Interview with

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Audio Transcript

Good Monday morning. Well, we’ve talked briefly about lament on the podcast, particularly about whether or not we can get angry with God. We addressed that back in APJ 931. Since that episode aired, an episode that compares godly lament with ungodly lament, several more questions have come in on this. Here’s one example, a most recent version, from a listener named Bryan. “Dear Pastor John, thank you for the podcast. I’m wondering if we can be honestly angry at God for things that happen to our lives? Or is such a response out of the question?” Pastor John, what would you say to Bryan?

Let me try to interpret Bryan’s question so that I can try to answer what I think he’s really asking. He says, “Can we be honestly angry at God?” I’m not sure what he means by honestly because I don’t know what a dishonest anger at God would be. I think he means by “honestly angry” really angry, truly angry. The other word that I wonder about is the word can. Can we be truly angry with God? I think he means, “Should we be?” — or, “Is it morally permissible or right to be?” And when he asks, “Is it out of the question?” I think he means, “Is it so wrong that we should avoid it at all costs?”

So the question I’ll try to answer is this: Is it ever virtuous, or righteous, or godly, or innocent, or even morally neutral to experience, to feel — I’m not talking about what you say, I’m talking about what you feel — heartfelt anger at God, whatever the reason? That’s my question.

Doubly Out of Place

The short answer is no, never. It is never right, never good, never virtuous, never merely neutral to feel anger at God — never. Now, Paul imagines a situation where a man sees God as something he doesn’t like. He doesn’t approve of the way God is acting, and this man expresses this in very forceful terms of resistance to God’s ways. It’s described in Romans 9:18–20 like this:

So then [God] has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”

“It is never right, never good, never virtuous, never merely neutral to feel anger at God — never.”

So here’s a situation where a human being watches God’s action and does not like what he sees. And Paul doesn’t say it makes him angry. He says that it makes him question God: “Who can resist your will? Why do you still find fault? Why have you made me like this?” And Paul responds to this kind of questioning of God with, “Who do you think you are, O man, to get in God’s face about the way he acts?” That’s a pretty strong rebuke.

So if Paul says that the mere words of questioning God are so out of place, what would he say if those questioning words were enforced with strong emotion and anger? He would say, “They’re doubly out of place. It’s not right for a creature to call into question his Maker — and doubly wrong for a creature to back that up with the force of an emotional no to God.”

Now, don’t confuse this with humbly trying to understand the perplexing ways of the one you trust. Oh my goodness, that’s worth a lifetime, right? That’s all I do. At least, I try to be humble and say, “God, I want to understand. I want to understand as much as you reveal in your word. Grant me eyes to see.” It’s not wrong to ask God questions.

Like Mary, when the Lord said to her, “You’re going to have a baby, Mary, while you’re a virgin.” And Mary bows and said, “I’m your handmaid. But how can this be?” (see Luke 2:31, 34, 38). God did not get upset with that question. That was a good question, a how question. A humble longing to understand is not a bad thing. But it’s always wrong to question God as though he were in the wrong.

Responding to Objections

As I’ve thought now about why Christians who believe the Bible might think otherwise (and evidently they do), I’ve tried to get inside their heads and see some possible ways that they’re thinking. So, let me respond to a few of those.

Moral Weight of Emotions

First, maybe some people think that since anger is not a decision of the will, but rather an emotion that arises spontaneously out of the heart, maybe it doesn’t have the same rightness or wrongness that a decision of the will would have. But that’s not what the Bible teaches about emotions.

Emotions are not morally neutral. Many emotions are forbidden by God, and other emotions are commanded by God. We’re told not to fear (Matthew 10:28) and not to be anxious (Matthew 6:25). We’re told to put away bitterness (Ephesians 4:31). We’re told to abstain from desires of the flesh (1 Peter 2:11). We’re told to love God (Matthew 22:37), and delight in God (Psalm 37:4), and find pleasure in God’s presence (Psalm 100:1–2), and praise God (Psalm 67:3), and be thankful to God (Psalm 107:8), and rejoice in all his works (Psalm 92:4). So it’s simply not true that emotions are morally neutral. They’re not morally neutral. They are morally significant.

A good tree bears good fruit; a bad tree bears bad fruit. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, and out of the abundance of the heart the emotions flow (Luke 6:43–45). So, whether anger at God is right or wrong, it cannot be settled simply by saying it’s an emotion.

Avoiding Hypocrisy

Second, I wonder if people who think that anger with God is morally good or neutral are confusing the approval of anger with the approval of honesty and authenticity. In other words, I wonder if, in refusing to disapprove of anger at God, what they are really disapproving of is hypocrisy, of feeling anger and not expressing it. I wonder if they really do assume lots of people are angry at God, and people like Piper are cultivating class-A hypocrites by telling people it’s wrong to express it. So, maybe some of the people who say it’s okay to be angry at God are really on a crusade to help people who are angry at God be honest and say they are.

Now, my take on this is that if you are angry with God, there is absolutely no point in hiding it from him. You can’t. You may as well tell him that you’re angry. The telling is not the problem. I’m not on a crusade to shut people’s mouths; I’m on a crusade to change people’s hearts. The feeling of the anger is the problem, not the mouth. So don’t add sin to sin: don’t add the sin of hypocrisy to the sin of anger. The battle is not with your mouth; it’s with your heart.

Anger and Love

Third, I wonder, since it’s possible to be angry at someone that we love very much (a spouse, a child, God), it seems to some people that, therefore, we can be angry with God while still loving him, and it must not then be bad. But that doesn’t follow does it? It may still be a sin to be angry with God even though we love him. Because anger toward God is not what flows from loving God.

Caring for the Grieving

Fourth, I wonder if some pastorally sensitive people (I think this one probably is very prominent) are very reluctant to disapprove of anger at God because they know that if they do, they may be heaping guilt on people who are already experiencing the pain of a huge loss, which has made them angry at God in the first place.

“It is a pastoral failure of nerve or failure of wisdom if we think we have to condone sin in order to bring comfort.”

Now, in my experience of dealing with hundreds of people in times of great loss over the last fifty years, God in his wisdom has always provided a way to minister to people’s true need and true pain without compromising the truth. It is a pastoral failure of nerve or failure of wisdom if we think we have to condone sin in order to bring comfort. There’s always a better way.

Never Blameworthy

And finally, number five, I wonder if people who approve of anger at God have really thought through what anger at a person is. It is strong, emotionally laden disapproval. That’s what anger is: strong, emotional disapproval. God does something; we assess it; we disapprove of it; we oppose it emotionally; we resist. Anger is the counterpart in the heart to the indictment of God in the head. Our minds judge God to be in the wrong, and our emotions say this with anger.

And my response is that God always acts justly. He always acts wisely. He always acts with love toward his people. He never wrongs anyone. He is never blameworthy. He is always pure, and holy, and righteous, and good. He is infinitely worthy of our trust, and our love, and our admiration, and our delight. And when we don’t understand his ways, we put our hands on our mouths and kiss the rod and say with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33).