It was my second Sunday in the pulpit of my new church. About an hour before I went across the driveway to the church, the phone rang in the parsonage. I lifted the receiver and heard the voice of the treasurer from my previous church asking if I was sitting down. I knew something bad must have happened, but I wasn’t prepared for the next words out of her mouth. “Bainbridge Church is on fire. It’s burning to the ground!”
Somehow, I managed to fulfill my pastoral duties that morning. My new congregation put themselves into the shoes of the other church and graciously granted me a few days off to help tend to the needs of my previous flock who was awaiting the arrival of their new minister in two weeks.
The Smoldering Church
The day after the fire, I stood with my arms around a snowy-haired saint as she wept in anger, frustration and pain beside the smoldering ruins of her church. Amid the desecrated cemetery behind the smoking hole in the ground lay the overturned headstones that had marked the final resting place of her beloved husband and his parents—graves she had faithfully tended daily for six years.
When she finally raised her tear-streaked face from my shoulder, I saw a look of mixed bewilderment and defiance. When she spoke, it was with the forthright honesty I had come to know and love in this dear child of God. “Rev. Linda, I have a confession to make. When I first heard about the church, I was shocked and hurt. But then, I got mad. I shook my fist at God and shouted, ‘Where were You, God? Why did You let this happen? Why didn’t You stop them?’”
A Deadly Disease
As she hung her head in guilt and embarrassment, I thought of others who expressed similar feelings in different situations. I thought of how our family had felt just a month earlier when a dear friend died of liver cancer. Never sick a day in her life, just months previous a lump in her breast had led to a mastectomy. Assured they “got it all,” she had gone back to teaching after Christmas. A seemingly persistent flu bug sent her back to the doctor after Easter. Diagnosis: inoperable carcinoma of the liver. Three weeks later, she was dead. Those in the school system where she taught, in the church where she worshipped, and in her family shook fists at God and demanded answers.
In my first pastorate, a phone call early on Saturday morning sent me rushing to the hospital. A fifteen-year-old boy, nursing a three-week old bruised shoulder, had just been wheeled from surgery. Diagnosis: bone cancer. Prognosis: three months to a year to live. His parents, sister and three brothers shook their fists at the Almighty and demanded, “Why?”
Chemotherapy brought a remission. One month. Two. Three months. Then, the demonic disease returned and in less that four weeks, he was gone. The church and community had already lost three other young boys in as many years. Collectively they raised clenched fists to the heavens and cried out for clues to the whereabouts of a loving God.
Our Own Questions
I doubt there is a person here today who has not experienced similar feelings of frustration and anger at some of the seeming inconsistencies of life and faith. When the security of family and home is ripped apart by misunderstanding, unfaithfulness, separation or divorce, adults and children alike rail against heaven. A diagnosis of an incurable illness in a loved one or in ourselves may cause us to flex our fingers and consciously or unconsciously storm the gates of heaven. A senseless death, a tragic accident, and inexplicable action like the deliberate torching of a church and vandalism of a cemetery, or the mass murder of innocent children sparks a feeling of rage and injustice that are not easily pacified by glib comments or pat answers.
Decades ago, there was a television commercial that ended with a clap of thunder and the quotable stamen, “It’s not nice to fool Mother nature.” Most of us have a similar thought when we feel anger rising in our spirits toward the Creator and Governor of the universe–“It’s not nice to get mad at God.”
Down through the centuries of Christianity, we have unconsciously learned, or been deliberately taught that a “true Christian” does not lose their temper, and CERTAINLY not at God! We tend to believe that when our world tumbles in, all our hopes and dreams shatter like fine crystal on a cement floor, that the “Christian” thing to do is to emulate the prophet Job. In the face of losing everything he held near and dear, maintained his composure and declared “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.2
Even Disciples Did It
In my attempt to find some kind of comfort for the guilt and embarrassment of my elderly friend who had lost her church home to arsonists, the Lord confirmed something I had long suspicioned to be true—it’s OK to get mad at God. Fist-shaking does not negate your faith; it merely confirms your humanity. The psalmist verbally, if not physically shook his clenched fist at the Almighty any number of times.
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?3
Surely the Israelites, the chosen ones of God, did more than their fair share of fist-shaking! Periodically slaves, often defeated in battle, frequently under the tyrannical rule of a foreign power, they often felt deserted by Yahweh.
The followers of Jesus, no doubt, had their fist-shaking moments, too. When their beloved Teacher and Master was hauled before the Sanhedrin on trumped up charges, they were furious. The suspicious, disbelieving high priest engineered His death, which outraged the disciples! When the One they believed to be the Messiah died a criminal’s death on a cross, I am certain at least one of them shook his fist at the darkened sky and screamed, “Where are You, God? Don’t You care?”
Even Jesus Himself, in His time of deepest agony and despair, unable to clench His fist because it was nailed to a cross, cried out My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?4
It’s OK To Get Mad at God.
Fist-shaking does not mean you don’t believe. It means you don’t understand. It is not an indication of hypocrisy. Rather, it is an evidence of humanity. Fist-shaking is an honest expression anger, frustration and helplessness. In a sense, when we shake our fist at God, we are praying for wisdom, understanding, guidance and the power to accept what has happened or is happening.
Yes, there are some things that are had to accept. A stroke or heart attack that leaves a once strong body paralyzed or seriously weakened, the discovery of an incurable or untreatable disease in a young husband or wife, the sudden death of a child, the deliver burning of a church, a physical attack on an elderly or handicapped person, the mass execution of children…
Proof That God Will Still Love Us
We can’t begin to understand such things, so how can we accept them? The psalmist, I believe, gives us a clue in the final two verses of Psalm 13.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.5
This is not the same as Job’s statement of seeming resignation.2 Rather, it is like Paul’s statement of faith as recorded in 2 Timothy, I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that He is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to Him.6
For the psalmist and for Paul, when the tragedy is past, the weeping has ended and the fist-shaking is over, God is still God…and God is still good. In spite of the tragedy, regardless of the current trial or tribulation and no matter what the momentary anger that causes you or me to raise a clenched fist to the heavens, God is still in control. Our past experience has proved that–if we only pause, as the psalmist did, to reflect upon the fact that God has indeed dealt bountifully with us in the past. More importantly, after all is said and done, God can, and will, use any and every situation, good or bad, to strengthen us and enable us to strengthen others.
The distress or trial or heartache that causes us to storm the gates of heaven with clenched fist is not always within God’s PERFECT will for His people. But, we are imperfect people living in an imperfect world. Many of the tragedies and much of the anguish we suffer is a result of that sinful imperfection.
The Clenched Fist Will Change
If we can remember, as Paul wrote to the Romans that all that happens to us is working [ultimately] for our good if we love God and are fitting into His plans,7 If we can hold on to the truth that no temptation [or trial or tragedy] has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful and He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide a way of escape that you may be able to endure it… 8 If we can hold on to those truths, then the clenched fist raised in anger will become a hand raised in victory.