In his spiritual and ethnographic account of being a missionary to African Masai tribes in the 1960’s, Vincent Donovan writes of a surprising encounter with a Masai leader (Christianity Rediscovered, ch 4).
Vincent begins his outreach to the Masai quite sincerely, by bringing up various spiritual themes and asking the people their opinion. During his first week with the Masai, he asks what they think about God (God was not a foreign concept to the Masai, they already believed in a supreme deity).
“If I ever run into God, I will put a spear through him,” says one elder.
As different as the Masai are from Westerners today, this sentiment toward God is surprisingly similar to our own reaction toward God when faced with mounting suffering.
This Masai man believed in God yet was faced with the frustration and sadness “of a life that includes pain and sickness, death of children, and loss of cattle. This young elder was trying to come to terms with a God who seemed to be responsible for it all.”
This feeling is pretty universal.
One of the most overlooked places in the Bible of a similar feeling is found in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is a difficult book to read. First, Jeremiah is ridiculed by Jerusalem’s citizens. In the end, they attempt to kill him.
Jeremiah frequently regrets his call to be a prophet. At one point, Jeremiah cries out to God,
“you deceived me and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed” (Jer 20:7).
Scholars have pointed out that the English translation using the words ‘deceived’ and ‘overpowered’ are euphemistic. The actual Hebrew words ‘patah’ and ‘hazak’ are best translated as ‘seduced’ and ‘raped’ (Abraham Heschel, The Prophets). Jeremiah’s life as a prophet is hard and he accuses God of seducing and raping him.
That’s the Bible for you.
And this is to say nothing of David and his despondency in the Psalms. Then there’s Paul who writes that he would be happier if dead. And even Jesus with his loneliness in the garden and agony on the cross.
In my own illness, I am encouraged by the honesty of the emotions expressed in the Bible. While I can’t say that anger has been a major sentiment in my personal experience, I have felt the profound disappointment of suffering.
Yet whether we feel anger, frustration, or sadness, I think a starting point is seeing these moments in scripture. These are ancient stories and the road we are walking has been walked before.
God’s greatest prophets, teachers, and even Jesus (God himself here on earth) felt these sentiments, suggesting that they are not superfluous emotions but rather a consistent and essential part of the journey. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in them. They are the starting point for what’s next.