I would never tell my grandmother, God bless her, but I quite abhor some Christian bookstores. When I step into them—big fancy ones anyway—I feel like I have suddenly entered a strange and airy world full of blinding blasts of plastic brightness. Posters of overly made-up faces with their gleaming peroxided teeth hound me across the store. From marriage and self-help to devotionals and music, simulated cheer is everywhere. It gets me bothered. Is this all Christianity is, I wonder? A bunch of candy-assed grinning goofs?
Okay, they are not all like that. And thank goodness. Those of us who live in the real world where, you know, horrific things happen, recognize it takes more than a cheerful attitude to fix them. When a dear friend experiences a terrible loss, we do not nauseate them by offering happy claptrap; that’d be vile. They are feeling the heavy opposite of joy, so shouldn’t our responses match? Ecclesiastes anyone? Specifically, the “time for anger”?
Whatever our theology, most believing folks suspect that prayer actually does do something. But need prayer always be formed with the same type of attitude we sometimes see in blingy Christian bookstores: airbrushed, perfect, and with nary a sign of anger, or any other discomfited emotion in sight?
Enter Ian Punnett’s prayer-provoking book, How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God. I thought that title most refreshing.
Punnett, an Episcopal deacon, radio host, and journalist, asserts that Christians are in dire need of “authentic, dimensional, and emotionally mature” prayers. And, of course, “emotionally mature” encompasses all emotions, including anger. As he points out, “There are many ‘praise psalms’ in the Bible, but there are even more psalms of anger, lament, and fear.” Isn’t that a breath of fresh air for those of us who aren’t feeling only happy? Furthermore, as Punnett goes on to explain, “Many of us who were brought up in traditional religious households were taught that the only time we should ever raise our voices to God is in songs of praise. To do anything else, we are taught, would be blasphemy, right?” Absolutely and categorically no.
Punnett believes God is more than okay with us getting angry. One reason is psychological. As he sees it, true transformation takes place when we are open with ourselves and God. Furthermore, harboring anger toward another person or God is scientifically unhealthy; Punnett even handily explores the connection between pent-up anger and ill health in one chapter of this book. Another reason is that God has hardwired in us the response of getting provoked to anger when we see injustice. This is not to say that all infuriation is righteous, but if anger wells up inside us when we see wanton maltreatment toward our fellow humans, then it definitely is. Punnett assures us, “If you aren’t mad about something, you’re probably not paying attention.”
Whether we’re praying for a loved one, a persecuted minority, or for our own selves in times of despair, we should know we are following the example of biblical heroes when we question something that isn’t right. So Punnett reassures us that it’s okay to be mad. Our prayers don’t have to be sweet and flowery. In fact, as Punnett explains, the Bible is not shy about using rather harsh words—the apostle Paul using the equivalent of $h#! and God using the F word, for example. (Yes, you read that correctly.) David, the man “after God’s own heart,” doesn’t feel the need to mince words when praying. Take, for example, Psalm 22—previous to the pretty and famed twenty-third—in which David essentially asks God, “Where the hell are you?” during a difficult time in his life. This is gritty interaction between a person who is unafraid of actually approaching God. David is wondering where the trustworthy God disappeared to. This is real. And for Punnett, God is more than okay with it. Moreover, Punnett points out that God didn’t seem to take offense, either, when Moses or Job stood up to Him. Scripture is, in actuality, full of whiffs of ire from praying people. And these expressions of frustration come not only from humanity, but from God as well. Jesus, for instance, asks the impossible, “Why have you forsaken me?” If Jesus can ask such a question, we can too. God is that big!
Punnett has even made some creative templates. One favorite is titled “An angry prayer for the victim of bullying by more popular kids.” Here are a few lines:
Listen up, God, as I voice my complaint;
protect me from the tyranny of the popular,
from the morality of the cool…
from the kids who cover over their failings by exploiting others.
I do not feel attractive…
The tyrannical cool spit in my food,
They tripped me and stripped me
and made me look foolish in the locker room…
The Lord hears the pleas of the nerdy
and does not despise those held captive by bad skin, teeth, and hair
Another is “An angry prayer for a victim of corporate greed.”
Hear me, O God, as I voice my complaint;
protect my life from the threat of the greedy.
Hide me from the conspiracy of the powerful,
from that cunning crowd of corporate a$s#oles
who rob even while portraying themselves as hapless victims who should be pitied!
They sharpen their legal tongues like swords
and aim their words like deadly arrows
at the hardworking, the retired, the powerless.
They ambush the innocent, making empty promises of shared prosperity..
God will turn their own tongues against them.
While peppering his work with heartfelt stories and creative psalms like the ones above (many from his experience of being a chaplain), Punnett does not instruct on how to pray or with what words. What he does do is tell us to be open and honest with God, even if it feels irreverent. There is, after all, no wrong way of praying through your anger except to not pray at all. He shows us that we need to concern ourselves more with actually engaging in the process of sharing with God than in being prim and proper. For Punnett, “If you aren’t saying something, you aren’t saying anything. And God IS listening.”