Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Getting Angry with God, who does and who doesn't?

Anger is as old as creation. The first recorded instance in the Bible is in Genesis 4: 5-6 when Cain is said to be angry, although were not told if he is angry at Abel or God. Whatever the case, it seems that the first instance of anger also contributed to the first murder.

But it is not only infamous people like Cain who get angry. Moses has a fit of anger (Ex 32:19) and so does David (2 Sam 12:5). But the person who seems gets angry the most in the Bible is God. At least 50 times in the Old Testament anger is somehow associated with God. Indeed, if one were not careful, one could quickly follow the lead of Marcion and find Jehovah to be the angry God of the Bible.

The New testament also speaks of anger. Although James tells us to be slow to anger (1:19-20), we find Jesus getting angry. In Mark 3:5 Jesus said to be angered by those in the Nazareth Synagogue. And even if the temple cleansing scenes do not say that Jesus was angry, we get the picture. It is not normal for a contented person to make a whip and drive people out of a place.

But what about being angry with God? I am unaware of any instances in the Bible in which anyone expresses their anger directly at God. Perhaps it is there in a subtle way when a psalmist reflects on how the wicked advance over the righteous and it seems that God has forgotten his promises. But I am unable to find any specific references when a person exhibits anger towards God.

But modern people certainly do. A recent study by Julie Exline, a psychologist at Case Wester Reserve University, surveys people who get angry at God and comes up with some interesting results. Apparently, atheist get mad at God more often than do religious people.

According to an article on CNN,

In studies on college students, atheists and agnostics reported more anger at God during their lifetimes than believers. A separate study also found this pattern among bereaved individuals. This phenomenon is something Exline and colleagues will explore more in future research.

It seems that more religious people are less likely to feel angry at God and more likely to see his intentions as well-meaning, Exline's research found.

And younger people tend to be angrier at God than older people, Exline said. She says some of the reasons she's seen people the angriest at God include rejection from preferred colleges and sports injuries preventing high schoolers from competing.

The age difference may have to do with cultural norms, she said. Perhaps previous generations were taught to not question God, whereas younger people today don't have any qualms about it. On the other hand, it might be that as people get older, they learn how to handle these types of feelings better.

Some may say that this proves the old adage that there are no atheists in a foxhole. I am not sure that we can jump to that conclusion. But it does make me wonder why someone who says they are an agnostic or atheist would even bother blaming God. Is anger at an outside force, real or otherwise, a coping mechanism to deal with uncontrollable situations?

What do you think? I would be curious to hear from agnostics and atheists as well as believers.

Incidentally, CNN has another article that says that more people will declare themselves atheists in 2011. Seems like a strange prediction when juxtaposed with the claims by others that the world is ending in May of this year.


  1. Might be a reflection of the barren nature of atheism -- when all is just a random confluence of stochastic processes, there is nothing to blame for an admissions rejection, debilitating injury or disease. It was just a totally impersonal event and that challenges the "worth" of the affected individual so they personify something to account for their frustration.

    Now as to whether or not that is "belief in God" as Christians would understand it I leave to those more theologically literate than I.

    -- Ishmael

  2. John,

    I know you mentioned the Psalms above, but I am wondering how you read Psalm 44 and the second half of Psalm 89? There are some pretty piercing accusations in those psalms...I think there's a fair amount of anger directed at God in them...to me it is important that believers understand the freedom they have to express anger toward God--they need not resort to giving up on God for the sake of honesty.

    One of my favorite quotes has been attributed to James Houston, who said in a lecture; "I want to be a Christian, but in spite of that I want to be honest." The freedom to be open about our anger is a crucial aspect of that honesty with God.


  3. Jeremiah 20:7ff is an interesting text to look at on this topic. An argument that he expresses anger here may not be air-tight but it's hard to get away from at least some intense (piel) negative emotion directed toward God... if not outright anger, at least "indignance" or "exasperation..."

    Similarly Habakuk 1:1-4, 12-17... again, not a slam dunk but arguably something like anger or frustration is expressed toward God in vv1-4 (Why don't you DO something, God?!), and then H. is not at all happy with God's response either, asking some pretty biting rhetorical questions in 12-17 (THIS is your answer, God?? Using even worse wicked slime-balls to deal with Israel's slime-balls? Punishing the righteous together with the wicked??...Why do you put up with this?!?...).

    And what about Job--at first pious, but then challenging God? (e.g. 30:15-26, 31:4-6, 35-37 (notice also the tone of God's response in 38:1-3 and following.... a tone which is a natural reaction to being accused of injustice or arbitrariness)

    I think there is more like this to find in laments, some prophetic and wisdom texts, narrative material etc in the OT... but requires "reading between the lines" and looking for the subtext, and won't necessarily be easily identified via key word searches.

