Over the years, a number of Catholics have approached me and spoken about a special kind of anguish. They start by sharing that they have been going through a time of great distress. They add that they are suffering, and it is tearing them apart. But, then they confess that what bothers them most is not the suffering itself but their response to it. They dislike the way that they are dealing with it. They admit that in their turmoil they have complained to God and even become angry. In fact, they disclose that they have even threatened to turn away from him. And, in their heartache, they will say things like, “I feel so awful. I am a bad Christian.”
My response in these situations is not to scold but to try to provide comfort and reassurance. I often respond, “You are not a bad Christian. You are a hurting Christian. Your behavior says more about your pain than the quality of your faith.” Then, I try to point out that they are not the first believers to go through that kind of experience. In fact, I point out there are many notable and honorable people of faith who have acted in the same way. In particular, I often point to a well-known Biblical figure, a man named Job.
In the beginning of the book that bears his name, Job is described as an upright man, someone who has honored God and avoided evil. He is quite prosperous, and thus he is considered blessed, one of God’s favorites. Yet, the tide turns on Job. He undergoes epic tragedies.
Seven of his sons and three of his daughters are killed when a great wind collapses the house where they all are dining.
Then, the wealth and livelihood of Job are taken away. There are 500 yoke of oxen and 500 donkeys, which are carried away by marauding Sabeans. Following that, there are 7,000 sheep, which are struck and killed by lightning, and 3,000 camels, which are seized by raiding Chaldeans.
After that, Job’s health takes a turn for the worse, as he becomes afflicted with a severe case of boils, which run from the sole of his feet to the crown of his head.
Then, if things are not bad enough, his own wife and four of his friends approach him in order to chastise him. Instead of offering words of comfort, they accuse him of doing something wrong to offend God and bring suffering upon himself as a consequence.
In response to such devastation and suffering, Job cries out from his torment, complaining about the futility of life. He compares it to being a servant saddled with hard labor for little pay, feeling like a slave forced to endure the harshest of conditions. Life is without hope, he concludes. It races by like the swift shuttle of a weaver, racing back and forth endlessly – ultimately ending without any meaning or purpose, much like the vaporous nature of the wind, blowing by and vanishing.
By making this reference, I try to reassure these distressed Christians they are not alone. Like Job, there are other good and pious people who have stood in their shoes.
And yet, my struggling friends often don’t find consolation in that comparison. They are critical of themselves in terms of their lack of faith. They say, “But, I still feel bad. I feel terrible about the disrespectful things that come out of my mouth. Instead of berating God and blaming him, I should be turning to him in prayer.”
Which prompts me to respond, “Well, maybe, in your own way, you are praying. Perhaps, in some symbolic way, your anger and complaint actually are an expression of your faith. Think about it: don’t we often – when we are dealing with our deepest struggles – turn to those who mean the most to us? Don’t we sometimes speak most candidly in language that sometimes is most intimate and intense, because we know that we can trust them? We know that we can be ourselves, because they will accept us as we are – even with our faults and imperfection. So, ultimately, your turning to God in your anger and complaint really is your way of saying, ‘Lord, I am hurting so bad that I don’t know where else to turn. I have to turn to you, whom I trust more than anyone.’”
I do make a recommendation to those dealing with such anguish, however. I suggest that they make a more conscious effort to translate their raw emotion into a more intentional form of prayer. In that regard, I often direct them to the example of the Book of Psalms.
The Psalms should be familiar to most Catholics from our regular use of them in the Mass. Almost all of our Responses to the First Reading of the Liturgy come from this Book from the Wisdom texts of Scripture. What some might not know, though, is the fact that there are different “types” of Psalms. That is, there are different styles or genres among the 150 contained in our Scriptures. All of the Psalms are prayers, but they have different form or intention. There are Royal Psalms, which highlight the special calling of the King as the agent of the Lord. There are Wisdom Psalms, which are more introspective and invite instruction on the path of God’s righteousness and justice. There are Psalms, which are hymns that offer praise for the wondrous deeds of the Lord. There are Thanksgiving Psalms, which express gratitude for the Lord’s goodness and confidence in his continued benevolence.
Yet, the most prevalent form of the Psalms are called the Psalms of Lament. Nearly one-third of the Psalms take this form. It is the genre of the Psalms of Lament that I refer to when encouraging people in pain to more consciously translate their raw emotion into a more direct type of prayer.
The Psalms of Lament are not that different from the expressions of anger and despair articulated by Job in his story. They give expression to very intense feelings of suffering and misfortune, with heart-felt pleas for deliverance. Often, the Psalmist holds nothing back in terms of complaint. For example, Psalm 13, which is identified as a “Psalm in Time of Illness,” states “How long, Lord? Will you utterly forget me? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I carry sorrow in my soul, grief in my heart day after day? Look upon me, answer me, Lord, my God!”
Yet, where the Psalms of Lament inject a more intentional element of prayer often is in their conclusion. Instead of simply ending with an outburst of anger or a cry of despair, they regularly add an expression of trust in the Lord. From the depths of anguish and turmoil, there is a deliberate recognition of faith. Psalm 13, for an example, states, “I trust in your faithfulness. Grant my heart joy in your help. That I may sing of the Lord, ‘How good our God has been to me!’”
Thus, there is no need for those struggling with suffering to “beat themselves up” with additional feelings of guilt about any anger or complaints that accompany their anguish. Personally, I do not believe such anger and outrage are a sign of a lack of faith. On the contrary, it can actually be an expression of faith. In the spirit of Job and the language of Lament, such expressions of raw emotion may actually be the most intense and deepest form of prayer. It is as if one is praying, “Lord, let my expression of pain and anger be a sign of my trust in you. That, in my time of greatest difficulty, I turn to you, my greatest and closest confidant. Please, let the depth of my emotion be a sign of the depth of my faith and love.”