Over coffee this morning, my good friend admitted that her Core Faith Question had recently changed from “Is God Real?” and “Is God Good?” to “Is God Abusive?”
Then we got into one of my favorite rants, about worship songs that are triggering and abusive. My friend described sitting in church and wanting to scream at lyrics like, “I surrender to you,” or worse, “Take All of Me.” New rule: If you don’t want your daughter saying it to her boyfriend, you shouldn’t be singing it to God.
I suggested we could write some worship songs for the stages of faith when we’re not all sweet and cuddly with Jesus. Songs like, “Holy Living God, Fuck the Fuck Off,” “Spirit of Life, I Might Try Buddhism Instead,” and “O Christ My Savior, Don’t Call Me, I’ll Call You.”
This conversation with my friend reminded me of what my Human Growth professor once talked about, probably the last thing I will ever forget from a class that was all around unforgettable. He connected Winnicott’s theories on childhood aggression to our relationship with God as adults. Winnicott observed that children, usually in toddlerhood, try to “destroy” their parents through their rage. A child’s angry tantrum is essentially a question: Can I make mom/dad go away? Will they withdraw from my anger or punish me for it? Or can they withstand my anger? Winnicott wrote that if a parent “survives” a child’s rage without “retaliating” (through punishment, withdrawal, or breaking down), then the child can begin to “make use of” (trust, learn from, follow) the parent.
My professor believed that this theory also applies to our relationship with God. We cannot really “make use of” God until we know—experientially, not intellectually—that God can handle our biggest rages. And I don’t know about you all, but my friend and I agreed this morning that our rage can get really, really big.
Most good pastors and spiritual leaders that I’ve met do acknowledge that “God can handle your anger.” I mean, okay, even that’s pretty rare. A lot of us make it half a lifetime going to church without even hearing that anger is acceptable. But I’ve been lucky. I’ve known for a while that “It’s okay to get angry at God.” The problem is, I’ve only ever heard it as an intellectual concession. There’s no room for the actual experience of rage. The songs we sing and the sermons we hear and the liturgy we recite all give the message that anger and rage and doubt are okay in theory, but not in church.
In contrast, the experiences of love and gratitude are very welcome at church. We allow people to raise their hands, and feel their own voices vibrating with words about “joy” and “awe.” But we try to contain those who wonder whether God is an abusive tyrant, the people who sit quivering with anger throughout the worship set. We give them left-brain maps for how their journey will end and they won’t be so angry. If we’re really kind, we tell them that it’s okay to feel that way. But in my ten years in Christendom, I don’t ever remember being given songs and words for grieving at God, for telling God that I’m gonna go have sex and do coke, motherfucker, go ahead and send your lightening if you don’t like it.
Oh, you don’t think that’s pretty close to what the prodigal son said on his way out the door?
Even the promise that God can handle your anger is, in a way, belittling to the experience. Because when a child yells “No!” or “I hate you!” she has no guarantees. She has no mental model yet that Mom will not be destroyed, not retaliate or withdraw. It’s a gamble… the child puts her self on the table, not knowing whether she’ll get it back, or whether the dealer plays with much better odds. A pastor’s promise that God will survive our attempts to destroy him makes it’s hard to live into our present rage. And if we aren’t given the tools to embody our rage (the way we are helped to embody our love), then the concession that “It’s okay to get angry at God” becomes just another church-thing that makes us feel crazy. Because wanting to piss God off and destroy God is a felt experience, an embodied experience, not a theoretical one.
Back to my conversation with my friend this morning, she quoted one of her own spiritual leaders, her therapist, who told her, “You may need to give up on God for now.” He also said, in response to my friend’s comment that she was still holding on to God with one hand, that “It’d be okay to let go with both hands.”
I’m proud that this came out of the mouth of a therapist, but I also wish more Christians said it. To borrow a metaphor, embodying rage requires all members of the body of Christ. So, I guess I’m not kidding about pissed off worship songs. We need songs, liturgy, sermons, and therapy for our rage. We need food at coffee hour after the service that sustains us, because raging at God is hard work. We need trainers to help us make our body strong enough to express our rage, and plumbers to keep our homes from falling apart while we fall apart, and just lots of friends. We need each other’s help in our attempts to destroy God. And at some point we’ll find out, together, probably repeatedly, whether God can survive us.