Joel Cohen
Joel Cohen

If you don’t believe in God, you can’t get angry at Him

If you believe in God, sincerely seeing God as having a capacity and desire to control everything that occurs in real time, there’s a lot to be angry about — pretty much always! One is remiss to not affirmatively acknowledge that truism.

And so, people become angry at God all the time. A totally human reaction. They don’t articulate it when praying in synagogue, and they frequently don’t acknowledge it aloud. They certainly don’t say it as Yom Kippur approaches – crunch time, to be sure, in the religion’s calendar.  After all, as a gladiator in the Coliseum one certainly wouldn’t want to tell Caesar seated with his thumb extended as he contemplates your fate, that you’re angry at him. A very poor strategy indeed for living a longer life, especially if one believes the party line that Yom Kippur is indeed a make or break point.

Too human? Too mundane? Yes, but many people think that way. Indeed, the entire concept of an annualized book of life is a very human construct. One certainly doesn’t find a “Book of Life” described or even mentioned in the Written Torah. The founders of what has morphed into Rabbinic Judaism  – that is, the Pharisees (not God or Moses)  – likely envisioned a thumbs “up” or “down” motif on the part of God as the best means to inspire tshuvah.

Although it has worked reasonably well over time, it still doesn’t give solace to the individual whom God has angered when she experiences a horrible event in her life. Say, one has been met with an overwhelming personal upheaval for which there is no comprehensible rationale – e.g., a dread disease or a devastating hurricane. She sincerely believes in God, but disdains employing the robotic reaction that “God had a genuine purpose for all this in His grand scheme that we humans simply can’t fathom.” So, she is effectively reduced to being angry. Very human, but we are human!

If we’re unwilling to accept the kneejerk that “God is great and knows better than we do,” we travel to the undeniability that God Himself embedded in us a host of human reactions, some to deal with personal crises. As a paramount example, God frequently became angry with the Hebrews in the desert. So if, for example, God was angry at Moses for hitting a rock rather than speaking to it, why can’t I become angry at God when I’m only forty years old and irreversibly dying of COVID; when my teenage child dies in a car crash; or when my house and possessions blow up in a tornado?  After all, God directed us in no uncertain terms to emulate His Ways. Not meaning to be cynical, will Elijah the Prophet be able to explain why “anger” is not one of those “Ways” for us as well when he walks the earth to herald the coming of the Messiah.

Somehow, amazingly, Job, a favorite son of God, did manage to forgive God for making a wager with the devil – my God, gambling with the devil? – having visited upon Job incomparable and incomprehensible suffering designed to prove that God is essentially more powerful than the devil.  If we are to believe in the spiritual value of that story — in which Job initially became angry with God — doesn’t it tell “believers” who are met with personal disaster that anger is acceptable for them too? After all, it’s hard to passively, without hostile emotion, accept the reality that oftentimes “the good die young” or that “bad things happen to good people” if one envisions God as an “All Powerful and All Merciful” being.

Every relationship is fraught, at least sometimes. Often it’s the reason why hermits, unable to abide human interaction, withdraw from it altogether. Many of the rest of us ease the anger stemming from a painful relationship by “venting” directly with the antagonist, sometimes friends or family.  On occasion, the encounter takes an aggressive, degrading or even nasty turn.

A “relationship” with God is obviously different. Still, it’s impossible to believe that God can do everything (as many do) and not be disappointed, even angry, when (it seems) that He dropped the ball, struck out, or even simply allowed the game to proceed without His involvement, allowing bad things to happen to good people or worse, made it happen.

It’s really, though, at the end of the day, about how addressing the anger manifests itself. Primordially crying out to God may work for some. But “talking it out” with God? Despite what some preachers might tell us, He never really responds overtly, except in our imagination. So do we express our anger by cursing God; eating a ham sandwich; dispensing with prayer; flouting His Laws to convey to Him our hostility over what He has done, or enabled, or allowed?

Everyone expresses anger in their own way, but saying to oneself “I’m simply not allowed to be angry at God” because it’s sinful seems unrealistic, and not human. Of course, one can simply “divorce” God, unilaterally ending the relationship altogether, no longer having to be concerned with being angry with God.  But is there value in that?

Interestingly, on Yom Kippur we don’t say an ‘Al Chayt’ for having been angry at God during this past year. While anger at God certainly isn’t formally “countenanced” (for lack of a better word), reacting to God occasionally with anger is simply part of “the relationship,” or equation.  It’s how a human being who firmly believes in God is occasionally compelled to deal with the sometimes totally incomprehensible at play in the world – recognizing, necessarily, though, that anger at God can hardly be a default position whenever things seem to go wrong.

Expressing anger to God – importantly, as the title argues – can only occur if one actually believes in God! Importantly, manifesting that anger with respect or due deference, as Job somehow managed despite all, remains a thin needle to thread. It ends up being a lifetime commitment.

Again, we can’t become angry at God unless we actually believe in Him. The adage, however, tells us that there are no atheists in a foxhole. If true, do they too get angry at Him from there?

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.
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