Not long ago, I was chaplain to the father of a dying child. As he attempted to express his anger over the unfairness of the situation, a well-meaning family member stopped him, placed a hand on his shoulder, and said, “Now, it won’t do any good to get angry. And you know we can’t question God.” During the remainder of the time I spent with the family, I did my best to gently correct those assumptions.
At least in the short-term, anger is a very normal and healthy part of the grief process, and expressing anger can certainly do good for the one facing a loss. For many, particularly those whose faith is an important part of life, some of the anger gets directed at God, which can be scary, whether the harsh words are coming from them or someone close to them. Fortunately, there is a long history of such expressions of grief, even in sacred scripture.
Written by God’s people in times of great suffering, exile, war, and persecution, psalms of lament voice desires for all sorts of evil to fall upon one’s enemies. The grieving sometimes cry out in anguish for God and other times angrily tell God to turn away, accusing God of being the cause of suffering. This kind of language is exactly what I heard from the grieving father about to lose his child, and the inclusion of such laments in the Bible allowed me to encourage, not suppress, his expression of those feelings.
God understands our need to vent the darkness in our souls during times of grief. Biblical scholar Walter Bruegemann, in his book Praying the Psalms, states that the lament psalms set an example of a therapeutic process for dealing with such anger. First, we give voice to the anger. Second, we submit it to another–in this case, God. And finally, we let go of the anger and desire for vengeance, trusting God to take care of it.
This progression of grief can be seen in the beautiful poetry of Susan E. Vollmer, written in the months after the love of her life died of cancer.* In one of her poems, Vollmer raged at the disease. “How much destruction and despair does there need to be before you die a miserable death like those you took away? I hope you bleed and shiver and writhe in anguish and pain,” she wrote. In other poems, she spoke honestly about her lack of trust in God’s plan and her struggle to hold on to faith. Ultimately, though, once she had expressed her anger, she entrusted her own hurting soul to the God who stands with outstretched arms–even in the face of our anger–when she wrote, “you fell into the arms of the One who caught you.”
As a minister to those who are hurting, I try to express that God is the Lord of both joy and lament, the One who is strong enough to handle all of our honest and frightening emotions. When we most need to express our hurt and anger, God is perhaps closer than ever to us. To question and rage at God is not, as some fear, a sign of lost faith. In the face of grief, a lament may be the most authentic, and biblical, expression of faith there is.
Stacy N. Sergent is a graduate of the School of Divinity at Gardner-Webb University. She is a CBF-endorsed chaplain at MUSC Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina. Her first book is Being Called Chaplain: How I Lost My Name and (Eventually) Found My Faith.
*Susan Vollmer’s poems appeared in The Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling, June 2010.