“Oh God, Where Art Thou? (!)” On Anger at God

I had a season in my life when I was angry at God and it was more than a passing blip that was quickly buried under fear of getting struck by lightning. Anger at God is in some ways the summun malum of sin. Having moments of weakness that lead to poor decisions is one thing, but an act of conscious rebellion is rightfully put into a whole other category. 

It was a dark season when it felt like we had a target on our back: financially we were sinking deeper into the red while it seemed like virtually everything that could go wrong with a house and car was going wrong, and then finally we had a severe medical emergency (retinal detachment) when we were waiting for health insurance to come in and were faced with risking permanent disability by waiting or destroying ourselves financially by having an uninsured surgery. There were other facets I won’t go into about being hurt by bad-faith actors, but suffice it to say there was definitely a “no good deed goes unpunished” aspect to this as well. I wasn’t actively, openly rebellious, but rather resigned and sort of passive-aggressively so.  

In D&C 121 God conditions Joseph Smith’s benefits from his troubles on “endur[ing] it well.” For the most part I did not “endure it well.” However, a few points from this time in my life. 

  •     “Praying the hate away” is hard

When somebody has hurt you severely with significant long-term consequences, it’s hard to “just forgive and forget.” While that is exactly what we are required to do as Christians, it’s important to not downplay how hard this can be, and to give people space to process these emotions without getting soundbites preached to them.  

  •     That doesn’t make hatred death spirals any less toxic 

The most miserable people I know think that their hatred is a virtue to nourish instead of a toxin to expurgate. Almost two thousand years before Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was a twinkle in an academic article, Matthew 6:22 captured the principle well: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light,” and the D&C version: “and if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you.” The logical corollary, of course, being that if you’re focused on the hate there is no light in you, and there are definitely some like that. Do what you need to do to not stew. You don’t have to sing hymns all day, just give your cogitations somewhere else to go to stop the spiral downwards. Stopping the bleeding is the first step. 

  •     Personal development comes from real world experience more than theoretical study 

The times in my life when I’ve made substantive personal/spiritual progress were times when I was stretched beyond what was comfortable or even slightly uncomfortable, and observationally it seems like the same is true for many others, although I’m not claiming that some of the more spiritual among us can’t make progress through scripture study in a comfortable chair in a paid-off house. 

However, I doubt Dostoevsky would have been able to author The Brothers Karamazov had he not had a life-destroying gambling addiction, a child who died young, and years of hard labor in a Siberian prison. I never visited with a bishop during this time (at DefCon 1 in your life you don’t really have time), but it made me appreciate real-world experience. I want my bishop to have life furrows in his face that are deeper than mine. I want a bishop whose son died of a drug overdose, a divorcé; not some handsome scion of an umpteenth generation blue blood Mormon family that has never been passed over for promotion, whose smile is just a little too big, and whose favorite work of moving literature is 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

My most memorable religion professor at BYU (you probably would have heard of him, but he is unfortunately no longer with us) alluded in class to being a recovered pill addict, and mentioned that in our darkest moments we feel like we are in the deepest, darkest pit possible, but don’t realize that there are pits far beneath ours, and He has descended below all of them. 

  •     Intellectual theodicy arguments don’t help

Throughout this season the common “other people are hurting worse than you” refrain kept popping up in the back of my mind, but this just contributes to the kind of “life sucks and then you die” catastrophizing about human existence in general that isn’t helpful. 

I have my own theodicy beliefs that track with what I think of as being standard LDS answers, but when you’re in the middle of drowning the more theological Rubik’s Cube-style form of intellectual theodicy analyses are also not helpful.  

That’s not to say that they aren’t valid, just that they aren’t helpful. A personal testimony of a gospel-centered theodicy comes the way other testimonies do—from personal spiritual experience, and not logical argument, although that’s not to concede that the latter aren’t necessarily valid. 

  •     God isn’t petulant 

The Old Testament often uses the term “jealous” to describe God.  I wonder if the Hebrew lacks the immature and petty connotations that we have for that word in English, but whatever the case, speaking personally, you aren’t going to hurt His feelings or cause resentment even in your worst moments of angry, sacrilegious weakness.  He will, if you allow Him, wrap His arms around you even tighter. 

  •     Not every outcome from dark periods is personally good

I have a little edge to me that I didn’t have before that hasn’t completely gone away with time. Being both a serpent and a dove is quite the needle to thread, and, unfortunately, Ethan Frome-like, some people let the dark periods break them and cycle deeper and deeper into dark bitterness. I have more empathy for people I consider self-destructive and broken, because I’ve gotten a peak behind the curtain, and have moved more towards an attitude of “there but for the grace of God (literally) go I.” 

  •     Try to protect others from the overflow pain

When we were drowning my dad pulled me aside and mentioned that he could feel the stress levels in the house, and that as the man of the house it was my responsibility to shield everyone else from poverty stress (I know I know, but, and here’s some of that edge, take a hike). Anger, anxiety, and hate is contagious, and if not careful your personal spirals can start a family spiral that can particularly affect vulnerable children passing through a sensitive period in their lives.  

  •     You can be glad you went through something without ever wanting to go through it again

Sometimes people talk about how they’re grateful for a hard upbringing. When I was drowning I wondered how that could be but now, with added time and perspective, I totally get it. I am what I am because of those moments in my life, and I have a perspective on things that is miles ahead of where I would be without it, but I’d rather bathe in broken glass than go through all of that again…

On a similar note, on one hand I wouldn’t wish that kind of pain on my worst enemies, but on the other hand I kind of wish everybody went through a time period when they were stressed out about the lower rungs on Maslow’s hierarchy. We’d certainly be a much more mature society, with a lot less anxiety about the upper rungs.

