embrace. With all of my remaining strength I swung my right fist at his head. I hit him hard. He staggered under the blow. He regained himself, and then I saw him deliberately turn the other cheek, as though inviting me to hit him again. That was the last straw.
It was then I fell to my knees, and as I did I took hold of his feet, as though hanging on for dear life, and said, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man!” And he placed his arms around me and he lifted me to my feet, and said, “The fight is over. We both won.”
And that is a parable. I sense in God that great love, who says when we are feeling the rage of life, come and take it out on me. My shoulders are broad. My love is not fragile. And you may find that all the rage that comes from such pain will be healed. For all anger is a response to the feelings of being hurt. And the deepest hurts and the worst damage of our lives can only be healed by Him. And it is better to come in anger than not come at all. Better to be angry at God than ourselves or each other.
God hates dishonest prayers
He wants us to be honest with him at all costs. He wants us to tell it to Him as it really is. He does not want our prayers to be nice platitudes that cover up how we really feel. We can say our prayers, to get God off our backs for the rest of the day; to soothe our conscience; to check off one more item on my “to do list”. So we can say nice things to God, like we do to our spouse or our parents, but leave the house angry at them. And we can leave our time of praying, never really being honest with God. Never trusting him with what really bothers us. And if God had his “druthers” he would rather have a real conversation, even though he will hear us saying things to him that hurt.
God is bigger than we think.
There is another reason that God would have us speak out our anger to him. He is different than we have made Him out to be. God is not quite like we are. We do not have to tip-toe around him. He is not hyper-sensitive. He is not revengeful or retaliatory. He will listen to our anger. He is not easily offended. He has seen it all before. Our anger doesn’t shock him. His shoulders are broad. He can handle reality. He knows the anger is there before we even recognize that it is anger at Him. And God does not want to be frozen out of our lives. He does not want silence to pervade our relationship with him. God would rather have us talk about it with him. If we do, we will find that he can handle our anger and is more understanding of our feelings than we could ever have presumed.
Do not be involved in “Evil Speaking”
Jesus said (Matthew 18:15-17) “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”
We are not to gossip about our discontent with another person. We are to confront them first to give them a chance to explain themselves or to apologize if they are really in the wrong. (John Wesley has a sermon on Evil Speaking based on this passage. It is one of the best pieces of advice given in a sermon in the last 300 years.) That could apply to our relationship with God too. Are you angry at God who has disappointed you? Go to him first. Do not go around telling everyone and their second cousin that God is not fair. Talk to God first. Who knows, you and God might end up being better friends. If that is not helpful in resolving your anger at God, get together with a couple of friends and tell them about your controversy with God. They may help you to understand, either that you are out of line, or they will join you in prayer to God and join their voices with yours.
But be careful
Much of our anger at God stems from an unfair picture of God.
“He is in control”
If life is not fair, and God is in control, then God is not fair. We have been told that acts of God are earthquakes, tidal waves, flooding, tornadoes, blizzards. Some traditions of the church have said that everything that happens is the will of God. That is the way people often think of God. When someone dies God gets the blame, as though God were in charge of the death department. And since God is in charge, the buck should end on his desk.
There is a problem with that perspective. God has given to each of us and to all of us the gift of freedom. Freedom to make choices, real choices, from which flow real consequences. Freedom to hurt ourselves, freedom to hurt our neighbour. He has given to us the gift of self-control, so that he is not the puppet master pulling all the strings. He made us sovereign beings who can wave our puny fists in his face and we can stamp our feet and say “NO” to God, and God with sadness says “have it your way.”
And the tragedy of history, both global and personal is, that God does not often get his way. He is not “in control” micromanaging the details of our lives. It is not right to be angry at him for what He is not responsible for!
“A miracle a day will keep the devil away”
But God is a miracle worker we say. God can interrupt the laws of nature. If someone gets cancer because of the damage we do to our own bodies or from a toxic environment, why can’t God just fix the problem with a miracle? I know I would, if I were God.
There of course is a problem with that approach to God. God would rather that we do something about perceived evils. It is our world. Psalm 115:16 says, “The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth he has given to mortals.”
He has put the world into our hands. He has delegated the welfare of ozone layers and rain forests, famine relief and human dignity into our hands. If he bails us out of the difficulties of life, he will fail at his prime directive which is to make adults out of children. He wants us to work together to solve our own difficulties. Science exists and has made so much progress because it has attempted to solve difficulties.
“God is interested in our well being”
But we say that God is interested in our well-being. Suffering is bad. Pleasure is good. That is called Hedonism. Maximum pleasure and minimum pain makes for a nice life! If life is not turning out nice, just a little prayer to Jesus should make it right. And if it doesn’t, we get angry at God, just like that two-year-old throwing a tantrum when deprived of sharp scissors. The basic human dilemma and our worst fault is our utter selfishness. Hear the testimony of two wise people –
Henry Ward Beecher,
“We thank you for the privilege of prayer and for your answers to our prayers. And we rejoice that you do not answer according to our petitions. We are blind and constantly seeking things which are not best for us. If you granted all our requests, we would be ruined.”
“Suppose you eliminate suffering, what a dreadful place the world would be. I would almost rather eliminate happiness. The world would be the most ghastly place because everything that corrects the tendency of this unspeakable little creature, man, to feel over important and over pleased with himself would disappear. He’s bad enough now, but he would be absolutely intolerable if he never suffered.”
So how are we to be good, and mad at God?
- We are to be angry, and yet not sin. (Eph. 4:26, Psalm 4:4)
- Our anger at evil may be a reflection of the anger of God within us. God may be saying, “I feel the same way, let the two of us do something about it.”