I had a season in my life when I was angry at God and it was more than a passing blip that was quickly buried under fear of getting struck by lightning. Anger at God is in some ways the summun malum of sin. Having moments of weakness that lead to poor decisions is one thing, but an act of conscious rebellion is rightfully put into a whole other category.
It was a dark season when it felt like we had a target on our back: financially we were sinking deeper into the red while it seemed like virtually everything that could go wrong with a house and car was going wrong, and then finally we had a severe medical emergency (retinal detachment) when we were waiting for health insurance to come in and were faced with risking permanent disability by waiting or destroying ourselves financially by having an uninsured surgery. There were other facets I won’t go into about being hurt by bad-faith actors, but suffice it to say there was definitely a “no good deed goes unpunished” aspect to this as well. I wasn’t actively, openly rebellious, but rather resigned and sort of passive-aggressively so.
In D&C 121 God conditions Joseph Smith’s benefits from his troubles on “endur[ing] it well.” For the most part I did not “endure it well.” However, a few points from this time in my life.
- “Praying the hate away” is hard
When somebody has hurt you severely with significant long-term consequences, it’s hard to “just forgive and forget.” While that is exactly what we are required to do as Christians, it’s important to not downplay how hard this can be, and to give people space to process these emotions without getting soundbites preached to them.
- That doesn’t make hatred death spirals any less toxic
The most miserable people I know think that their hatred is a virtue to nourish instead of a toxin to expurgate. Almost two thousand years before Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was a twinkle in an academic article, Matthew 6:22 captured the principle well: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light,” and the D&C version: “and if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you.” The logical corollary, of course, being that if you’re focused on the hate there is no light in you, and there are definitely some like that. Do what you need to do to not stew. You don’t have to sing hymns all day, just give your cogitations somewhere else to go to stop the spiral downwards. Stopping the bleeding is the first step.
- Personal development comes from real world experience more than theoretical study
The times in my life when I’ve made substantive personal/spiritual progress were times when I was stretched beyond what was comfortable or even slightly uncomfortable, and observationally it seems like the same is true for many others, although I’m not claiming that some of the more spiritual among us can’t make progress through scripture study in a comfortable chair in a paid-off house.
However, I doubt Dostoevsky would have been able to author The Brothers Karamazov had he not had a life-destroying gambling addiction, a child who died young, and years of hard labor in a Siberian prison. I never visited with a bishop during this time (at DefCon 1 in your life you don’t really have time), but it made me appreciate real-world experience. I want my bishop to have life furrows in his face that are deeper than mine. I want a bishop whose son died of a drug overdose, a divorcé; not some handsome scion of an umpteenth generation blue blood Mormon family that has never been passed over for promotion, whose smile is just a little too big, and whose favorite work of moving literature is 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
My most memorable religion professor at BYU (you probably would have heard of him, but he is unfortunately no longer with us) alluded in class to being a recovered pill addict, and mentioned that in our darkest moments we feel like we are in the deepest, darkest pit possible, but don’t realize that there are pits far beneath ours, and He has descended below all of them.
- Intellectual theodicy arguments don’t help
Throughout this season the common “other people are hurting worse than you” refrain kept popping up in the back of my mind, but this just contributes to the kind of “life sucks and then you die” catastrophizing about human existence in general that isn’t helpful.
I have my own theodicy beliefs that track with what I think of as being standard LDS answers, but when you’re in the middle of drowning the more theological Rubik’s Cube-style form of intellectual theodicy analyses are also not helpful.
That’s not to say that they aren’t valid, just that they aren’t helpful. A personal testimony of a gospel-centered theodicy comes the way other testimonies do—from personal spiritual experience, and not logical argument, although that’s not to concede that the latter aren’t necessarily valid.
- God isn’t petulant
The Old Testament often uses the term “jealous” to describe God. I wonder if the Hebrew lacks the immature and petty connotations that we have for that word in English, but whatever the case, speaking personally, you aren’t going to hurt His feelings or cause resentment even in your worst moments of angry, sacrilegious weakness. He will, if you allow Him, wrap His arms around you even tighter.
- Not every outcome from dark periods is personally good
I have a little edge to me that I didn’t have before that hasn’t completely gone away with time. Being both a serpent and a dove is quite the needle to thread, and, unfortunately, Ethan Frome-like, some people let the dark periods break them and cycle deeper and deeper into dark bitterness. I have more empathy for people I consider self-destructive and broken, because I’ve gotten a peak behind the curtain, and have moved more towards an attitude of “there but for the grace of God (literally) go I.”
- Try to protect others from the overflow pain
When we were drowning my dad pulled me aside and mentioned that he could feel the stress levels in the house, and that as the man of the house it was my responsibility to shield everyone else from poverty stress (I know I know, but, and here’s some of that edge, take a hike). Anger, anxiety, and hate is contagious, and if not careful your personal spirals can start a family spiral that can particularly affect vulnerable children passing through a sensitive period in their lives.
- You can be glad you went through something without ever wanting to go through it again
Sometimes people talk about how they’re grateful for a hard upbringing. When I was drowning I wondered how that could be but now, with added time and perspective, I totally get it. I am what I am because of those moments in my life, and I have a perspective on things that is miles ahead of where I would be without it, but I’d rather bathe in broken glass than go through all of that again…
On a similar note, on one hand I wouldn’t wish that kind of pain on my worst enemies, but on the other hand I kind of wish everybody went through a time period when they were stressed out about the lower rungs on Maslow’s hierarchy. We’d certainly be a much more mature society, with a lot less anxiety about the upper rungs.
- There’s no evidence for the salubriousness of “venting anger”
There’s sort of a quasi-Freudian, folk-psychology belief that repressing anger is bad, while venting is healthy and allows the built-up pressure to be released. This might make sense as a physics analogy, but redirecting thought processes away from the anger is good, and my understanding of the literature on this (Google Scholar “anger venting” for the past ten years) is that there is some evidence that “venting” can lead to more anger and often causes more problems than it solves. If there’s a psychology folk-belief that seems anti-Christian it’s venting. Jesus got serious and straightforward with people, but he never vented.
- It’s a long haul
We like our “road to Damascus” stories, and often strive for that supernal one-off moment when everything is made right. They might come, but they’re pretty rare. Sometimes the pain recedes like the tide is going out, with waves of pain coming and going but over time more going than coming. I’m not a clinical psychologist but anecdotally I’ve noticed a lot of people process deep life pain similarly.
- Sometimes God doesn’t respond in the moment
There’s a quote I recall from the Journal of Discourses that I can’t chapter and verse now where Brigham Young mentions that people are sometimes left in the dark for a season in order to develop their own capacity to stand on their own. If you’re doing what you’re supposed to and you get a blank feeling, that doesn’t mean you’re on God’s bad list. And if you get a crummy, dark feeling you can take it to the bank that that’s not coming from God. God’s severe and pointed reprimands are energizing, not depressing.
- A short list of “dark times” resources
The penultimate chapter in the Book of Mormon
D&C 121 and 122
The Endowment, specifically when Adam and Eve are cast out into the lone and dreary wilderness
“Sunday will Come” by Elder Wirthlin
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
The “other people have it harder than you” thought, while depressing in the moment, was in fact true and I don’t want my points here to be my entry card into some suffering olympics. It’s not that different from what others have had to pass through, and I didn’t have to deal with issues that others had to deal with such as suicidality or a non-supportive family. Just some of my observations and sentiments, for what they might be worth for others.