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Elchanan Poupko

Forgiving God After Tragedy

“He will not quarrel to eternity, and He will not bear a grudge forever.” (Psalm 103)

When we feel pain, that pain can become a part of who we are. When we feel this pain and cannot understand it, that pain may end up as anger at God for allowing whatever loss or pain we are going through to happen. We might have a hard time letting go of that anger. This is often something that even people of deep faith who are going through illness or great suffering experience with regard to God. Most famously, these were the feelings of Elie Weisel in the years following the Holocaust. We might feel like there is something we need to forgive God for. We feel like He owes us one. Sometimes we even forgive, but sometimes we don’t. We are often left wondering if there is even a point to forgiving.

After years of harboring these feelings and writing extensively about them, Elie Weisel went on to write an op-ed in the New York Times on the eve of the Jewish High Holidays of 1997. 

Weisel wrote:

“Master of the Universe, let us make up. It is time. How long can we go on being angry?

More than 50 years have passed since the nightmare was lifted. Many things, good and less good, have since happened to those who survived it. They learned to build on ruins. Family life was re-created. Children were born, friendships struck. They learned to have faith in their surroundings, even in their fellow men and women. Gratitude has replaced bitterness in their hearts. No one is as capable of thankfulness as they are. Thankful to anyone willing to hear their tales and become their ally in the battle against apathy and forgetfulness. For them, every moment is grace.

Oh, they do not forgive the killers and their accomplices, nor should they. Nor should you, Master of the Universe. But they no longer look at every passer-by with suspicion. Nor do they see a dagger in every hand.

Does this mean that the wounds in their soul have healed? They will never heal. As long as a spark of the flames of Auschwitz and Treblinka glows in their memory, so long will my joy be incomplete.

What about my faith in you, Master of the Universe?

I now realize I never lost it, not even over there, during the darkest hours of my life. I don’t know why I kept on whispering my daily prayers, and those one reserves for the Sabbath and for the holidays, but I did recite them, often with my father and, on Rosh ha-Shanah eve, with hundreds of inmates at Auschwitz. Was it because the prayers remained a link to the vanished world of my childhood?”

These words of Weisel capture the struggle of the person of faith between the very faith that keeps them alive and is the core of their being and the anger that might result from not being able to reconcile that same faith with the suffering and pain we are going through.  

So how do feelings of anger or forgiveness towards God impact our spirituality and well-being?

My friend Sarah Montana dealt with the question of forgiveness firsthand. At the age of nineteen, her mother and brother were murdered in their own home by a friend’s brother. The fact that Sarah’s mom opened her home so often to this young boy gave him snacks when he needed them, and looked out for his well-being, made this murder all the more senseless and devastating. Late at night, looking for items he could sell for cash, the young teen entered Sarah’s home in Dale City, VA. When he ran into her brother and mother, he panicked, pulled his gun, and shot them. 

For seven years, Sarah saw this teen as the villain of her life. After several years of walking around with anger and resentment, Sarah realized that the only way she could detach herself from the murderer and move on to lead a happier life was to forgive him. 

I had the opportunity to share a stage with Sarah Montana in New York City when I gave my TEDx talk warning about the consequences of growing political polarization at the same event where she gave her talk on the power of forgiveness. I was taken aback by how she had managed to transcend the horrors of her youth, overcome the heartbreaking experience of seeing her mother and brother being killed in their very own home, and move on to be a kind, gracious, and forgiving person.  

Forgiveness is one of the most difficult concepts in theology and human psychology. As 20th-century writer Norman Cousins put it, “Life is an adventure in forgiveness.” Yes, many studies show that forgiving others is good for our emotional well-being, reduces anxiety, and clears our minds, but many of the foundations of forgiving humans do not apply to forgiving God. 

When we forgive humans, we often do so as a means of disconnecting. Like in the case of Sarah Montana, not wanting to remain connected to a murderer locked up in solitary confinement for the rest of her life, we often forgive so we can disengage. We want to move on. But in the words of American poet Katherine Ponder, we know that “when you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.” Or, on the flip side, as Josh Billings put it, “There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.” In this view, when we forgive, we disconnect; we know that the grudges that we hold are keeping us entangled with those who hurt us, so we choose to forgive and move on. 

