About seven years ago it seemed a lot of things in my life started to go wrong. My daughter Keziah got very ill with HSP (Henoch-Schönlein purpura), my son broke his leg and my youngest daughter, Abigail was diagnosed with a permanent eyesight condition called Nystagmus. Soon after this my dad had cancer and my wife, Diane, and I lost a baby. Work was very busy and I began to experience early signs of burnout. During this period I was diagnosed with a degenerative knee problem that required major limb reconstruction surgery on both legs. Operating on one leg at a time this involves breaking my leg just above the ankle and below the knee and attaching an external circular frame for a considerable length of time (minimum six months). The road to recovery once the process started would take about two years.
If you know me at all or have read any of my books, you will know I am a very active person. I used to love football, climbing and running, all of which used to act as a stress relief to a very busy and demanding job. I had to stop all of these things.
My faith has been shaken, not just by the state of my knees but other events in the last couple of years. As news of my condition got out, all my Christian friends wanted to pray for me to get healed. Being fairly well known in the Christian world, lots of people wanted to pray. To be honest, I got to the point where I wanted to pretend I had been healed as I started feeling sorry for the people praying for me. When things don’t happen, you ask yourself the normal questions. What did I do wrong? Is there some big sin in my life which I haven’t repented of? How will we cope? How will the children handle it?
I am currently waiting for my second operation; one of the emotions that I struggle with during this time is anger. It’s a hard emotion to deal with as most of our associations with it are negative and it’s rarely talked about either inside or outside of the Church. To me it felt a bit like worry; I thought the good Christian thing to do was push it aside as soon as it reared its head. Yet I was angry that I couldn’t play competitive football anymore. I was angry that my family has had to deal with a disproportionately high number of health challenges in the last few years. I was angry that my life was being dominated by pain and completely disrupted by medical procedures. As I didn’t know how to express that anger in a healthy way, I tried to absorb it. I did my best to squash it down but, as you’ll know if you’ve ever tried it, that rarely ends well. I spent many days after the first operation sitting on the sofa looking at the red wall of my living room (perhaps not the most helpful colour), feeling so furious that I didn’t know what to do with myself. I would imagine picking up objects and hurling them at the wall, but then I would immediately feel guilty for thinking such things. When I first tried to shower without help after the operation I completely lost it. I was struggling to balance on my crutches, put too much weight on my broken leg, which was excruciating, and to top it off I managed to trap my fingers in the shower door. My anger built and built until I exploded and headbutted the shower door. Clearly trying to ignore it wasn’t helping.
We know from the fact that God talks about being angry a number of times in the Bible that anger itself isn’t a sin. It’s doesn’t have to be a negative emotion. When you think about some of the things that make you angry I wonder how many of them relate to a form of injustice. Anger can be a positive emotion, showing us that something is wrong; it highlights our fundamental longing for justice, fairness, rightness and equality. This is something that is grasped even in small children; they have a keen sense from a young age of what is and isn’t fair. Anger at injustice isn’t wrong, but the expression of it can certainly be. Unchecked it can be dangerous for us and for those around us.
All evidence suggests that suppressed anger can lead to depression, anxiety, violence and self-harm. Anger is a normal part of the grieving process, and life has many griefs, whether that’s the death of someone we love, the loss of a community we’ve been a part of, the end of a dream we’d cherished, or the grief of life not turning out the way we hoped it would.
We’re seeing more and more young people dealing with issues of anger from the frustrations and difficulties in their lives. Many are dealing with intense poverty, feel like they have no hope of getting a job, and have witnessed their parents’ relationships fall apart. Some have been abused, or seen more violence at home than we could ever stand to watch in a film; many witness their friends being killed through drug, knife and gun crime. There are few healthy outlets for the anger at these injustices, and so the young people burn with rage, some turning it in on themselves and self-harming as a twisted means of escape, others taking it out on anyone who gives them a look they don’t like, perpetuating the injustice in the world.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, in his book Falling Upward (SPCK, 2012) talks about how hard it is for men particularly to express their grief, and comments, “In our work with men, we have found that in many men this inability or refusal to feel their deep sadness takes the form of aimless anger, the only way to get to the bottom of their anger is to face the ocean of sadness underneath it. Men are not free to cry, so they transmute their tears into anger, and sometimes it pools up their soul in the form of depression.”