    Central to authentic lament is permission to name the wrong (real or perceived) and express anger, frustration, etc. as well as grief about injustice (real or perceived). And while God has no problem putting humans in their place when they do this, He nonetheless /does/ engage and answer, and, at least in these three examples, he doesn't punish them them for expressing that sentiment.

    Food for thought??...

  4. I've talked with 'pious' folks who would never think of expressing anger with God. (That's not to say they don't feel it, though.) Perhaps they're concerned with offending God and making God, well, angry. I have had no problem expressing negative emotions toward and with God. I don't think that God is threatened by our human ranting and vents. In fact, I think that God rather enjoys it when people are passionate about injustice, real or perceived.

  5. I agree with all of the comments. Anger at God is normal. I have had some very angry moments. But I wonder why the survey suggests that it is the non-religious that get angry the most.

  6. I'm not sure. Perhaps they are more angry with the God they perceive based on assumptions they've made and heard. If God is a cosmic killjoy, then their anger may be directed at that particular idea of God. It would be interesting to get more of Exline's material.

  7. What I find most interesting is that atheists are actually admitting in a survey that they get angry at God. This pretty much negates their belief in His nonexistence to them. Why would you get angry at something or someone you don't believe is even there and then admit that you get angry at that nonexisting being? Makes no sense... Perhaps the survey itself is messed up and the surveyed atheists really aren't atheists.

    Beth H

  8. Many, if not most avowed atheists and agnostics have had experiences which they've interpreted as God's (and usually the Church's) betrayal. This makes anger toward God a dominant feature of their emotional life, even if suppressed and denied. Reaching atheistic or agnostic conclusions is much more intellectually and emotionally palatable than believing in a God who is good, all powerful, yet allows evil.

    Sadly, it's often the Church that precipitates and/or exacerbates this effect. We often deal with suffering in a shallow, folk-religious, naive fashions. With certain kinds of struggles we can be very inconsistent and callous. Many of us are too intimidated by serious, pointed, honest questions, and/or ill-equipped to engage them. Many of us are too concerned about theological "rightness," "being a good Christian," and self-protection to be able to truly love the person in front of us.

    The angry atheist or agnostic may (understandably!) want to crucify or marginalize us. Yet identifying with the crucified and marginalized Christ's sufferings (Gal 2:19-20; Rom 6:3-4ff) is precisely how we can be Christ to such a person, who perhaps at one time wanted to believe, but felt betrayed by God, and has now been angry at God a long time.

    Engaging honestly, yet patiently and non-defensively, admitting to the ugly and difficult aspects of our theology, history and present, even recognizing they may be God's messenger to us, too--in short, letting them "crucify" us--may be exactly how God uses us. We may be called to love them from the cross they hang us on. Perhaps they might find a balm for their anger toward God in Christ's love lived through us... a love that is expressed not only in death, but resurrection....

  9. I have gotten very angry toward God throughout my life as a believer and have found myself in that pit once again lately due to pouring myself into certain things only to see them fall apart despite much prayer and effort... I've been raging for days to be honest, having fits of anger, yelling at God and feeling very cold, bitter, rejected, let down, etc... This page gives me hope that this will pass, that God is bigger than my anger and that at least I'm not the only one that gets like this from time to time... I wish I was a "good saint" and could patiently trust God through times like this, but it feels impossible to suppress the feeling of "Why didn't You have my back on all of this? I prayed through all of it!" And similar feelings...
    Thank you all for your responses and the scriptures. Much appreciated.

  10. This has made me stop and think. Thank-you! I went through two diagnoses of cancer in the last two years. I am 29 years old. Thankfully I am now in remission. There were certainly times I was angry at God. I thought that was 'okay.' This has gotten me to think and question that.

    Honestly, I don't know the answer...

    Two thoughts:
    1. When I got angry with God it made me engage with Him, which in turn led me to Him. Most often to His love. This does not mean we should get angry in order to encounter God. But it seemed that God used my anger as an opportunity to bring me to Him???
    2. Another question: Is there a difference between attitudes and emotions? Is there a difference between an attitude of anger vs. an emotion of anger?

    1. How are you today? I can relate, different circumstances with similar emotions.

  11. In Jonah 4, Jonah became angry at God:

    4 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

    4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?

    Due to human nature (flesh) people do get angry at God , however we should not stay in that condition. We can turn to praise as Psalm 22 points out.

    When we loose our joy we loose our strength.Nehemiah 8:10 and Psalm 28:7.

    1. I know this is an old article. But I read through all the commemts to see if anyone would comment about Jonah. A direct display of anger. 🖒

  12. Everything works according to HIS plan. Its his will not ours.. He can take anything away from anyone at anytime, because it is his.. Never i repeat NEVER be mad at GOD.. Understand that its his plan and our little minds cant even fathom whats best for us.. We like to think we can, but sorry GOD is in control of everything.. Be mad at yourself for allowing that to come in your heart against the ALL MIGHTY ELOHIM.. AMEN HALLELUJAH!!