When it comes to God, people of faith are not looking for disconnection. Disengaging from God is not our objective. Yes, we are angry. Yes, we are looking for answers. No, we are not looking to disengage. This is why when we talk about “forgiving” God, we are talking about a very different kind of forgiveness; we are talking about forgiveness that forms a stronger connection. This is a forgiveness that is far more difficult yet is far more rewarding than the previous kind of forgiveness. It is much harder to forgive while remaining engaged with someone than to forgive as part of a real relationship.

Another thing that makes forgiving God more difficult is the fact that when we forgive a human, we recognize that they are only human. We recognize what they did could be due to their upbringing, social circumstances, or errors in judgment they may have made. These are not possibilities when it comes to forgiving God. We believe that God is all-powerful, that His judgments are just and right, and that his decisions were not influenced by faulty logic and impulse. So how do we go on to forgive God? How do we move forward from the feelings of pain and even betrayal that we have when feeling overwhelmed by tragedy and difficulty? 

The term “moving forward” should not be taken lightly in this context. To some, moving forward can mean moving forward through the most harrowing circumstances. It can mean outstandingly painful chemotherapy when we don’t know if it will succeed. To others, moving forward can mean learning how to get around without legs or how to operate things after losing a hand. 

Moving forward is not simple and should not be made to be. It can be the most difficult thing a human can possibly imagine. But it is still in our best interest. Moving forward and forgiving in the context of anger at God is most similar to overcoming a fight with someone we love and want to continue loving. In loving relationships, we realize that we value the relationship too much to let it go because of an argument. This happens with parents, siblings, and spouses all the time. Both parties may think they are correct. They recognize they are at an impasse. Neither side will get up and say, “Sorry, I was wrong.” But there is also a recognition that life must carry on. We recognize that our relationship and shared life are too valuable to allow lingering arguments to impede the trust and love we would prefer to have, so we move on. 

This is the kind of forgiveness that is essential when we talk about God and “moving on.” During the times we struggle, there is one person for whom we should be looking out: ourselves. 

It is at times we need our faith most that we need to let go of the past most. Times of difficulty are times to ask ourselves what resources can help us move forward in healing and productive ways. Holding grudges is not one of those ways. 

This is how I read God’s answer in the biblical story of Job (see Chapter Six). Job was told that God created a vast and complex universe; everything has a reason and meaning behind it. The reason was not for Job to worry about at this time. Job was to worry about moving forward. The moment he accepted that, things began to improve. The same is true with regard to forgiving God. Our feelings of being wronged are legitimate. Not because God was wrong and we are right, but because there is always legitimacy to the human dissatisfaction with suffering. If that was not legitimate, then there would be no doctors, no medicine, no psychologists, no exercise, and healthy food. We would just accept our fate. God does not want us to be satisfied with pain and suffering. And so, our anger and frustration are valid no matter what. But even after that, there comes a time when we must look forward with determination and say, “Now is the time to move forward.” 

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, Case Western, and the State University of New York researched this topic and wrote a fascinating paper called “When God Disappoints: Difficulty Forgiving God and its Role in Negative Emotion.” They write :

The idea that people can become disappointed, frustrated, or angry with God has received considerable attention in the popular religious press (e.g., Dobson, 1993; Kushner, 1983; Yancey, 1977, 1988), where it is often framed as a response to traumatic events. Not only does anger at God seem to have the potential to damage one’s spiritual life and relationship with God, but it might also have important associations with psychological distress. For example, anger at God has emerged as a ‘red flag’ in recent research on religious coping (Pargament, Zinn-bauer et al., 1998), where it has been linked with poor mental health and poor coping outcomes (see also Pargament, 1997; Pargament, Smith, Koenig, & Perez, 1998).

