QUESTION: Yesterday our class had a discussion about questioning God and being angry with God. My understanding is that questioning God is acceptable if done with the proper attitude and “heart,” but that being angry with God (blaming God, accusing God) is never acceptable. What say you?
ANSWER: I think your way of summarizing the answer is on target. One place I have discussed this is in my original book on the providence of God, entitled What the Bible Says About God the Ruler (College Press, 1984). This book has a chapter on prayer and providence. It seeks to analyze the various prayers recorded in the Bible, and to present them as a pattern for our own prayers.
The chapter is divided into two parts: (1) Prayer as a response to providence, and (2) Providence as a response to prayer. The latter section deals in detail with prayer as petition; the former deals with four other kinds of prayer: thanksgiving, praise, submission, and complaint. My discussion of prayer as complaint comes close to answering the question posed above. Here is an adaptation of that section:
One form of prayer as a response to God’s providence, found not infrequently in the Bible, is that of complaint or questioning directed to God on account of the painful or difficult experiences dealt to us by providence. This is not to be equated with expressions of doubt or angry bitterness or even hatred toward God. It is rather an honest questioning, born out of finitude and often despair. It is, as one observer put it, “a passionate wrestling with God, manifested in accumulated complaints, reproaches, and interrogations.” It is a sincere cry for God to make plain the promise of Romans 8:28.
We are not surprised to find this kind of prayer on the lips of Job. He addresses God thus: “Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. Am I the sea, or the sea monster, that You set a guard over me?” (7:11-12). “Will You never turn Your gaze away from me, nor let me alone until I swallow my spittle? Have I sinned? What have I done to You, O watcher of men? Why have You set me as Your target, so that I am a burden to myself?” (7:19-20). “Why then have You brought me out of the womb? Would that I had died and no eye had seen me!” (10:18). “Why do You hide Your face and consider me Your enemy? Will You cause a driven leaf to tremble? Or will You pursue the dry chaff?” (13:24-25).
There were times when the Psalmists felt deep distress that caused them to utter similar complaints to God. “Why do You stand afar off, O LORD? Why do You hide Yourself in times of trouble?” (10:1). “How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart all the day? How long will my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God” (13:1-3). “How long, O LORD? Will You hide Yourself forever? Will Your wrath burn like fire? . . . Where are Your former lovingkindnesses, O LORD, which You swore to David in Your faithfulness?” (89:46, 49).
As Habakkuk observed the depths of wickedness and injustice to which God had allowed his people to sink, his heart was filled with questions concerning this state of affairs: “How long, O LORD, will I call for help, and You will not hear? I cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ yet You do not save. Why do You make me see iniquity, and cause me to look on wickedness? Yes, destruction and violence are before me; strife exists and contention arises. Therefore the law is ignored and justice is never upheld. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore justice comes out perverted” (1:2-4).
God’s reply—that he was going to correct the situation by sending the Babylonians upon his people for punishment—stirred up even deeper questions in Habakkuk’s mind. “Why do you look with favor on those who deal treacherously? Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they?” (1:13b).
After the Babylonians came, Jeremiah was confronted with the spectacle of Jerusalem besieged and destroyed; and he echoed Habakkuk’s questions after the fact: “See, O LORD, and look! With whom have You dealt thus? Should women eat their offspring, the little ones who were born healthy? Should priest and prophet be slain in the sanctuary of the Lord? On the ground in the streets lie young and old; my virgins and my young men have fallen by the sword. You have slain them in the day of Your anger, You have slaughtered, not sparing” (Lam. 2:20-21).
Probably the most significant example of this type of prayer is found in Psalm 22:1-2, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; and by night, but I have no rest.” This is significant because Jesus quotes these words while hanging in agony on the cross: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). This shows the reality of his own human nature and of his suffering, but it also shows that this kind of prayer is not an improper response to providence when it is spontaneously wrenched from a pious heart in the midst of great distress.
What is most important is to see that the prayer of complaint and questioning is never the final response to providence for the believer. It is fleeting and momentary, yielding to the dominant expressions of trust and submission as seen in other prayers in the Bible—most notably in Jesus’ own prayer in Gethsemane: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39).
Just as Jesus’ prayer of complaint was the echo of David’s prayer in Psalm 22, so is his prayer of submission an echo of David’s prayer in Psalm 31, from which Jesus drew his final words from the cross: “In You, O LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be ashamed; in Your righteousness deliver me. . . . Into Your hand I commit my spirit; You have ransomed me, O LORD, God of truth. . . . But as for me, I trust in You, O LORD, I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in Your hand” (Ps. 31: 1, 5, 14-15).
Even though the above examples show that complaint is a valid kind of prayer, it is not essential part of our prayer life and is probably an exception for most of us. Whenever we find such prayers on our lips or in our hearts, though, we must make sure we complement them with prayers of submission.