What, exactly, are we to expect from God? What is God’s role in the human experience? What’s a counselor to do when a client is angry at God?
In 2020, 48% of Americans surveyed by Gallup said that religion was “very important” in their life, and an additional 25% said that religion was “fairly important.” Only 27% said that religion was “not very important” in their life.
Among the 73% who answered that religion was very important or fairly important to them, there are undoubtedly a variety of beliefs about what a person should expect, or not expect, from God. Those deeply personal expectations can be dynamic as they are shaped throughout the life span, evolving and changing over time.
As a licensed clinical mental health counselor trained in Christian thought and faith-based counseling approaches, I’m used to my clients coming to my office with a range of definitions for faith, religion and spirituality. They come with varied beliefs and assumptions about God. These have typically been shaped by family tradition, religious institutions, influential friends and thought leaders, their own singular experiences and interpretations, or by any combination of these factors.
I recognized early in my career that people sometimes become angry at God when there is a discrepancy between their expectations and their experiences. I was already an ordained minister when I went into counseling, but I knew that I needed more training to be effective with faith-based concerns. So, after receiving my master’s degree in community counseling, I earned a doctorate in Christian counseling so that I could help people work through issues of faith and spirituality.
Clients usually come to me because of something painful and unexpected: any kind of loss; a misfortune; an untimely death; a miscarriage; a broken marriage; a sick child; an economic or job-related crisis; an abuse, assault or robbery; a health crisis; an injustice; a natural disaster; or any other traumatic event you can imagine. Clients suddenly feel that their situation — or even their life — bears the imprint of a rubber stamp: “Goodness Denied!” It brings about an unnerving discrepancy between the individual’s expectation of a loving God and their lived reality.
Why it’s hard to talk about anger at God
When a person experiences a crisis or traumatic event, the initial feelings — sadness, anger, disappointment, fear — are typically about the event itself. Other powerful emotions often reflect existential questions about God’s role in their situation. Was God present (abandonment)? Why was this allowed to happen (confusion)? Then there are questions about their own feelings. Is it OK to be mad at God? Are they allowed to feel this way?
Depending upon a person’s beliefs, the thought of being angry at God, an all-powerful transcendent being, can seem rather taboo. The very mention of God suggests authority — an ultimate moral authority. So, to be angry at God can seem irreverent or sacrilegious. It may be an anger that is easy to feel but terrifying to verbalize.
Clients with a spiritual or religious worldview may come to therapy afraid of being judged for those beliefs in the same way that they fear being judged by factors such as race/ethnicity, economic status or sexual orientation. It is a sensitive area because spiritual or religious values reflect the principles upon which a person makes decisions that govern their life. Those values reflect a moral compass that provides direction for one’s views, perceptions and choices. Counselors are bound by our professional codes of ethics to respect the diversity of religious and spiritual positions held by clients. We are to regard those spiritual beliefs as elements of cultural diversity, requiring a commitment to cultural awareness and sensitivity in our counseling work.
The painful questions
When crisis strikes, a person may tend to question God’s goodness. “God is good. What happened to me is not.” Did God cause the crisis? Why didn’t God prevent it? Why is God always loving to everyone but me?
A 2010 Baylor University Religion Survey project suggested that a person’s expectations of God are determined by their answers to two questions. First, is God involved or uninvolved in human affairs? Second, is God benevolent and merciful toward humanity, or is God judgmental and critical toward humanity? The model that came out of this study suggested that the aspect of religion that is most relevant to a person’s mental health is the nature of their relationship with God. It’s a matter of how people see God relating to them.
Baylor University’s Paul Froese and Christopher Bader described this in their 2010 book, America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God — And What That Says About Us. They asserted that regardless of our religious tradition (or lack thereof), Americans worship four distinct types of God. First, nearly all Americans believe that God is loving. But there are significant differences in the way people view God’s involvement and God’s judgment in the world. The study said that some Americans (31%) believe in an authoritative God who is more engaged and more judgmental. Others (24%) believe in a benevolent God who is more engaged and less judgmental. There are also those (16%) who believe in a critical God who is less engaged and more judgmental. The last group represents people (24%) who believe in a distant God who is less engaged and less judgmental.
The Baylor model has provided me with a useful paradigm for case conceptualization. When I see clients who are angry at God, it is typically because of a discrepancy between their experience and their expectation. The characteristics that they ascribe to God no longer make sense. On the other hand, when their situation is consistent with the extent to which they believe God engages and judges the world, there is less tendency for cognitive discrepancy and anger at God.
In therapy, I give the client space to vent their anger. The way the client explains why they’re angry at God provides insight about which profile they ascribe to God. That profile essentially forms the underlying beliefs that get explored in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).