The researchers went on to study the impact of forgiving God and the links it had with our emotional well-being. What the researchers found was fascinating. Forgiving God is good for our own emotional well-being. This article and others highlight the impact our feelings toward God can have. Remaining angry at God increases our own anxiety and anger at others. Furthermore, the same researchers also point out that:

Difficulty forgiving God was found to predict anxious and depressed mood within a college student sample, and its contribution was independent of difficulties forgiving the self and others. Two psychological factors emerged as central in explaining the link between difficulty forgiving God and negative emotion: an angry disposition and feelings of alienation from God. Also, among those who currently believed in God, forgiving God for a specific, powerful incident predicted lower levels of anxious and depressed mood. These findings suggest that an unforgiving attitude toward God is a distinct type of problem with forgiveness, one that serves as a potent predictor of negative emotion.

The power of forgiveness went both ways. Not only was there a negative impact on participants’ emotional life when they did not forgive, but there was also a powerful positive impact when participants did forgive God for something they were angry about. Sure, it was natural for everyone to feel an initial feeling of anger when something bad happened to them. 

Forgiving God is not something that is simple or easy to achieve. It may take several attempts. It may take a long time. But is a mission we should take on ourselves—for our own good. Who else had to take this journey? Moses. After Moses’s first mission to Pharaoh had failed, Moses speaks to God; clearly, he is very frustrated. The Bible shares the account in the book of Exodus:

So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me? Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people, and You have not saved Your people.”(Exodus, chapter 5)

Moses was angry at God. Rabbi Bahya Ibn Pekudah, in his commentary, suggests that this anger was inappropriate and showed a lack of faith, but Moses was human, and so are we. Would it be ideal if we were all on a higher spiritual level and felt no anger at all? Probably, but we are not. We are not angels. Our feelings do get hurt. We are human.

Another example of great spiritual figures experiencing initial feelings of anger is the case of King David and Uzzah. David decides to bring the holy ark containing the tablets Moses got at Sinai to his new capital city: Jerusalem. In the midst of the excitement and festivities, the ark almost falls off the wagon and Uzzah does what he is forbidden to; he reaches to grab the ark and return it to safety. As if right out of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, Uzzah dies immediately. 

And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him down there for his error, and there he died by the ark of God. And David was angered because the Lord had made a breach upon Uzzah; and he called that place the Breach-of-Uzzah, unto this day. (Samuel II chapter 6)  

David was angry. The verse says it! He couldn’t understand why God would punish Uzzah for doing something out of goodwill. David is angry enough for the text to share it with us. It is an important piece of information. Yet, at the same time, it is also important we know that David maintained his relationship with God until, eventually, he moved on. 

To better understand how such forgiveness of God is possible, we need to look to forgiveness models in the context of human relationships. American author Bryant McGill is probably most famous for his saying, “There is no love without forgiveness, and there is no forgiveness without love.” Anyone in a loving relationship knows that for love to exist, there must be forgiveness. No, this is not forgiveness that comes out of an apology, nor forgiveness that comes from understanding the other person is right, nor forgiveness that comes from understanding that one day we will understand; it is forgiveness that comes from realizing that this relationship is just too important to be so tainted by anger and resentment. It is the kind of forgiveness that parents show their children, spouses to each other, and close friends to one another. It is not forgiveness that fosters disconnect. It is the opposite. This forgiveness is forgiveness that creates the deepest bond possible. The greater the forgiveness, the greater the future relationship. It is not what some call “dismissive forgiveness,” nor is it conditional. It is forgiveness that values a relationship recognizing the relationship is more important than anything else that happens within it. 

Rabbi Y.Y. Jacobson made a profound observation. It is common to hear a child tell its mother, “Mommy, I hate you!” or “Mommy, I never want to talk to you ever again!” It could be after the mom chose not to buy the child candy while checking out at the grocery store or telling the child not to fight with another child. We are not surprised when less than a minute later, we see the very same child cuddled up in its mother’s arms, all hard feelings gone. Children can say the harshest words to their parents—or to each other—but then move on very quickly to a warm and loving relationship. 

And adults? Well, we’ve all seen that. When adults fight—even with mild words—it can take years or even decades for those scars to heal. Cold words can result in breakups, divorces, or even violence, all resulting from the smallest words. Why? Why is it that children can go from saying the harshest things to someone to being their best friends in less than a minute, while adults cannot?