We have to find a safe place for the anger to be released without damaging anyone. The apostle Paul says, “‘In your anger do not sin’: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians 4:26-27). In other words, he’s saying the anger isn’t a sin but hanging on to it is. Solomon said, “anger resides in the lap of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9) – the word ‘resides’ indicates he means letting it become a resident rather than a visitor. As a Christian there can be the additional complication to anger: what do you do when you feel angry at God?
Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we can’t seem to help saying: “God, why did you let this happen?” Maybe we can see our pain is a result of someone else’s choices and we can direct our anger at them, but sometimes we feel so angry with God for the things that hurt us. We wrestle with whether he caused them to happen, whether he’s in control, and whether it’s ever OK to be angry with God. Thankfully, God himself gave us some direction within the Bible to allow us to understand what to do with our anger, and the Psalms are a great place to start. There we see that David (a man after God’s heart – 1 Samuel 13:14) had no problems letting rip before God in his anger. He didn’t hold back with 40% of the Psalms being songs of lament that expressed sorrow, confusion and questions. People have suggested to me in the past that I try writing my own psalm of lament. When I look back on them now I realise I didn’t fully give myself permission to be honest. I tried to tone down my emotions, fearing I would offend God by saying what I really thought. Before we can really express our anger, we need to know whether it’s really OK to be angry with God.
Pastor and author Dr Ed Stetzer tells of the agony of seeing his sister, Betty, die at the age of 21. Betty was diagnosed with cancer as a young girl and, as a new believer, he prayed diligently that God would heal her. Betty got better for nine years before the cancer came back and took her life. Unable to comprehend why God would allow her to die so young, his mum walked away from the church, her Christian friends, and her relationship with God. Ed, on the other hand, demanded answers from God. He drove to the beach, where he could yell and use language you wouldn’t normally associate with prayer. He says, “The answers my soul craved never came. God rejected my wisdom in favour of his own. He did not give me the answers I wanted, but he gave me something better. He gave me himself instead.”
Most of us would acknowledge that when someone has hurt us, we have to forgive them to be able to find freedom and healing. But how do we deal with it when we feel hurt by God? We know he has done nothing wrong, yet we can be tormented by the fact he didn’t intervene and stop terrible things from happening to us. Dr R.T. Kendall was the minister at Westminster Chapel in London for 25 years and has written many best-selling books, notably Totally Forgiving Ourselves and Total Forgiveness. A couple of years after the latter was published, a friend suggested he should write a follow-up book called Totally Forgiving God (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012). R.T. gulped, knowing that would be easily open to misinterpretation while also knowing his friend was right. He wrote the book and explains there that God doesn’t need to be forgiven as he is only wants the best for his people and hasn’t done anything wrong. Yet we live in a broken world where suffering is a reality for so many people, which can leave us feeling betrayed by God. He says, “Total Forgiveness means letting everyone off the hook who has hurt us in any way. This includes God if we feel he has hurt us by allowing what he did.”
In my most honest moments I knew that I felt betrayed by God, and that it was something I had to deal with if I was going to be able to continue in relationship with him. It didn’t help that people would say, “God won’t give you more than you can bear.” This is a frequently quoted Christian phrase and one that can cause great heartache to those who are suffering. When you’ve reached the point where you don’t feel like you can take any more and someone tells you God wouldn’t give the burden to if you couldn’t handle it, it doesn’t make you feel loved. Quite the opposite; it leads to further anger, as you can feel like God clearly doesn’t know you all that well as you already feel beyond your breaking point. It implies he’s doling out the pain but will stop when things get too much.
The phrase is actually a misquotation of Scripture; what the Bible says is that God won’t allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). Paul was trying to show the Corinthians that God was with them when they were tempted, and would help them find a way to resist. We need to let go of this strange image of God measuring out how much pain we can deal with that only confuses our understanding of who he is and how he relates to us in our suffering.
When we go through hard times we need each other. That’s why on the back of my book When Faith Gets Shaken (Monarch, 2015) we have produced a DVD for small groups and individuals alike with some very honest reflections on how we can focus on God and keep going when our faith gets shaken.
To order your copy, visit whenfaithgetsshaken.com