When the person’s complaint against God stems from something that God failed to do or failed to provide, it suggests that the person expects God to be involved in and benevolent toward the situation. They may be angry at God for neglecting to provide protection from a tragedy, for denying something that they expected to receive or for failing to heal a disease. This is inconsistent with their expectation of a benevolent God who is kind, merciful, compassionate and protective. A major cognitive discrepancy then exists.
Although people generally perceive God to be loving, some clients may question why God seems to not dole out punishment or judgment for wrongdoing. These clients may describe dismay because they expected some execution of justice, yet it seems that God is allowing someone to “get away with” something. This departs from their expectation of an authoritative God who is engaged and who also judges and punishes sin without delay. “Why did God not bring that party to justice? Why was I unjustly denied while someone else was unjustly allowed?” they ask.
Clients who believe in a distant God will see God as being uninvolved with today’s world. They may believe that God created the world through a kind of cosmic force, but they see God as now being removed from that world and simply observing from afar. For them, God set the world in motion but has remained unknowable and perhaps even mysterious. This belief suggests that God may not be paying much attention to mere mortals. When tragedy comes — to good people or to evil people — there are absolutely no answers from God. God exists, but not for the sake of involvement.
Clients who see themselves as having created their problems may expect to go through life hopelessly. They often believe that a critical God allows punitive misfortune and is not engaged in the business of bettering human conditions for those who have morally failed. This leads to low expectations about improvement in their situation.
So, while religious activities such as prayer and regular attendance at services have been the traditional measures of religiosity in Western culture, Froese and Bader suggest that those behaviors have little effect on someone’s reported mental health. The study found that people who believe their troubles are the result of God exacting judgment because of sin have higher levels of anxiety, paranoia and compulsion than those who believe in a caring, engaged God who will help them cope with life’s challenges.
When counselors understand a client’s image of God, they have an opportunity to explore and invite reflection upon that person’s internal beliefs and thoughts. That can be helpful to counselors in health care and disaster response because many painful issues give rise to the question of “Why me?” The most effective way of answering that question is from within that person’s view of or belief in God, not by trying to change that person’s belief (unless the person is ready to challenge their own belief system).
A cognitive behavioral response
CBT involves the exploration of underlying beliefs that form the foundation of a person’s thoughts, feelings and subsequent actions. The Baylor study’s typologies of God in America offer four different cognitive beliefs that clients may subscribe to. Cognitive discrepancy is present when two cognitions are experienced as conflicting. One example comes from a client who said, “God is good and brings good things to our lives, but what happened in my life is not good.” Another client grieving a series of miscarriages said, “The womb is for giving life; my womb only gives death.” These statements reflect emotionally painful discrepancies between these clients’ expectations and their experiences.
People will naturally seek information that is congruent with their beliefs. However, when their emotional pain becomes too great, they will also try to engage in dissonance reduction by avoiding information that is incongruent with the belief they want to hold on to. When they cannot find a way to retain the belief, they may abandon their faith completely.
An alternative approach: Creation-Fall-Redemption
In my practice, clients who come from Judeo-Christian traditions have found the following reframe particularly helpful for taking God out of the four boxes. In this way of looking at problems, clients can consider and develop a theology of suffering that normalizes their pain and gives them an alternative lens for their situation.
Creation: The sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity begin with the story of how God created the earth, everything in it, and humanity. At each stage of Creation, God paused and said it was good. God gave permissions and parameters to the man (Adam) and woman (Eve). As long as they followed God’s plan, life was blissful. They were warned, however, that operating outside of God’s permissions and healthy parameters would start a cascade of difficulties throughout the whole earth and throughout all generations. This disobedience would add the knowledge of evil to the good things they already knew and disrupt the harmony of the entire creation.
The Fall: The second stage in the human experience was an unfortunate one, as Adam and Eve both went beyond the limitations that had been set. This is commonly referred to as “the Fall” (of humanity). Artists often portray this event as the eating of an apple, but that seems to just be artistic interpretation. The important thing to realize is that the consequences of this event introduced into the world three sources of problems: moral evil, natural evil and human limitation.
Each of these represents a different source of pain that all of humanity is unfortunately destined to experience because of the introduction of evil into the world. Moral evil includes all of the selfish human choices that bring harm to others or to our world: violence, greed, assaults, etc. Natural evil includes those things that bring destruction and devastation beyond our control: health issues such as sickness, disease, infertility and miscarriages, and atmospheric conditions such as destructive weather, earthquakes, pestilence and accidents. The third category, human limitation, includes restrictions on our capabilities, which we call weaknesses, and our now-limited life spans, which we call death.