Rabbi Jacobson explained this very simply: children want to be happy, while adults want to be correct. If a child tells their father, “Dad, I hate you and never want to see you again,” they can be in their father’s arms less than a minute later because the child wants to be happy. Children value relationships and that those bring them happiness. There is no ego involved, nor is there an insistence on being right. 

As adults, though, we grow to insist on being right. We learn to insist that what we say or think be followed through—even at the expense of our happiness. When we forgive in a connective way, we are choosing happiness over being right. Not because we think we are wrong but because we recognize that some truths are bigger than others. When having a fight with their spouse over who will wash the dishes, most people will choose to spend the ten minutes washing the dishes over, insisting that it was not right or that “well, I washed them last night!” It doesn’t matter. The desire for a loving and positive relationship trumps the truth of who really ought to wash those dishes. 

That is what happens when we forgive God. We feel passionately that we don’t deserve what has happened to us. We are terribly bothered because we also believe “The deeds of the [Mighty] Rock are perfect, for all His ways are just; a faithful God, without injustice He is righteous and upright.” (Deuteronomy chapter 32). And so, we are enraged with questions. “Why me?” “How could that happen?” “Look at so many people who are leading such decadent and evil lives and yet have wealth, health, and prosperity, while I suffer. Why me, God?” 

Despite these legitimate feelings of outrage, we also need to recognize we have a relationship to carry on with. We have lives to lead. We need to do our best to cope with and recover; we must rise and fight whatever the difficulties we are facing are—and we are best off doing so with God at our side. When we forgive God, it does not mean we assume we have all the answers we want; it doesn’t mean we are even letting those questions go. It does mean we are putting everything on the back burner and moving forward. On some bright days, we may get answers, but we may not get them either. Either way will not hinder our progress. 

In a paper titled Why Forgiveness May Protect Against Depression: Hopelessness as an Explanatory Mechanism, researchers found there is a powerful correlation between our ability to forgive and our levels of optimism and hope. While being angry at God is not an ideal we look forward to; it does provide us with the opportunity to forgive and reap the benefits of that forgiveness. Researchers of this study also found that the more we forgive ourselves, the more we can forgive others. Interestingly, they also found that the more we forgive others, the more we forgive ourselves. Forgiveness is a two-way road. Forgive others, and you will forgive yourself. Forgive yourself, and you will forgive others. An interesting observation I heard from Dr. David Pelcovitz is that the Hebrew word for forgiveness (Machal) is the same word for circle and tunnel. All these words show reciprocity. Forgiveness is something that leaves an impact in both directions.  

Forgiveness and grudges have real power; this power can also be used for the better. When we hold a grudge against God, which often has the power to drag us down, when we forgive, it can help lift us up. It can help us forgive ourselves as well, and we often end up needing it. At times of suffering, people all too often rush to blame their physical or spiritual selves for what had happened. This is a time we need to learn how to forgive ourselves—and God.  

True, it is much harder to forgive God—or ourselves— than almost anyone else. The legendary British poet William Blake wrote, “It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” The difficulty we have in forgiving God comes because of our closeness to Him, not despite it. And yet, we owe it to ourselves to forgive. Not to disconnect, to forgive. No matter how angry we are at God, nothing will change about who God is. If we don’t forgive, we will feel wounded. 

Forgiving God is a fundamental step to our personal spiritual-somatic recovery. 

In the terminology of Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, forgiving God moves us from being reactive people to being proactive people. It moves us from the mindset of being the helpless targets of God’s wrath to recovery-focused individuals seeking God’s partnership in moving forward. This is not to simplify the complexity of the issue of theodicy (the question of how bad things happen in the world of a good God). The ease of stating the importance of forgiveness compared with how difficult it can actually be is almost like the size difference between a grain of sand and an entire planet. It is however an attempt to un-simplify the flipside of the issue.

A fascinating study conducted among HIV patients explored their perceptions of God and recovery rates. Researchers found that:

[A] positive view of God predicted significantly slower disease-progression … whereas a Negative View of God predicted faster disease-progression over 4 years. Effect sizes were greater than those previously demonstrated for psychosocial variables known to predict HIV-disease-progression, such as depression and coping. Results remained significant even after adjusting for church attendance and psychosocial variables (health behaviors, mood, and coping). These results provide good initial evidence that spiritual beliefs may predict health outcomes.

