Angry with God: Trusting Hope Again
On our journey to help our grief to become unstuck from the anger phase, we have learned a great deal about ourselves and how we experience emotions. Growth does that. Growth results in us getting to know ourselves more clearly and accurately. We increase our ability to name and understand our experience so we can bring those experiences to God more openly. The same thing will be true as we explore trusting hope again.
When we’ve been through something painful enough to create a rupture in our relationship with God, it is not just our relationship with God that is damaged. Experiences of this magnitude, when negative, cause us to mistrust hope as much as we mistrust God. Those are not the same thing.
Mistrust towards God is mistrust towards the character of a person. Mistrust towards hope is a more generalized fear of being disappointed again. When we mistrust hope, it is hard to trust God or anyone else. We begin to treat any positive expectation as if it is threat. Part of restoring our relationship with God is getting to the point that we no longer view hope and gullibility as synonyms.
This distinction warrants a bit more exploration. We have lived with a felt sense of the distinction between mistrusting a person and mistrusting hope all our lives. Countless times in our lives we have disappointed ourselves, experienced pain because of it, began to be highly pessimistic, and become highly cautious towards the notion that things could ever be better again.
Maybe you failed a test, studied hard for the next one, and yet, even after being adequately prepared had a hard time believing you would do well on the next test. Perhaps you went into a slump in your sport of choice, practiced hard, improved your skills, yet still went into the next game highly pessimistic. Another example would be getting hurt in a relationship, identifying the red flags you missed, but still struggling to trust the next nice person who didn’t have these red flag character qualities.
These are examples of struggling to trust hope (i.e., the possibility that the future could be good again) after facing an experience of pain. It is not that you mistrusted a person: the teacher who said you were ready for the test, the coach who commented on your improvement, or your friends who affirmed the character of the new potential dating partner. You mistrusted hope. But this mistrust of hope impaired those other relationships: with your teacher, coach, and friends. That is the dynamic we are trying to navigate in your relationship with God.
If we had to pick a word that accounted for this allergic reaction to hope, it would be risk. We want to be certain that things will be different this time. We don’t want there to be any margin for error. Our standard for the probability of success we demand is so high that it is suffocating to our emotions and paralyzing for our choices. But hope involves accepting some degree of risk, and that’s why we avoid it.
This calls our attention to another aspect of anger; anger made us feel impenetrable. In our anger, we cut ourselves off from anything or anyone that requires trusting hope. This makes us feel safe, but at the cost of being lonely. High caution towards hope became a significant part of the wedge between us and God even as God wanted to comfort us in our suffering.
Grief has been healthily processed when we can have a realistic optimism about the future again. This realistic optimism requires that we become less suspicious in our relationship with trust. We will consider a five step process to restore our relationship with trust that summarizes and extends the journey we’ve been on.
5 Steps Towards Trusting Hope
Step One: Trust begins with honesty. Our entire journey has been about being more honest with God, self, and others. In many ways, honesty is the currency of trust. This is more than a poetic metaphor. It counters a common misconception. We often mistake trust for the positive feeling we expect to have when we’re being honest. Sometimes trust doesn’t feel good.
Let’s stay with the metaphor of currency. Sometimes we spend money wisely and it feels good. Perhaps, buying a loved one a present. Sometimes we spend money wisely and it does not feel pleasant. Maybe, paying off a debt or buying something mundane like insurance. But the more frequently we wisely dispense our finances the more our overall sense of life satisfaction increases (at least in the ways that money can impact happiness). It is true that money can’t buy happiness, but money poorly spent can accrue massive quantities of misery.
The same is true with the currency of trust. Sometimes wise trust feels good; other times it may make us feel apprehensive. But the more we wisely dispense our trust, the more life satisfaction we experience. Treat this like a wisdom principle we find in Proverbs. It is not an absolute rule, but it is a wise life principle.
All of this to say, be as honest about your response to the idea of trusting hope as you’ve been about everything else in this series. Even if that honesty expresses apprehension. Being honest about it – with God, self, and good friends – is itself the initial step in cultivating a healthier relationship with trust.
Step Two: Identify the risk. When we struggle with trust, the natural question to ask is, “What’s at stake?” The simple, honest answer is usually, “I don’t want to be hurt again,” by which we often also mean, “in the same way.” But our mistrust of hope reveals that our fear of being hurt again has generalized beyond just an aversion to being hurt in the same way.
