Too many people believe that faith, especially during illness or tragedy, functions as an opiate. In this model, spiritual care consists of counseling people in appalling situations to accept God’s will, preferably in attitudes of meek submission. Maybe that’s why so many of the ER patients I visited poured out heartrending tales of pain, terror, and disability, only to conclude, “But I know it’s all God’s plan.”
I was never sure if they really believed this, or if they thought it was what the volunteer chaplain wanted to hear. In any case, my response was always, “Maybe so, but you don’t have to like it. You’re allowed to be angry.” I often quoted a Lutheran minister I know, who observes that “raging at God is a form of prayer.”
A great deal of my work in the ER consisted of calming people down, but if I suspected that patients were putting on a brave front for the chaplain, I gave them permission to drop it. Maintaining a front takes energy that sick or injured people can’t spare. I also believe that one of our core spiritual tasks, whether we’re sick or well, is to define our faith in our own words, rather than defaulting to Hallmark platitudes. “It’s all for the best.” “This is just a test of my faith.” “God won’t give me anything I can’t handle.”
One of my favorite bumper stickers says, “I know God won’t give me more than I can handle, but I sure wish She didn’t trust me so much.’” I often shared that line with patients; they almost always laughed, clearing the air for a more honest conversation.
I encouraged patients to acknowledge their anger for several reasons:
Anger is an unavoidable aspect of grief, and unresolved grief never made anyone feel better. Any loss, including a loss of health, needs to be grieved fully; only then can the mourner move on. Refusing to recognize or express anger, paradoxically, keeps us stuck in it.
Patients who refused to get angry were often acting from fear. As children, too many of us learn that anger is unacceptable, that it will make people -- incuding our parents -- stop loving us. And some churches teach that anger at God is a sin. “God is not going to abandon you if you yell at Him,” I told patients. “God’s big enough to take it. You can’t hurt or injure God, but you can hurt yourself by trying to hide from God.” Yelling at God and not being struck by lightning -- discovering that the Creator’s love is indeed unconditional, however baffling the current plan may be -- can be profoundly freeing.
My Christian tradition defines sin as separation from God. What separates us more from the Divine: fighting with it, or refusing to engage at all? I sometimes told patients, “I meet quite a few people who feel abandoned by God because they’ve walked away. Let’s say you’re mad at a friend. He calls you to talk, but you hang up because you don’t want to hurt his feelings by getting angry at him. Which of you has cut off the relationship? Any marriage counselor will tell you that in healthy relationships, people argue. A relationship with God is no different.”
All of this raises the thorny issue of theodicy. Why does God allow pain and suffering? When patients asked me that question, I said, “I don’t know. We’re all going to have a lot of questions when we enter the presence of God. The important thing’s to stay in honest, authentic relationship in the meantime. Remember Job, howling on his dungheap? His friends didn’t approve of his behavior, and he didn’t get very satisfying answers to his questions. ‘I made whales and you didn’t’ really isn’t an answer. But Job kept raging. He stayed real and he stayed in relationship, and God didn’t abandon him.”
Once, near the end of my time in the ER, I visited with an elderly woman about to enter hospice. Her daughter was her primary caregiver. We talked about end-of-life issues, and I said, “None of this is easy, and it’s okay to be angry about it.” The daughter, exhausted, had been sitting slumped over her mother’s bedrail. At those words, she sat up and gave me a startled look.
“Really? It’s okay to be mad?” Later, she followed me out into the hallway and clutched at my arm. “Thank you. Thank you for giving me permission to be angry. You have no idea how much I needed that.”
“You’re welcome,” I told her. “You have no idea how many people I meet who need exactly the same thing.”