This is a study very much worth reading in full as its implications are so powerful. The way we believe in God can affect our health more than depression and other health factors. Seeing God as benevolent, forgiving, loving, and kind gives us the strength to power forward. It allows us the energy to overcome illness and even drug abuse and depression. I would like to argue that what is physically true in this study is also spiritually true. If we believe that God is somehow out there to get us, if we believe that He is “teaching us a lesson,” our chances for spiritual growth are pretty low. Even if we feel a sense of self-righteousness and spiritual grandeur at the time, our very own spirituality is being hurt by such beliefs. Believing in a good God allows for our spiritual growth as well.

Another study that highlights the relationship between how we perceive God and how we are doing found that the way we perceive God is directly mirrored in our self-esteem and self-image. If we see God as loving, kind, and benevolent, then we see hope in ourselves. We see ourselves as people who have another chance. We see ourselves as people who can have a mighty comeback and who are destined for a good future and success. If, however, we see God as punishing, vengeful, and angry, then we are more likely to be pessimistic and grim about ourselves as well. 

How we view, God matters. It matters a lot. It matters physically, and it matters spiritually. When God appoints Saul as the king of Israel, Saul is young and still working for his father. He is very humble. While going on a journey to find the donkeys that his father had lost, the prophet Samuel informs Saul that he will be the next king of the people of Israel. Not what you expect when you go out searching for donkeys. 

Saul responds with utter shock: 

“Am I not a Benjaminite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? and my family the least of all the families of Benjamin? Now, why have you spoken to me after this manner?” (Samuel I, chapter 9) 

Seems like a healthy and humble attitude. Later on, at the end of his career, Saul makes a mistake that will forever change his legacy; Saul violates the will of God. Saul is negligent in following God’s instructions to carry out war against the Amalekites. When asked about why he didn’t follow God’s will, Saul says he was pressured by the people not to follow the instructions he was given. The prophet Samuel responds to Saul with powerful words we should repeat to ourselves each and every day:

And Samuel said, “Even if you are small in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? And the Lord anointed you as king.” (Samuel I chapter 15) 

Humility should never be the door out when we have a calling. At times of challenge and sickness, we can be depressed. We can dismiss ourselves by saying, “God must have punished me,” an easy way to despair and call the quits. At this time, more than ever, we need to remind ourselves we matter. We matter a lot. There is no other creature in the entire universe, with its trillions of variations, like us; that this is why God wants us in this world. We must not project our own negative feelings onto God, nor should we project our perceptions of why God is doing this to us on ourselves. 

Does all this mean anyone has the moral authority to tell a young parent who lost their loved child that they need to forgive God? Of course not. Do these studies imply that there is anyone who can tell a beautiful girl in her twenties who has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and whose dreams and vision have been shattered in front of her eyes that she must “try and forgive God”? Of course not. Do all of these arguments amount to even implying there is anyone who can go tell a firefighter who lost all of his friends on 9/11 that he should “just move on” and forgive God? Of course not. There is no one with that moral authority. What can be done, however, is to make this information available to those who encounter unparalleled theological questions. 

Now more than ever is the time to let ourselves know that there is a loving and compassionate God who wants us to roar back at whatever it is that we are fighting and say, “I will not give up!” Times of illness and pain are the most difficult ones to do so. These are the times we want to throw the blanket over our heads and give up. In times of pain and frustration, we may give up on God, but by doing so, we often we are also giving up on ourselves as well. 

The danger is obvious. Times of hardship are not times in which we can afford helplessness. Now is a time when we need to climb out of a negative mindset and think about the fight ahead of us. Forgiving God at this time is not enough. This is the time we need to believe that God is our biggest fan—which He is—and remain spiritually connected in the most positive way possible. It is the time we need to say, “God, I don’t know why this happened to me, but I do know that you want me to succeed. I know you want me to fight. I know you want me to do better and better. I also know that you created me and that you love me.” With that, move forward. 

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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