“What Do I Do when I’m Angry with God?” Philip Yancey
What do you do when you're grieved, bitter, or straight-up angry with God? Author Philip Yancey offers powerful ideas for unvarnished emotion.
About the Guest
- After Parkinson's Diagnosis, Philip Yancey Aims To Be Faithful, Grateful
- Visit Philip's blog at philipyancey.com
- Order Phillip's new book, Disappointment with God: Three Questions No One Asks Aloud
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What do you do when you’re grieved, bitter, or straight-up angry with God? Author Philip Yancey offers powerful ideas for unvarnished emotion.
“What Do I Do when I’m Angry with God?” Philip Yancey
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Philip: The Bible is realistic. You don’t have to put on a happy face. God understands. Jesus didn’t put on a happy face. He could have said at the Garden of Gethsemane, “Okay, gather around my little disciples here. I’m going to show you how a real spiritual person handles suffering.” No, He threw Himself on the ground three different times, and said, “God, if there’s any other way, let me out of this. Let this cup pass.”
That’s Jesus. Then when He’s on the cross He said, “My God, why have You forsaken Me?” quoting that Psalm.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife app.
Dave: This is FamilyLife Today!
So here’s a question: When’s the last time, or the most recent time you’ve struggled with disappointment with God?
Ann: You can’t ask me that on the spot!
Dave: You’re so much more spiritual than me, so I’m guessing the answer is “never,” or “it’s been years.” Mine tend to be more regular.
Ann: No, I have a lot of times where I’m questioning, “God, why are You doing this? It just doesn’t seem to make sense.” Or, “Why are things going like this?” I think as we transitioned out of our church and I saw the pain that you were experiencing, some pain our son was experiencing, I just thought, “I don’t even get it, God. It just feels like this pain—I don’t see any good in it and I don’t see any redemption in it.”
Dave: I didn’t know you were going to go there. [Laughter] That’s real.
Ann: What would you say?
Dave: When you bring that up, yes, I can feel it. It’s visceral. But the question I want to dive into today is do you get to a place where you never struggle again with disappointment with God? If there’s anybody that can answer that question—
Ann: We’ve got him here.
Dave: —-we’ve got the guy right now. [Laughter] Philip Yancey, Mr. Disappointment with God author is back in the studio. Welcome back.
Philip: Thank you.
Dave: Let me ask you that, Philip. I know you wrote this book decades ago, and you’ve written 25, so it’s just one of many.
Ann: And a new one, his memoir, Where the Light Fell, we’ve already talked about.
Dave: Yes. If you didn’t hear our programs on that, listen to those and get the book. But do you ever still struggle with disappointment with God?
Philip: There was a turning point for me when I wrote the book, and I’ll answer your question in the long way around. I looked for the most Job-like person I knew, this man named Douglas. He was involved in urban ministry in Chicago, and had become a Jungian therapist, had studied 12 years, was doing very well, had a wife. Then he was involved in an accident. He had nothing to do with it; somebody slammed into his car, and he hit his head.
He could no longer read. He saw double every time he tried to read. Here was this scholar who could no longer read. And then a lot of bad things happened. His wife ended up committing suicide, and it was just an awful thing.
Ann: This is awful.
Philip: It was awful.
Philip: I know. So I figure if I could interview Job that would be better, but the best I can do is to interview Douglas. So I took him out and said, “Douglas, man, I’ve followed you. You’ve really been through so much, and you didn’t bring any of it on yourself. You’re just one of these innocent people like Job, it seems to me. I just wanted to find out what it’s like to be disappointed with God from your perspective, because if anybody has a right to do that, it’s you.”
He thought for a minute, and I wasn’t sure if he was having one of his brain gaps, because it became several minutes. And then I realized he was just thinking through when was he disappointed with God. He said, “Actually I haven’t felt any disappointment with God.” I said, “Douglas, it’s okay.”
Dave: You can say it!
Philip: “I won’t use your name.” [Laughter] “It’s okay. It’s a whole book about disappointment with God. I need you.” And he said, “Well, what I learned was that life is unfair, and I’ve gotten a really bad draw, but that’s different than saying ‘God is unfair.’ I’ve learned to separate God from life. I learned that God is as upset about some of the things that happened to me as I am.” I would have a hard time coming up with something recent.
Actually that was a turning point for me, where I could say I was disappointed with God. I learned from that. I wrote this book, and I’ve written another book called Where is God When it Hurts? So I’ve been called to speak at some pretty hard places, like Newtown, Connecticut—Sandy Hook shootings, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Japan after the tsunami, places like that.
