Judging from what directees have told me — and even from a good deal of what is in print — a lot of people are fairly sure that God is angry. Angry some of the time, maybe angry all the time.
Some fairly reputable scholars have even argued that is why we need to retool the Christian faith. “Out with the angry old man in the sky — in with something new.”
The problem with this argument is that it relies on caricatures of God that are not a part of the Christian tradition. Oh, to be sure, there are those who pull out a strand of the tradition and make it sound that way. But the balance of both the Jewish and Christian tradition about God comes nowhere near saying anything of the sort.
To be sure, God is described as being angry from time to time — for specific reasons. (On that, more tomorrow.) But nowhere is God described in either the Hebrew or Greek Testaments as habitually, characteristically angry.
Where do our notions that God is angry all the time come from? Teasing out the answer is an important key to making spiritual progress. As long as we are convinced that God is out to get us we will find it difficult to find peace. It will also be difficult to embrace God or seek God’s help. An angry God is an unapproachable God.
So why do we think God is an angry old guy? Here are some of the reasons that I have been able to discern:
Our experiences suggest it:
It isn’t fair to God, but a lot of our earliest impressions of God are projections. Parents, clergy, parish life can deeply shape our thinking. I have known countless adults who struggle with notions about God that took shape when they were 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, or 12 years old — at an age when they were old enough to observe and too young to distinguish between the behavior of the adults around them and their understanding of God.
We have been taught to think it:
If you believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people AND you have had bad things happen to you, it’s hard not to assume that God is angry with you. Sadly, a lot of us have been taught to believe this formula works. Others struggle with the notion, even if they don’t consciously embrace it; and still others reject a belief in God because they have concluded that it’s the only way to think about God.
It isn’t true, of course, that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. In fact, if you cannot draw a fairly immediate and obvious line between your actions and your life circumstances — from action to consequences — it is unlikely that your behavior has anything to do with your choices at all. Some of the best and even deeply faithful people I know have suffered terribly; and I have known true rogues, who have enjoyed incredible advantages. Whatever is happening to you, it isn’t because God is angry with you.
Our guilt drives us to it:
There are times when the argument that God is angry all the time is simply easier to discuss than is our own sense of guilt. Some people are convinced that God is angry with them because they have done something that they know is wrong, hurtful, mean-spirited, or sinful. But repentance and amendment of life is harder than launching an all-out assault on God’s character.
And sometimes our anger with God drives us to it:
I don’t believe that God is the architect of murder and mayhem. But some people can’t think about God in any other categories; and, from time to time, many of us have been badly hurt enough that we find it easier to react out of our pain. God can hear your anger and understands it. The Psalms do a marvelous job of modeling that freedom. But they always move from that honest expression to the peace that comes from resting in a God that they are convinced loves them and grieves with them.
More on God’s anger tomorrow…