|When Someone is Mad at God
June 15, 1997 / John 8:1-11
Let’s imagine that she was from a religious family that lived in a larger religious culture. Since being a little girl, she had heard the name of God spoken reverently — and had never thought of speaking it any other way herself. There were set prayers she had been taught by her parents. She not only prayed those but felt close enough to God to offer personal prayers — prayers that she knew God heard.
She was a bright, pleasant, and beautiful girl. Most of her beauty, come to think of it, seemed to radiate from inside her. She was at ease with people and made them feel at ease around her. Her voice seemed to have a sense of confidence about life, people, and relationships. She was self-assured and secure. And she was naively innocent about life and how well she lived it.
But while she was still an adolescent or young woman, something must have happened that shattered her world — and her. Did her father abandon her and set her up to seek approval and acceptance from men at whatever cost? Did he die and leave a family unable to fend for itself? Did something happen to her that was more personal, more intimate — abuse, molestation, rape — that left her shamed and feeling worthless? Did she marry someone who abused her and flee him for comfort wherever it could be found?
I don’t have the woman’s background and life story. And, contrary to what you may be thinking, I’m not looking for some event to "excuse" her for doing wrong things later in her life. It is simply that people are the products of their experiences. One doesn’t have to be trying to excuse a behavior in order to make a good-faith effort to understand it.
Some of the things that affect children so negatively are things they can’t name or explain. Because of that trauma, however, they are "messed up" in their thinking. There is no ability to set boundaries or have healthy relationships. What psychologists say of them is true. Such persons carry an ominous sense of "badness" within themselves. The lying child — in terror and dread all the while — continues to lie. The stealing child — with profound shame — keeps stealing. The overeating girl — hating herself for doing it — continues to binge. And the molested child — feeling dirty and worthless — is vulnerable to sexual predators.
As these things are playing themselves out in someone’s life, she may be thinking of God in terms of self-pity. So she might ask, "Why did God do this to me? It’s his fault! He abandoned me!" Or the thoughts may be pleading ones, as in "Why won’t God give me the willpower to change my life?" Maybe she simply asks, "Where is the God I thought I knew?"
People with such backgrounds are often angry at God. They blame God for their fate. They accuse him as the one responsible for their misfortune. I’ll come back to this woman whose story I wish I could trace in more detail later, for I feel sure she was angry at God for what was going on in her life.
Angry at God
I have known lots of people who were angry at God. They have cursed God in my presence. Sometimes I have thought they did it more for my sake than theirs. It was their effort to let me know that they hated everything I stand for in their eyes — church, Bible, preaching, judging, finger-pointing, blaming. The easiest and quickest way to dismiss all that is to curse God or blame God.
This week an e-mail came from a friend of mine in Texas praising God for his "protective hand" in the events of five days earlier. His son had flipped his 1987 Chevy Blazer and totaled it in a freak accident. He walked away from it unscratched! In the same note, he reminisced about his brother’s 15-year-old son who had been killed in a motorcycle accident ten years earlier. Why should one boy be spared harm and the other die? Both sets of parents are godly people who prayed for their sons. Did God hear one and not the other? Does he play favorites?
Some people are angry with God over a failed marriage. Others over a failed business or investment. Some are angry because they aren’t pretty enough or tall enough or smart enough. Still others are angry at God because a baby died — or has never been born. And some people are angry at God because of abuse they suffered as children or that they are suffering now.
The Theology of Bill Cosby
The 27-year-old son of entertainer Bill Cosby was murdered on January 16, 1997, while trying to fix a flat tire. Ennis Cosby was apparently the victim of a senseless and unplanned act of violence in Los Angeles. Police Chief Willie Williams, when announcing the arrest of an 18-year-old suspect in the murder said, "It appears that robbery was the motive and that [the choice of the victim] was happenstance."