When I stand in front of these grieving parents, I think of going back to Newtown. We went there the week after the tragedy, and it was so sad, because it was right at Christmas time. It was so important for me to be able to say to them, “You are grieving. God is grieving. You’re upset with the state of this world; God is more upset with the state of this world. I could stand here and say, ‘God knows what you’re feeling, and God feels it too.’”
I think that’s biblical. I think that’s the way God works. He doesn’t prevent us. Christians die at the same rate as non-Christians, 100 percent. You don’t get a spacesuit that protects you when you follow Jesus. We’re living on a spoiled planet, and things don’t always work out, and life is unfair. I think of Douglas. He absorbed more in one year than I have in my entire life. You just can’t compare these things, and we’re not asked to.
We’re asked to allow God to work in us regardless of our background, in an honest, authentic way, and to somehow put us on the side of good, put us on the side of following Jesus. When I look at what we’re supposed to do as Christians, Paul is very clear in 2 Corinthians chapter 1. He says, “The comfort that you have received from the God of all comfort, the Father of compassion, I want you to spread abroad to those who don’t have it.” That’s what we’re called to do. We’re to be comfort-dispensers.
I get to travel internationally a lot, and in many countries of the world, wherever I’ve been where there have been missionaries, you’ll find clinics and hospitals and educational institutions, and people visiting in prison, and people digging wells. If you go to rural India, for example, and say, “What is a Christian?” “Well, I don’t know. I guess it’s one of the major religions in the world.” “Well, do you know anything about it?”
“Well yes. Once a week this van comes. It has a red cross on the side. If we have broken bones, if we have cuts, if we have eye disease, these people fix it. I guess that’s what a Christian is.” That’s not the whole answer to what a Christian is, but that’s the first thing they sense, the God of all comfort, the Father of compassion. If that’s the first thing the world learns from us as Christians, then that’s a good start.
Dave: That’s pretty good.
Ann: So I love that’s what the Gospel does. It brings hope and it brings physical comfort to so many. As you’re saying, that’s amazing. In all parts of the world, the gospel brings hope and healing.
Dave: Yes. Philip, you talk, like you said, you’re often called to speak at tragic situations. When those parents walk up to you, who lost a child, feeling like God is hidden, do you ever encourage them to lament that? To go ahead and say that out loud, yell at God, whatever? I’m thinking of Psalm 44, which you put in your book. I’ll read it. It says, “Awake, oh Lord. Why do You sleep? Arouse Yourself. Do not reject us forever. Why do You hid Your face?” It’s like this lament. When we read that I think, “Yes, yes. I’ve thought that, I’ve felt that.”
Ann: The honesty of it.
Dave: And yet I grew up always being told, “You can’t do that.” Even though it’s in the Bible, “You don’t do that. That’s—
Dave: --disrespectful and sinful.” Yet I think as we wrestle with our disappointment with God, it’s helpful, right?
Philip: Absolutely. A lot of people think if you go visit somebody in the hospital, Psalms would be a good thing to read. Well you better read them in advance—
Dave: Not just pull one out! [Laughter]
Philip: —because Eugene Petersen says about two-thirds of the Psalms are Psalms of Lament. Like, “God, You’re not doing a very good job of running the world,” basically. I think it’s just amazing that God would include all those Psalms in there, not to mention Job and Ecclesiastes and Lamentations, and those other books. The Bible is realistic. You don’t have to put on a happy face. God understands.
Jesus didn’t put on a happy face. He could have said at the Garden of Gethsemane, “Okay, gather around my little disciples here. I’m going to show you how a real spiritual person handles suffering.” No, He threw Himself on the ground three different times, and said, “God, if there’s any other way, let Me out of this. Let this cup pass.” That’s Jesus. And then when He’s on the cross, He said, “My God, why have You forsaken Me?” quoting that Psalm. He didn’t quote, “The Lord is My Shepherd.” He quoted the one right before it, Psalm 22.
Dave: As a pastor for 30 years, I can remember being in many meetings as we’re discussing the weekend service, and what we’re going to teach and preach and music, you name it. There would be times we were talking about a testimony. “We need a testimony that gives people hope.”
