On being mad at God

Some years ago, I was called as a witness in a case involving the alleged sexual abuse of a 15-year-old girl. I had been providing individual therapy to the girl, who stated she had been sexually abused by her uncle. With the consent of the girl and her family, I agreed to testify and to submit my case notes as evidence for the prosecution.
When I took the stand, the prosecuting attorney asked me about my case notes. “You wrote that the alleged victim stated in therapy that she was angry with her parents,” she said. “Why was she angry?”
“Because her parents had always told her they would protect her, and never let anything bad happen to her,” I said. The prosecutor rolled her eyes toward the jury, indicating I was to address my remarks to them, rather than her. I turned to face the jury, and continued. “But something bad did happen, and her parents weren’t there to protect her. She felt she had been betrayed.”
“I see,” said the prosecutor. “You also wrote in your notes the alleged victim said that she was angry at God, as well. Why was this?”
“For the same reason,” I said. (She rolled her eyes toward the jury again.) “She had been raised to believe in a loving God that would never let anything bad happen to her. Again, when something did happen, she felt she had been abandoned by God.”
Several members of the jury nodded their heads in quiet assent, and I knew they knew the feeling I had described. I remember thinking about the defendant, This guy is toast.
My testimony lasted only a few minutes, and then I was dismissed. The prosecutor called me later that day to inform me the jury had found the defendant guilty after a brief deliberation.
In my time as a therapist here in Dallas, Texas, I have encountered many people who have experienced similar feelings as the teenage girl described above. The reasons are similar, as well: the individual grew up with the teaching of a benevolent God who was all-powerful and who loved and cared for all people. Then something horrible happened. Usually, this takes the form of sexual or physical abuse, but it can be any number of things, such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, a major injury or illness, or some other traumatic event. Inevitably, the question arises: How could a loving God let this happen to me?
The response to this question varies. Often, it results in a deep anger, and underneath that anger, a profound disappointment. These feelings in turn often lead to feelings of guilt and fear, which can be verbalized with statements like, “If I’m mad at God, and God knows everything, what is He going to do to me?” Some people imagine that God will punish them for having the audacity to be angry at Him. So they try to deny the feelings of anger and disappointment, but that never works. As I have said on many occasions, we can’t get rid of “bad” feelings by telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel that way.
For many, this experience has a profound impact on their spirituality. Some remain believers, but their feelings about God are confused and conflicted. Some people reject God and become atheists. I have met a number of strident atheists who have rejected God as a way of getting back at Him. This is expressed with statements like, “God, You let me down, so I’m going to pay you back by not believing in You anymore.” Still others become hyper-religious, in an effort to atone for whatever sin they believe must have led God to punish them in the first place.
The common factor is anger and sadness. People feel abandoned, betrayed, or even singled out by God for cruel punishment for some bad behavior. Some have expressed the sense they were being “picked on” by God. This particular belief usually doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. I might ask the question, “Do you believe in a God that would single you out for divine punishment, yet allows others who have done far worse things to go unpunished, or even to get rich?” The answer to this is usually no. Most people who believe in God, don’t believe in a God that randomly singles people out for punishment, willy-nilly. But it still doesn’t answer the question of why the bad thing happened to the person in the first place. People often believe they did something to deserve it, or they were singled out by God, but neither theory holds up very well. So why did it happen, if it wasn’t their fault and God isn’t picking on them? The only answer is this: bad luck.
“When Bad Things Happen to Good People” is a book by Harold S. Kushner. “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” is a book by Marcus Anderson and Roger Bush. There are several others with similar titles. I confess I haven’t read any of them, so I don’t know what their explanations are. I do know this: bad things happen to pretty much everyone, regardless of their moral character. However, bad luck is not evenly distributed. Some people will have more, and some will have less, and for no apparent reason. This offends our sense of right and wrong. It’s not fair. And what is the emotional response to a situation one perceives as unfair? Anger.
Perhaps you are an adherent of the popular belief that says, “Everything happens for a reason.” Many find solace in such a belief. Others, however, find that explanation for horrible events to be offensive. I never tell my clients that everything happens for a reason, because I don’t see any evidence for it. I don’t see any evidence against it, either. In fact, I have no idea if everything happens for a cosmically significant reason. If it does, the grand plan is beyond me, and I’ve never met anyone who has been able to figure it out. People who believe in the grand plan usually believe it won’t be revealed to us until we die. Most people, myself included, are in no hurry to find out.
Ultimately, I don’t think anyone has a really satisfying answer to the question, “Why did this terrible thing happen to me?” I certainly don’t. But I can tell you the wrong answers, which are that you are being punished by a whimsical God, or the Universe is picking on you. This is not to say that nothing is ever our fault, of course. Some bad things happen to us as a direct result of poor decisions or bad behaviors on our part, but those are usually pretty easy to spot, if you look closely at them.
So what does one do about being mad at God? I don’t want to speak for Him (or Her, or any other conception of God), but I would like to believe that God doesn’t punish us for being angry with Him. People have been getting angry with God since the very beginning. If you are angry at God, you might as well be honest about it. That doesn’t mean you have to be angry with God for the rest of your life. You are far more likely to be free of the anger (or any painful emotion) by working through it than you are by stuffing it down or telling it to just go away. A colleague of mine says this: “The goal of the person in therapy is to become emotionally transparent.” That means no hiding, no stuffing, no denying. It means taking off the mask we might show to the rest of the world. It means being honest about our feelings, even if they scare us. Once we clear away the misconceptions about everything being our fault, then we are left with the core task of therapy, which is working through the anger, and the sadness that virtually always comes with it.

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