In an interview with Newsweek (March 17, 1997, p. 58), Bill Cosby showed what I regard as better theological insight than some professional theologians about events of the sort that took his beloved son — he called him "my hero" — away. Interviewed prior to the arrest of a suspect, he said: "Let me tell you how I feel about Ennis. When people die, you will hear some people say that God called that person. I don’t believe that. I mean I believe in God but I am not accepting that in this particular case. Yes, there may be some people that God will call in my mind. But God didn’t call Ennis. It wasn’t his time. The person who murdered Ennis is somewhere out there riding with the Devil."
First, he rejects the notion of assigning all the deaths and heartaches of life to a "call from God." How many times have I cringed beside a baby’s tiny coffin to hear someone say "God wanted your baby more than you did" or "God needed another little angel in heaven." Blasphemy! A bully God who takes babies away from heartbroken parents doesn’t deserve worship. If God needs more angels, he can create them with a word; he certainly doesn’t need to steal away our babies.
God doesn’t cause the car accidents, drive-by shootings, and heart attacks that take lives. Yes, he created a contingent world where these things can happen. It is the only type of world even a maximally powerful and maximally loving God can create — if it is to be an environment for testing rational and free creatures. The negative and painful effects of all these things hurt God as well as his creatures. His ultimate answer to these things that trouble us so was not a book on theodicy but the Incarnation. "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Heb.2:14).
It may be "pious sentiment" to offer comfort to someone in grief by saying "God called him home" or "God took your child." But it is also a cruel untruth. More than that, it is an indictment of the character of God. God is sovereign (i.e., able to bring all things to his desired end) in this world, but he is not omnicausal (i.e., the originator of all events) in it. He can guide random events or satanic deeds to achieve a good purpose in the lives of people who trust him (Rom. 8:28), but that is a far cry from saying he desired the original events or caused them to happen.
Second, Cosby takes the idea of evil seriously. Even before he knew the shooter’s name, he knew that whoever murdered his son was "somewhere out there riding with the Devil."
Isn’t that judgmental? Isn’t it heartless to associate someone with Satan? Doesn’t it violate our scientific understanding that whoever murdered Ennis must have done so because of childhood trauma, bad genetic material, or sickness? In the case of the Ukrainian man who has been arrested, shouldn’t our concern be to fund a study on cross-cultural patterns of adjustment difficulties and social exclusion that create rage ending in antisocial behavior?
Come to the real world, please! Although the overworked sick-not-guilty defense will be offered for whomever is eventually tried for this crime, most evil acts are committed by people who make deliberate choices to do what they want to do in spite of who gets hurt in the process.
The sick-not-guilty theory demeans everyone who accepts it. I am not a pawn being manipulated by impersonal forces inside and outside myself. I am a human being who makes decisions. Some of those decisions are right and praiseworthy, but others are wrong and blameworthy. To hold otherwise is to take away the defining element of personhood. To hold otherwise is to offer the theory that we are all robots acting out predetermined scripts put into place by the mindless interactions of physical particles. Cosby’s view of human personality appears still to be the biblical view that preserves human identity and human responsibility.
Third, he knows the tragic death of young men and women is no part of the will of God. All Job’s children were killed in a tragic storm when the house in which they were gathered collapsed and crushed them. In that case, Satan was the initiator of harm, not God (Job 1:6ff). "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows" (Jas. 1:17). More often than not, however, tragedy occurs not even because Satan is attacking someone’s faith but because of the randomness built into our universe. "God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matt. 5:45b).
"Yes," someone objects, "but even the texts you cite say that God is implicated in these events. He permitted Satan to attack Job, and Jesus said he ‘causes’ sunshine and rain."
Ummm, but wait a minute! In what context did — and does — God allow Satan to mount an attack against humans? Satan had just made the slanderous charge that no one is righteous, God-honoring, and worshipful except those who have been made "special cases" by being exempted from suffering. "Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has?" Satan charged. It was in that context that God said, "No, you’ve got it all wrong. I do not exempt believers from problems, heartaches, and disaster. People who trust me do so by choice, not from the lack of choice."