  •       There’s no evidence for the salubriousness of “venting anger” 

There’s sort of a quasi-Freudian, folk-psychology belief that repressing anger is bad, while venting is healthy and allows the built-up pressure to be released. This might make sense as a physics analogy, but redirecting thought processes away from the anger is good, and my understanding of the literature on this (Google Scholar “anger venting” for the past ten years) is that there is some evidence that “venting” can lead to more anger and often causes more problems than it solves. If there’s a psychology folk-belief that seems anti-Christian it’s venting. Jesus got serious and straightforward with people, but he never vented. 

  •     It’s a long haul 

We like our “road to Damascus” stories, and often strive for that supernal one-off moment when everything is made right. They might come, but they’re pretty rare. Sometimes the pain recedes like the tide is going out, with waves of pain coming and going but over time more going than coming. I’m not a clinical psychologist but anecdotally I’ve noticed a lot of people process deep life pain similarly. 

  • Sometimes God doesn’t respond in the moment

There’s a quote I recall from the Journal of Discourses that I can’t chapter and verse now where Brigham Young mentions that people are sometimes left in the dark for a season in order to develop their own capacity to stand on their own. If you’re doing what you’re supposed to and you get a blank feeling, that doesn’t mean you’re on God’s bad list. And if you get a crummy, dark feeling you can take it to the bank that that’s not coming from God. God’s severe and pointed reprimands are energizing, not depressing. 

  •     A short list of “dark times” resources

The penultimate chapter in the Book of Mormon


D&C 121 and 122

Matthew 8:25-27

Revelations 21:4-5

The Endowment, specifically when Adam and Eve are cast out into the lone and dreary wilderness

“Sunday will Come” by Elder Wirthlin

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

The “other people have it harder than you” thought, while depressing in the moment, was in fact true and I don’t want my points here to be my entry card into some suffering olympics. It’s not that different from what others have had to pass through, and I didn’t have to deal with issues that others had to deal with such as suicidality or a non-supportive family. Just some of my observations and sentiments, for what they might be worth for others. 

11 comments for ““Oh God, Where Art Thou? (!)” On Anger at God

  1. Thank you for this. As someone who has walked through some dark places in my life, I found myself nodding to pretty much every point you made.

    I especially liked the part about God not being petulant. If there is one thing I have learned in my own struggles, it is that God is far more merciful toward us, than we are toward each other, or toward ourselves for that matter.

  2. Wow we have lived similar life experiences. Retinal tears was my eye thing (had insurance for that) but emergency surgery that I could not avoid 3 days before my health Ins kicked in sucked big time! I never really recovered from that financially so I lost everything and started over. My child years were worse. Life sucks and then we die was my war cry for a long time. Heck I even called out God in anger on my mission (not how we are taught in the church) and then He through me a BIG undeniable miracle and kept them coming. I stopped questioning and went to a level of faith/belief I didn’t know existed. I was very blessed that through all that crap, I kept getting amazing experiences/blessings all of which, well accept for one, I didn’t look for or expect. (or felt like I deserved) Mingled with more crap. What a great journey!

    I have this weird belief that we have to go through enough crap to get the “dross” out and if we dont, we end up more screwed up. I also believe that some get way too much dross and get screwed up too! Now, I confess that I am a very liberal member and not even close to “orthodox” like the rank and file, but that works better for me anyway.

    Jesus making a whip and turning over tables always sounded like venting to me. Me venting to God turned out to be a game changer in a good way! Not sure I would tell everyone else to do that but heck I am glad I did it.

    Oh and that Retinal surgery while you are awake stuff…..had to walk with Jesus on the beach to get me through that! Even that turned out to be a real cool experience with a deep gratitude that my surgeon decided to go to school to learn how to let me see again.

  3. I also thank you for this post, which I agree is the best I’ve seen from you.

    “Personal development comes from real world experience more than theoretical study”. Yes. I even think I observe that theoretical study without personal experience can lead to terrible behavior that arises when we love certain ideas or constructs more than we love people.

  4. A wonderful post, Stephen. You don’t really know me, but you know some of my kids from your growing up years. I have always admired your family and it’s great to see the maturity of your insights into (and defense of) the gospel. In my 72nd year of life, and as one who has been through some pretty rough patches myself, I endorse everything you say here.

  5. If gaining empathy is the only good that comes of traveling the low road through the valley of death then it will have been worth it.

  6. May I suggest some additions to the resource list? I would add the the resource list the writings of the Stoic philosophers (Epictetus) from Roman times and the writings of James B. Stockdale, a Vietnam War POW. I especially like Stockdale’s “Courage under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior.”

  7. Alas, I was such a bishop as you described as undesirable, at age 27, fresh out of BYU law school, 1980-85. At the end of it, I was transformed into a humbler, less ambitious man, and served as a scout master for about 20 years. But my heart had, by then, left the Church as an organization. I wonder at times how my ambition and lack of life’s trials may have combined to contribute to the suffering of my ward members. Sometimes I break into cold sweats wishing I had the perspective then of the old, life-experienced man I have become.

    Thank you for this beautiful essay.

  8. Heart-felt and insightful (at the expense of the mind, though :<).
    Thank you.

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