My peripheral vision began to blur as I stared deeper into my steering wheel. Being on this end of that conversation made me long for the days gone by working in that factory.
I can still feel those concrete floors under my feet, the residue from packing tape on my hands. It was a dirty, exhausting job. But at least I was good at it.
Now, sitting in my idling car, I wish I could drive back, clock in, and leave ministry behind for a while. I would probably be less tired.
I drove to a nearby park that's usually vacant during the afternoon. Of course, a few cars were there today. All I wanted was to be alone.
Because I didn’t want people to overhear this pastor shouting at God.
DISCONTENT WITH THE DIVINE
I hoped tears or words would come. They didn't. All I could do was put the car in neutral again and stew (my Enneagram Five is showing).
I finally managed to ask, "Why?" My anger moved from simmering to boiling against the One who put me in this place to do this work. This was no longer between flesh and blood. This was discontent with the Divine.
We all have to deal with uncontrollable circumstances that beat us down or even change our very lives. People disappoint or damage us. Sometimes our righteous anger morphs into anger against our Maker.
What do we do with these God-sized frustrations in our lives? How do we express disappointment and distress to God without sinning? Is it even possible?
THE CRIES AND ROARS OF SCRIPTURE
In his book Good and Angry, David Powlison made the helpful distinction that “when the Bible teaches how to voice distress to God, it teaches a cry of faith, not a roar of rage.” The challenge, of course, is finding that line, especially in moments of God-directed anger.
To help myself flesh out the differences between the two, I turned to the Word. Instead of focusing on usual suspects like Job or a psalmist, I found wisdom from two other men: Jonah and Habakkuk.
Both were prophets commissioned to serve as God’s mouthpiece. Both expressed multiple complaints to God. But they handled their anger in very different ways. Let’s briefly remind ourselves of their stories:
Jonah is one of the most well-known prophets in the Bible. In the final chapter of his book, we are exposed to Jonah’s anger with God. After Jonah finally obeys God’s command to go to Nineveh and speak out against its people, the king and his subjects repent and turn from evil. God responds to the people with gracious relent. But here the plot takes an interesting turn:
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:1-4).
God responds to Jonah with the same grace he showed the people of Nineveh. He provides shade to ease Jonah’s discomfort, which made him glad. But a day later, God appoints a worm to destroy the plant and harsh weather conditions to go along with it.
And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” (Jonah 4:8-9)
What made Jonah’s anger a “roar of rage?” Here are three observations.
It is the very character of God that upsets Jonah. Jonah is quick to anger because God is slow to anger with those detestable Ninevites. He takes issue with more than what God has done, but further, who God is.
Jonah would rather die than understand God’s decision. Jonah is well-known for trying to run from his problems (see Jonah 1). Rather than praying in order to understand or listen to God, Jonah jumps to despair and resignation.
Jonah’s anger intensifies as time goes on. Twice we see the LORD acknowledge Jonah’s complaints with a question: “Do you do well to be angry?” The first time, Jonah offers no response. The second time, he does with curt. When I read this response, it rings of a fed-up child who’s tired of the nagging. I know, because I’ve been that child before. Jonah’s initial anger didn’t subside, even when God later provided the plant. It remained. I would argue that it grew even more intense.
God has the last word in Jonah’s story. He reminds Jonah that He is completely free to exercise judgment and mercy as He wishes. We don’t get to see what Jonah did with this information.
Unlike Jonah, we know very little about Habakkuk. We are uncertain how long Habakkuk had served as a prophet at the time of these writings. We have limited historical background to work with. Unlike most prophetic books, Habakkuk reads as a conversation between the prophet and God. The prophet begins the conversation with a complaint:
“O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me, strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted” (Hab. 1:2-4).
God answers his prophet by stressing his sovereign, providential work in these matters, using the Babylonians for his own ends (1:5-11). But Habakkuk has more to say:
“Are you not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One? We shall not die…You who are of purer eyes that to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (Hab. 1:12-13).
Habakkuk’s complaint centers on the question of how a good and just God can allow sin to run rampant. But before God responds, Habakkuk ends his prayer with an important statement:
“I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint” (Hab. 2:1).
God spends the entire second chapter defending his actions in light of Habakkuk’s complaints. Then in chapter three, the prophet responds to the LORD:
“O LORD, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O LORD do I fear.” (Hab. 3:2)
Habakkuk outlines with poetic, colorful language the ways in which the LORD deserves and demands the fear of all men (3:3-15). Then he turns back to himself:
“I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait or the day of trouble to come upon people who invade you. Though the fig tree should not blossom, not fruit be on the vines…yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places” (Hab. 3:16-19).
In contrast to Jonah’s roar against God, how is Habakkuk’s discontent more like a “cry of faith?”
Habakkuk, unlike Jonah, did not take issue with God’s character but attempted to reconcile it with what surrounded him. There is a marked difference between trying to understand God’s character and rejecting it. Habakkuk all along confesses and believes the truth of who God is. He simply cannot interpret current events in light of those truths.
Habakkuk, unlike Jonah, made a concentrated effort to hear from God. After a second complaint, Habakkuk “takes his stand” and anticipates God’s answer with open ears. He expresses his complaint not to blow off steam, but to hear and understand. His posture is one of patient humility, especially towards the end of the book.
Habakkuk, unlike Jonah, makes his ultimate trust and joy in God known. Again, we are not exactly sure how Jonah’s story ended. But we do know how Habakkuk’s ends for sure. After conversing with God and hearing from Him, Habakkuk expresses his fear of the Lord and the joy of trusting him despite circumstances.
I’m sure Habakkuk still had questions, and still could not yet understand everything (after all, a god we can fully grasp is one we have invented). But despite those lingering questions, Habakkuk was able to serve and follow the LORD with a whole heart of faith.
WHEN GOD MAKES US ANGRY
Can we rightly be angry with God? Based on what we see in these accounts, it depends on what we mean by “angry.” If our anger speaks ill of who God is, prevents us from opening our ears, or turns a blind eye to how small we are in his presence, we tread on dangerous water. The sun went down on Jonah’s anger, but that doesn’t have to be true for us.
There is a kind of discontent with God that drives us to pray. Oh, may those prayers be soaked in humility, faith, and joy! Wouldn’t it be so like our Father to put things along our path for the sole purpose of growing us in these ways?
Zach Barnhart lives in the greater Austin, TX area with his wife, Hannah, and their daughter, Nora. Zach serves as Pastor of Students and Spiritual Formation of Northlake Church. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University and is in pursuit of a Master of Theological Studies degree from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow Zach on Twitter or check out blog.