“Al the time, God is good. God is good, all the time.” This familiar little phrase that we repeat in churches and retreats enculturates us with two notions: 1) that God is defined by being good, whatever we mean by the word “good,” and 2) that this goodness is consistent, unchanging. This, and other similar liturgical practices, have a way of training the way we think about God. If God is good, then we should never feel any disapppointed, angry, frustrated, scared, or any other negative emotion towards God.
But this not the precise Biblical confession about God. If we were to look at the Psalms, for instance, we wouldn’t see an emphasis on God’s “goodness.” Furthermore, whenever God’s goodness is mentioned, such as Psalm 145:9, it doesn’t necessarily mean what we mean by “good,” as the definition of good varies depending on the context.1 When we use it referring to God, however, we tend to think of “goodness” as either a moral goodness, in that God never does anything wrong or as a normative statement of how we should experience God, as if we should only think and feel positive things when it comes to God. This type of language about God’s goodness has a tendency to lead us into either a moralism or a feel-good-ism. In other words, we either see God’s goodness in terms of ontology and metaphysics or in terms of psychology. Unless we have developed a sensitivity to words and ideas that allows fluidity of usage, the idea of goodness does not enculturate a sense of relatedness and interdependence between God and us as people.
However, the language about God in the Psalms is more explicitly relational, as it pertains more to the notion of faithfulness, commitment, and love. The psalmists express a confidence in a relational God who is faithful, who is in relationship to psalmist and to Israel. God is someone who the psalmists look to in their lives, who they worship, praise, celebrate, complain, express confusion, etc. Why? Because they believe that God is a faithful God, who has brought much good to them and who will help them in their times of distress. They don’t get into some metaphysical notion about the universal nature of God’s actions or some universal statement about their own experiences of God. The Psalms do not express “this is a wrong thing to feel about God or others, so I should change what I feel to get it right.” Rather, the Psalms are an open expression of one’s calling for God’s action and their understanding of God’s action and inaction. There is a refreshing honesty, an openness and intimacy with God, where masks are not worn before God, who already sees the heart.
What is one of the markers of intimacy? Being able to express oneself openly to someone, without fear of punishment or judgment, but that what will be received will taken without damaging the relationship, because one does not intend one’s expression to be a representation of how one views the relational bond and one is confident this will be how the comments are received by the other party. So, in the bonds of a close, loving relationship, a person may express negative feelings about something the partner did or did not do. But isn’t this a contradiction, to think both good and bad about your partner?
Not at all. Our affective life is a complex reality, where we have emotions that are responding to specific situations, moods that determine the general tenor of how a person feels over an extended period of time, and attitudes that tend to persist and not change dramatically from one instant to the next. We can have positive attitudes towards someone, and yet have negative emotions at a specific moment towards them. IF I am someone who is well-grounded, then my attitudes will form as the result of many different experiences I have with someone, and once the attitude becomes strongly formed by many interactions, the attitudes we have towards people will not dramatically change from one moment to the next, even if emotions do change. These attitudes built from repeat experiences have a way of influence the shape our emotions take in response to events. A false incrimination from someone you have a strongly formed loving attitude towards will lead to a different sort of anger than if the false incrimination comes from someone with whom you have an ambivalent or negative attitude towards. Attitudes do not control our emotions, but they do help shade and color them.
Ever heard the phrase “I love you, but I don’t like you right now.” This is an expression about the ambivalent experience where we have negative feelings towards someone but positive attitudes towards them. Essentially, our attitudes are the most prevailing emotional response and expectations we have about someone or something. If I love and trust someone, then my natural tendency when I think of or am around that person will be positive emotions and optimistic expectations. But, if there is a moment where the person does something that doesn’t match my expectations, it may generate negative emotions within me, such as disappointment, anger, etc. in response to their actions. However, when those negative emotions have subsided, the positive attitude towards someone will lead them to feel positive and warmly about that person again. In other words, well-formed positive attitudes of trust and love towards someone allow for the person to experience negative feelings, but yet for the general feelings about that person to be positive.
This is the precise pattern we see in the lament psalms, where the psalmists bring their complaints to God. They express the littany of emotions they have, but once the complaint and plea has been expressed, their expressions go back to a positive expression of God’s faithfulness. The positive attitudes the psalmists have is accompanied with the expression of negative feelings in the bonds of intimacy that such a love, trust, and optimistic expectations bring.
But our attitudes about God in the modern world, built around metaphysics and emotional experience, do not readily allow for such expressions. Instead of allowing the honest expressions of our feelings about disappointing and painful life circumstances and the God who we trust and believe is powerful enough to change them, we have a predilection to engage in a form of “spiritual censorship” of our experience, where either mask our feelings or fence of certain feelings when it comes to God.
Sometimes this is the result of beliefs that God is a God whose anger is on a hair-line trigger, that if you say something the wrong way just one time, if you make one single mistake, God will be angry at you. This notion of an insecure God is neither Biblical, as Israel learns that God is slow to anger in Exodus 34, nor rational, because God is powerful enough so as to not be threatened by others as people can be. Sometimes, this is the result of our objectification of God. With objects, our emotions and our attitudes tend to match, because objects are evaluated solely in terms of how they function in regards to our immediate, in the moment expectations. It is rare that we experience ambivalence towards an object, but we tend to have either a simple positive or negative views of objects. So, when we objectify God because our instruction about God has tended towards abstraction and theological systematicity, we have trouble allowing for the experience of both positive and negative emotions without it altering our attitudes about God. Sometimes, this is the result of knowing God simply as an idea that we know only through an accumulation of knowledge, and not a God who we relate to over the course of time; thus to be angry at the idea of God creates an untenable ambivalence with the idea that God is good that leads us to denial and/or rationalization.
But, if we recognize and act on the faith that God is faithful, that God is slow to anger, that God is a personal being, and that we relate to God rather than simply understand God, the existence of anger is not a threat to our religious or spiritual life. Rather, it is the realization of the most authentic, most intimate, most mature form of relationship one can have with someone. It is a type of relationship that can be hard to have with others, as our own insecurities, our own fears, our own objectifications, hinder and prevent us from both giving and receiving from others the truth of who we are and what we have experienced. And that is okay, because the reality of human relationships can be tough, as it can sometimes be hard for those who have been deeply hurt to distinguish people we should trust from those we should not. But I will say this: if you can’t be honest with God, who can you be honest with? If the idea of honesty with God threatens you, then ask yourself the question: are you a person attached to your masks? Or, are you a person who does not actually relate to God as a faithful, slow to anger, personal being?