God has created this orderly world as an environment in which people make unforced choices about faith and unbelief. Because he arranged the world so that sun and rain, good fortune and disaster, health and sickness are distributed over the entire human race, he is to be honored for his fairness rather than criticized for playing favorites. After all, if everyone who became a Christian received automatic exemption from bankruptcy, cancer, and the deaths of their children, everyone would be a Christian — albeit for the wrong motive (i.e., selfishness). In that case, would anyone really be a Christian? The way the world works — cockeyed as it sometimes seems to us while we are on the anvil of suffering! — is precisely the way it must work in order for our freedom to be real and our faith to be genuine.
Bill Cosby doesn’t offer himself as a theologian, but he has done better than most in putting life’s most challenging problem — the so-called "problem of evil" — into perspective. It is certainly better than indicting God as the purveyor of heartache and problems in this world and living as an angry orphan in the universe.
How Jesus Rescued a Woman
But I began by telling you about a woman from a religious family in a religious culture. I speculated about what might have made her life spin out of control. I expressed the opinion that she was a woman angry at God by the time her story has any specific and definite details that I could share with you. Her story is found in the Bible. Her name isn’t even recorded. Just her shame, her fear, her forgiveness.
"But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir,’ she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin’ " (John 8:1-11).
I wish I knew more of this woman’s background. I wish I knew some of the details — I think! — of what had her in so terrible a situation before those churchmen and Jesus. The churchmen were right, of course, in saying that she deserved to die. But so do we all, since the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). But Jesus didn’t want her to die. He didn’t want her to be alienated from God. He didn’t want her life to be immoral.
Contrary to what some people have envisioned for this scene, I don’t see her trembling and tearful. I see her defensive and belligerent, ready to point an accusing finger at some of the self-righteous churchmen and angry at God for creating a system where those self-righteous hypocrites could be the heroes and people such as herself could only and always be hapless pawns in their power games.
As it turned out, though, she wasn’t really mad at God. She didn’t know God. She only knew the hypocrisies of the people who said they knew God, represented God, spoke for God, acted for God. When she really met and got to know something about God, she wasn’t — couldn’t be — mad at him.
God, you see, was standing right before her. He wasn’t there to affirm the angry, self-righteous churchmen. He wasn’t there to condemn her. He wasn’t about to be part of a stoning brigade. To the contrary, he came to her defense without defending what she had done. To recast what he said slightly in order to capture the essence of it, he said, "Since every sinner deserves to die, let the person here who is not a sinner and who does not deserve to die along with her cast the first stone." What a masterful way of rescuing her without excusing her! And the old-boys club got the point and started slinking away.
Left alone with her, a woman who had been angry, defensive, and surly about God finally met God. And he was not at all who she had been led to think he was! He wasn’t angry with her. He wasn’t — and hadn’t been — interested in harming her or complicating her life. Instead, he offered her his personal and free pardon. He didn’t even ask her to apologize for what she had done. He was willing to forgive unilaterally and risk her future to his grace. He believed forgiveness would be her path to repentance and healing, new life and holiness.
You may be angry with God. At least, you may have thought you were angry with God. You may have been angry at life’s unfairness. You may have been made angry by evil things done to you by people who stood "in the place of God" in your life — parents, churchmen, authority figures of other sorts. You may be angry because of consequences brought on yourself by poor decisions and sinful actions. The good news here is that the true God who shows himself in Jesus Christ can deal with your anger, disappointment, and resentment in the same way he dealt with the lady whose story is in John 8. He will begin with forgiveness and move toward your full and complete healing.
What a wonderful gift to someone who is angry! Forgiveness. Pardon. And a revelation of the true nature of God. If you want to know this God, you may come to him today in the knowledge that he will receive you as he received her.
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