Is God angry all the time?

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…

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.