Clients benefit from being able to categorize their problems. They long to know how to interpret them, and often, God has seemed like the only one to blame. Instead, clients can choose at least one of these three categories for every problem known to humanity. If they subscribe to a Judeo-Christian belief system, they find the answer in the very beginning of the history of humanity, in the context of a faith that they already believe in.
Redemption: Can something good come out of this? Is there any comfort to be found in this pain? If the effects of the Fall cannot be immediately reversed, where is hope? For clients looking for an answer within the Judeo-Christian tradition, redemption is found in one’s faith — in the belief that God will not leave the world forever in the condition that sin left it in through the Fall.
There are different symbols for redemption that depend on the faith belief system of the client. I often ask clients what redemption means for them in the context of their faith. Some find comfort in knowing that God’s love is available to them no matter how painful their situation and that God is lovingly walking beside them through the worst of times. Others may speak of present opportunities to turn their painful experience into something positive by helping others. Many Christians will speak of Jesus’ resurrection. Still others describe a sense of eternal justice that is yet to be understood here on earth.
In this way, God is seen as being with them in their pain but not as the cause of their pain. The key point is that clients examine their discrepant beliefs and find a way to reframe their tragedy or pain into beliefs that empower them with resilience. With that, they can more easily resolve the cognitive discrepancy without letting go of the faith that they hold dear.
The cognitive behavioral inquiry
The process of exploring which of the four God types the person subscribes to and then introducing a Creation-Fall-Redemption alternative involves a basic cognitive behavioral approach. Here are some key talking points for the cognitive behavioral process.
Identification of beliefs
- Identify the spoken and unspoken beliefs about life, suffering, God, people, etc.
- Explore where those beliefs came from.
- Discuss the expectations that are held in those beliefs.
- Identify the client’s thoughts about this particular situation.
- Explore any incongruence, inconsistencies or dissonance between beliefs and thoughts.
- Identify the form of evil in the client’s situation: moral evil, natural evil or human limitation.
- Name the emotions. (What’s the individual’s history with that emotion?)
- Determine if there is a need for forgiveness of self or others. If so, ask the client to choose whether they’d like to act upon that.
- Encourage the client to determine how to use the anger or other emotions constructively.
Sample questions for cognitive behavioral processing
Socratic questioning is a valuable tool in CBT. This method is especially useful with the sensitive issues of spirituality and religion because counselors must approach this topic without judgment about the client’s beliefs or values. The best questions are open-ended, focused, concise and neutral. Questions such as these can be used at any appropriate point in the process described above.
- What would change for you if you could see God being as angry about this injustice as you are?
- How would it be for you if you knew God was as saddened by your loss as you are?
- What would you like the fruit of your pain to be?
- What if you didn’t need to figure out how you’re supposed to feel or supposed to act?
- What if your situation is a result of a fallen world rather than a fallen God?
Diagnosis and treatment planning
What about a billable diagnosis? What about measurable treatment goals? Counselors often avoid religious and spiritual discussions in therapy because they need a billable clinical diagnosis for third-party payers. Rarely, however, does a client initially state their presenting concern as anger at God. That’s mainly because it feels taboo and unacceptable to be angry at a Supreme Being. Clients do present with symptoms of depressive disorders, generalized anxiety disorder, adjustment disorder and trauma-related disorders. The billable diagnosis is there.
Specific and measurable goals are found in reducing the frequency and severity of the diagnostic symptoms associated with the disorders. This might include a specific reduction in the number of days when particular symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in functioning. It might include a specific reduction in undesirable self-medicating behaviors each week or a reported improvement in problematic sleep patterns. As the person resolves the religious- or spiritually related anger, issues such as these will often improve. The success in this kind of goal setting is in getting a baseline severity measure and then measuring symptom improvement over time.
Issues of abuse are a clear exception to this CBT approach. When a client’s history involves any form of victimization such as spiritual manipulation or sexual abuse, the counselor must exercise extreme caution. In these cases, trauma-informed care and trauma-specific interventions are more appropriate than CBT interventions.
Clients of deep spiritual and religious faith may come to counseling at a major life crossroads. The perception of God denying goodness can lead to a real crisis of faith. The tendency to typecast God into one of four frameworks leaves people struggling to make sense of a situation that creates a discrepancy between their expectations and their experience. As counselors respond in ways that help clients clarify their theology of suffering, we can also help them cope effectively with present and future problems.
LaVerne Hanes Collins is a licensed clinical mental health counselor, licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor. She is the owner of New Seasons Counseling, Training and Consulting LLC, where she develops in-person and virtual continuing education (CE) training for licensed counselors on issues of race, faith, culture and trauma. Her web-based CE training on CBT for clients who are angry at God is available at: http://bit.ly/3tqfMGu. Contact her at DrCollins@NewSeasons.training.
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
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