Dave: So we’d hear of a miracle story, or a marriage being redeemed or whatever, and we said, “Well, let’s put them on stage. Let’s get that story.” It’s rare—I don’t know if we ever said, “Let’s have a disappointment with God story.” [Laughter] “Let’s bring somebody on stage who—the bow hasn’t been tied yet. They’re in it. We don’t know if they’re going to make it. They don’t know if they’re going to make it. They’re struggling.”
Do we hurt our people by not allowing that to be something they see? It’s real life. Do you think we hurt?
Philip: Where does disappointment come from? It comes from expectations that aren’t met. And if you keep raising those expectations so that you assume that God is going to come at your beck and call and fix you up whenever there’s a problem, you will be disappointed. There’s a guarantee that you will be. What are our expectations?
I guess I would have to say my expectation is when I look at the New Testament especially, the emphasis is always not on why something happened or some kind of explanation for it, but the promise is something good can come out of it. So that if you look at Romans five, James one, I Peter one, those are passages on suffering, and they all point to how good things can happen, patience, hope, perseverance.
How do you develop patience? The only way you get patience is to be in circumstances where the normal response would be impatience. That’s how you learn patience. And we do get the promise that suffering is not a good thing, it’s a bad thing, the kind of suffering we’ve been talking about, but despite that it can be useful. It can be productive, and we can handle suffering if it’s productive.
I’ve read a couple books on pain, and these doctors go around and they have a pain chart. They rank pain. The second-most painful condition would be bone cancer. I guess that’s really painful, and they rank other kinds of cancers. But number one by far is not a kind of cancer. It’s childbirth.
Ann: That’s right. That’s right.
Dave: And we have someone here—there’s only one person here that’s ever experienced that.
Philip: That’s right, and the funny thing is, when you go to a hospital, there you’re most likely to find laughter and joy. Why? Because sometimes when you go to the hospital you leave something behind. [Laughter] But when you go to a maternity ward, often you take something home with you.
Ann: And you think it’s worth it.
Ann: The pain is worth it.
Philip: Yes. How many times have you heard people say, “I will never go through that again,” and yet women do that.
Ann: Yes, we do. We keep going through it.
Dave: In the suffering area, how much of the redeeming value of going through suffering is in our hands? We mentioned Joni. She has a perspective that is so rich and beautiful.
Ann: Joni Eareckson Tada.
Dave: Joni Eareckson Tada. Every one of us thinks, “I’m glad that she can have that perspective. Please don’t let me have to go through the same thing.” But at some point, she decided, “I’m not going to be bitter any more. I’m going to find the good,” and she has. So here’s the question, though. Obviously, God does the work, but is there some point where we have to decide, “I’m going to allow His good work to be fleshed out in and through me,” or “I’m not.” I can still stay—
Ann: It’s your sermon.
Dave: —clench my fists. Is there a “I can be better or bitter, and it’s really my choice?”
Philip: Suffering works best in community. I think that’s a large part of what the church should be called to do. That’s what 2 Corinthians one is talking about: “Spread abroad the comfort you have already received from God.” There have been some amazing studies on the power of the church. There is a doctor, Harold Koenig, at Duke University, who studies the difference between people who are involved in a church and people who aren’t.
What the church can do and should do and often does do is take care of the things that keep you from healing through your own body’s properties. Any doctor will tell you, “I can line things up, but the body has to heal the bone, the body has to heal the cells, the body has to stitch it back together. What I need to get rid of is to allow the patient to concentrate only on healing.”
“If they’re concerned with fear, ‘I’m going to die,’ or anxiety, ‘What’s going to happen to my family? Who’s going to take care of my kids?’, Who’s going to fix dinner for my family?’—these questions, if they’re connected with a church, very often a church will say, “We’ll fix dinner for you. We’ll take care of your kids for a while, certainly while you go to the doctor. We’ll look after your dog while you’re in the hospital.” It allows you to give all your energy and strength toward getting well.
In fact, he says, “belonging to a church will extend your life as much as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day will diminish your life.” So the moral is, if you really have to smoke, you better belong to a church. [Laughter]
Ann: That’s kind of an amazing statistic.
Philip: Isn’t that something?
Philip: Yes, but he has the stats to back it up. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. Yes, we lament, but the great thing about a body, the great thing about a community, is that there are going to be people who are lamenting with you, and then there are others going to say, “Yes, I used to feel like that, and this is what happened, and I’m so grateful now,” like a Joni Eareckson Tada. And the church represents different stages of that.
