An Egyptian court last week sentenced an author to five years in prison. His crime? Insulting religion. He penned a book entitled Where is God? which some Muslims deemed offensive.
Egyptian law, according to one report, “gives all Muslims the right to file lawsuits in cases where an exalted right of God has been violated.” But maybe God can take it. At least that’s what Ian Punnett argues in his new book How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God, a title that might spark similar offense in some quarters.
But should it?
Anger is normal
Punnett says we’re just fooling ourselves if we think God’s offended. “I’ve never quite understood people who profess a faith in an all-knowing, all-loving God who think that if they just ‘pray nice’ then God will never know how pissed they really are.”
The undeniable truth is that we are sometimes angry and afraid, beset by doubts and confusion. What do we do in the those moments? Open our hearts and mouths, says Punnett. “The Bible is full of heroes who took their relationship with God seriously enough to honor their Creator with honesty.” Moses comes to mind. David, too. Definitely David.
Appropriately, Punnett explores the Psalms in his quest to understand the nature of honest prayer, particularly the kind that comes from a place of hurt, frustration, disappointment, and despair.
“There are many ‘praise psalms’ in the Bible,” he says, “but there are even more psalms of anger, lament, and fear.” One Punnett revisits several times in the book is Psalm 22, which Jesus quotes from the cross — and which speaks volumes about appropriate contexts for its recitation. You’ll remember how it starts:
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Punnett, an Episcopal deacon who once worked as a hospital chaplain, has had many instances to counsel people through moments when these words took on a life of their own.
Name, proclaim, and reframe
He tells the story of one young man who told his mother that he’d quit believing in God. She told Punnett she wanted him to convince the kid that God was real. Punnett did no such thing. How could he? He just taught him the opening lines to Psalm 22 as Jesus spoke them: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.” It became a buoy for the boy and opened up the possibility that he could let his feelings out without shutting out God.
Punnett says psalms and prayers like this allow us to “name, proclaim, and reframe” the things we suffer. The biblical model encourages us to identify our pain, explain why it strikes us as wrong, unfair, unjust, whatever, and then call on God to remedy it — to redeem it.
We find that pattern again and again in the Psalms, and it’s one we can adopt for our own, the Bible serving as our tutor in these sorts of prayers.
Might those prayers be rough around the edges? Sure. “[B]rutal honesty might require some brutal language,” he says. “But good therapy is rarely about things that could be said in polite company, and an effective therapeutic angry prayer is no different. . . . God has heard it all. God can take it.”
God can defend himself
Back to our condemned Egyptian author. Punnett addresses Islam’s stance on angry prayer. Unlike Judaism and Christianity, Islam gives the wounded no such recourse.
He quotes one scholar who says Muslims see such prayers in the Scripture as proof of its “inferiority” and “corruption.” And so they jail a man for doing something David glutted the Bible with — as if God really needed people to ensure his honor was being adequately defended.
The only reasonable response is perhaps offering up a few angry prayers on the victim’s behalf. His name is Karam Saber. Give it a shot.