Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
Yesterday as I taught in our Christian Living Class (Sunday School for both adults and sr. high youth) on the doctrine of God’s omniscience, one of the questions raised had to do with personal situations and experiences that are hard, hurtful, “bad,” and processing them. In particular, it was asked how to respond to one who while going through this experience gets “angry at God.”
This is a very important question, the reality that all of us will experience personally or in the life of a loved one. How do we respond? How are we to think about this?
This addresses God’s sovereignty and providence. It focuses specifically on God’s attributes of omnipotence and omniscience. It also must be understood and responded to in the context of God as our Father through our union with Jesus Christ. This means that we must not see this as punishment but rather as discipline.
With this foundational truth, my initial answer to the question was that this is a juvenile response. It is the response of one who sees only a limited perspective and responds based on that limited, personal and present perspective. I compared it to the relationship between parents and children. The parents discipline their children. They do so because they love them. However, the young children do not feel that discipline as love. They often respond in anger, as if the parent does not understand, is unfair, does not care, intends to be mean, etc. Now none of those things are true from the parent’s vantage point, but they are how the young person perceives the discipline. This is similar to how one who is angry at God may process His discipline of His children.
As I have pondered this answer further, though it is accurate and I would still respond in this way, I would add to my response. (It is often the case that one has a more complete and thorough answer after the fact than during the moment.) Stated in this way alone can be simplistic and, depending on what one is going through, it could make light of a real struggle. That is why I believe my response was true, it was partially true. These are the additional thoughts/truths I believe are important to state:
First, this response is limited in scope. It only focuses on the response of the individual.
Second, it is only focused on the present. Most of us are spiritually near-sighted when it comes to personal experiences like this.
Third, it is limited in its understanding of the purpose of the experience. In any one thing that we know, feel or experience, God is using it in literally hundreds and thousands of other ways that we don’t even begin to fathom.
Fourth, it reminds us of the reality of living life in a fallen world. There ought to be sadness, sorrow, a righteous anger at the results/implications of sin and the fall and the fallen world. Jesus weeps at the implications of sin at the tomb of Lazarus, His friend (Jn. 11). Creation groans longing to be redeemed, how much more should we (Rom. 8). Though anger is a possibility, i.e. “if you get angry” (this is not a command to be angry, and neither does it address anger toward God but other humans), the exhortation is not to sin (Eph. 5:25).
Fifth, we have an example of those who rest in God and respond fully to joys and struggles of living live in a fallen-redeemed-not-yet-glorified world: the Psalms and the Psalmists. They reach the heights and depths of joy and sorrow, all within a deep and abiding trust in the Lord. It is their understanding of the Lord that leads to the questions of sin and their experience, and it is the Lord that comforts and assures them and leads them to worship of Him. This is noted in the shift in the Psalm. After having poured out their hearts there was a turning point as they remembered and focused on God. It transformed the way they viewed God, the experience and themselves (e.g. Pss. 13, 73).
Sixth, if the one side of an inappropriate response is anger, not righteous anger, the other side is passive indifference. The thought that since God is God, we must bitterly and passively resign ourselves under His heavy hand “grin and bear it.” This is Stoicism not Christianity.
Seventh, one must have these foundational truths about God as the bedrock of one’s life if one is able to make any sense of this and respond in a way that grows our faith, trust and worship. God is good and does good. God created the world “very good” (Gen. 1:31). God is not the author of sin and He does not do evil, but instead has allowed them (Rom. 9) and triumphs over them (Gen. 50:20; Col. 2:15) and our trust in the midst of them, the tension of living in the now and the not-yet, manifests that we love God more than anything else. It becomes a personal, living testimony to God and the gospel we proclaim with our lips.
Eighth, some things will not make sense to us. We live by the principle of “faith seeking understanding,” we understand the biblical worldview of creation, fall, redemption and glorification, but that does not mean we understand specifically all the nuances of life. But we are still called to trust. In fact, it is in the midst of these sorts of circumstances that require trust and reveal that God is treasured far above and beyond answers. This is the story of Job.
Ninth, we live with the reality that now is only the present moment. It is really but we do not only live in or for the moment. As Christians, we trust in the Lord and long and wait for the end living faithfully each moment knowing and trusting that in the end all will be made right.
Tenth, we have an eschatological focus in that God is doing all things well for His glory. That means that we trust that He causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who have been called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). This eschatological focus has profound implications for the present.
Eleventh, one needs to consider the spirit and heart with which this anger is raised and voiced. Zachariah raised a question about how he and Elizabeth were to conceive and bear a son in their old age. He was struck mute. When Mary raised a question about how she a virgin would conceive a bear a Son, she was blessed. Though the text does not explicitly tell us, there must have been a difference in motive and heart, the spirit with which the question was raised. Though this was not the experience, one could contrast the spirit with two questions as one being asked with a clenched fist and gritted teeth, the other with humility and brokenness.
Twelfth, this raises questions about God and this world. If one does not like this answer, they still have to provide an answer. What I find is that it raises many more questions about the individual than about God. Knowing what we do about this fallen world and humanity’s sinful rebellion against God, the greater question for me is not “why do bad things happen to good people,” but rather “why do good things happen to bad (sinful) people?”
These are a few additional thoughts in response. What would you add?