A healthy body—I learned this phrase from my collaborator, Dr. Paul Brand. He said, “A healthy body is not a body that feels no pain. That’s a very vulnerable body. The healthy body is a body that attends to the pain of the weakest part,” and that’s what we should be doing as a church, looking for those people in our congregation who are going through the hard stuff, and encouraging people to be honest and authentic.
You go to so many churches and, “How are you doing?” “Just fine.” Actually you know that’s not true, but people want to look good in church. In some ways we ought to be more like an AA group, where you start off with saying, “I’m a mess.” In AA they say, “I’m an alcoholic,” “I’m a drug addict.” We need to say, “I’m struggling right now,” and feel free to do that. Not be punished, but to be rewarded and to be responded to in the best way.
Dave: I remember Chuck Swindoll writing something similar. He said the church should be more like a bar.
Dave: You know when you walk in a bar and you sit beside a total stranger and say, “How are you doing?” They’ll go, “Ahhhh, my life’s terrible right now.” “Oh, let’s talk about it.” And you go to church and say, “How are you doing?” they lie.
Philip: Yes, you’re right.
Dave: If they felt like, “Oh, this is a safe place. I can say what’s really going on.” —It’s interesting that when I asked you how to process your pain, you go to community. That’s so not thought of, because often in our pain we pull away.
Dave: If we’re struggling with disappointment with God, we keep it private, we pull it away, especially from the church community, because “nobody else there is struggling like I am.” Yet you just highlighted one of the answers is the body, get to the body. But the body has to be a place where people want to get to. “I know I can bring that there. Those people there are going to receive me, and they’re going to walk with me rather than reject me and say, ‘No, you’re in sin to struggle with that.’” They’re going to welcome you.
Ann: If people are in a church where the congregants aren’t necessarily honest and vulnerable with their pain, would you advise them that they go find a different church?
Dave: I would. What are you going to say? [Laughter]
Philip: At least a small group. I’ve traveled a lot in different countries, and I think some of it is the American thing. We’re success oriented, you only hear good stories on TV about those who achieve. We kind of transfer that to our churches. But if you go to places where Christianity is a tiny minority, and you can’t advance above a certain level in university or in a job because you’re a Christian. You’re discriminated against like Communist countries, some Islamic countries, then they lean on each other.
They need each other to get through a day, and that’s where I see real community at work. I’ve been to churches in prisons that are just like that, where people can’t get through a day without leaning on each other and being honest, and having somebody support them and understand them. I think we just need to punch that balloon, that successful American, “everything’s fine” balloon, because it’s not. The only way we’re going to grow is by depending on other people to help us.
Dave: I was just going to say, everything, I think, Philip you’ve said about the church could also be said about the family. We’re a family and marriage program, and I’m thinking, “Man, if our kids or our spouse felt like this is a community, this family, where I can be me. I can bring victory, I can bring defeat, I can bring celebration, I can bring lament. It’s safe here. Of all the places of my whole life, that’s where I want to run when I’m troubled.”
Ann: It’s a haven.
Dave: “I want to run home, because there I’m loved, I’m seen, if I’m crying, they’re going to weep with me. If I’m joyful, they’re going to be joyful with me.” Man, Mom and Dad, create an environment where that’s happening, where your kids want to run to your house because everywhere else it doesn’t feel safe, but there it does.
Ann: I’m just thinking about the person, Dave, that maybe is experiencing that or in it right now.
Dave: Oh, I think that’s a lot of us. Disappointment with God is a real thing, and as Philip said, it isn’t always the big, tragic, “God doesn’t come through,” but the little, everyday disappointments that add up—
Ann: The ongoing.
Dave: —and you’re just completely disappointed. But let me remind you what Philip said. There is a God. He has a title. He’s the God of All Comfort.
Ann: Isn’t that good?
Dave: He will meet you right where you are. I know it’s hard to believe right now, but He is meeting you right now, even through this program.
Let me just say thanks to those of you who make this program possible. You’re donors, you’re FamilyLife partners with us, you give financially, you pray for this program, and you just helped somebody, right now.
Ann: And maybe you’re at a point, too, where you’ve stepped out of that season of pain or discouragement, and you’re thinking, “I want to be that person that brings hope to another family.” So you could partner with us and be a donor to FamilyLife Today.
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Non-traditional families are now considered traditional. As churches, how do we meet changing needs and serve them really well? I mean heartfelt well. Well, tomorrow listen to Ron Deal’s conversation with three senior pastors on why and how to love all families, despite the narrative of their past. That’s tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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