As you reflect on your journey and whatever level of mistrust towards hope you are experiencing, reflect on these questions. Again, some questions will fit your situation more than others. Feel free to just focus on the ones that provide fruitful considerations.
What does your mistrust of hope fear losing?
Where has your mistrust of hope generalized and what does that reveal?
If your mistrust of hope could talk, what would it say?
If you could change one thing to alleviate your mistrust of hope, what would it be and why?
What is your mistrust of hope costing you and what makes the sacrifice seem worth it to you?
Your goal in this step is to be able to complete this sentence, “If I grow in my trust of hope, it will mean being willing to risk [blank].” By answering this question you have changed your answer about what progress means from “feeling differently in uncomfortable situations” to naming the relevant sacrifice you can begin to consider.
Step Three: Don’t over-react by calling folly “faith.” Sometimes when we get clarity, we become too bold. We try to learn to swim in the proverbial pool of faith by immediately jumping into the deep end. We consider it a spiritual version of ripping the band aid off.
Too often, this results in our good intentions producing folly rather than an expression of wise faith. Maybe you tell yourself in advance, you are going to pursue the next dating opportunity that arises or say yes to the next ministry opportunity that presents itself. These things may address the risk you need to be willing to take, but they also are a form of “throwing caution to the wind.”
A better approach is to confide what you need to be more willing to risk with a couple of trusted friends. Commit to be honest with them about the future occasions when the opportunity to take this kind of risk emerges. Invite them to help you assess the opportunity. This helps us not be emotionally reactive in the way we begin to allow trust toward hope to thaw.
Step Four: Realize risk (i.e., faith) is an act of worship (i.e., sacrifice). Risk is inherent in faith. Where certainty exists, faith is not relevant. Similarly, sacrifice is inherent to worship. Worship that doesn’t cost us anything is just celebration. We see this principle in Romans 12:1, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
This is true in any relationship. When we are in love, we sacrifice time to be with the person we love. When we love our job, we sacrifice other interests to become better at it. When we love a hobby, we sacrifice other interests in pursuit of that hobby. Love (i.e., worship) expresses itself in sacrifice.
In good times, these sacrifices don’t feel like sacrifices at all. It is simply what we most want to do. We often think that worship should only feel like delight. In hard times, these sacrifices do feel like sacrifices. But we say that it’s worth it. It is this “worth-it-ness” that makes these sacrifices acts of worship.
Now we have a process to follow in these five steps.
Articulate the precious things you are cautious about sacrificing.
Vet this decision with trusted friends to make sure it is wise and not just a countermeasure to your natural tendencies.
If it is wise, make the sacrifice of trust as an expression that God is worth it.
If it is not wise, allow this to build your trust as you realize God does not ask you to be reckless as a sign of blind devotion.
Step Five: Make the sacrifice without trying to “have your cake and eat it too.”This is where we often get stuck and want to think that, with God, we shouldn’t really have to make sacrifices. We think that faith in God is not a fresh college graduate paying rent to their parents for a year after college and the parents are putting that money away to give back to the child as the down payment on their first house.
Sometimes this does happen. We sacrifice and God blesses us in ways that feels like it more than offsets the sacrifice we made. It is wonderful when this happens. But if that is what we expect to happen, we become transactional in our relationship with God. We begin to think God failed us, let us down, or broke his promises if it doesn’t happen.
Consider, as one example, Paul’s sacrifices of trust as he planted churches. Many of these sacrifices resulted in legitimate hardships: illness, shipwreck, broken relationships, and jail. At many points in time on these journeys, we might say that Paul’s return on these sacrifices wasn’t more blessing than hardship. Paul was honest about this. He acknowledged this his despair was sometimes as dark as we would imagine. Paul also wanted people to know that these sacrifices were “worth it.”
Consider Paul’s words in II Corinthian 1:8-11. These words are an example of the kind of honesty and testimony you have been cultivating on this journey.
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.
Take heart in the reality that God inspired one of the most passionate Christians of all time to record his testimony about struggling to trust hope, to believe that the sacrifices were “worth it.” God knew we would need testimonies like this so that we wouldn’t think he was absent or ambivalent towards our seasons of hardship like this.
Questions for Reflection
What are examples of how you have seen a mistrust of hope become generalized in your life?
Which step in the five steps of trust hope best captures what you are working on right now?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled Anger with God: Grappling with God Amidst Life’s Greatest Pains and Betrayals.