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Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Visit us online at faith.yale.edu. This episode was made possible in part by the generous support of Blueprint 1543. For more information, visit blueprint1543.org.
Julie Exline: Even when I was giving some of my initial talks about anger at God, I would have people coming up to me afterward and saying basically, are you sure you should be studying this? There was a fear that there was going to be a lightning bolt coming down for talking about it. Questioning God's authority often leads people more on this path of spiritual decline, at least in terms of your relationship with God. It's more like you're walking out and slamming the door or shaking your fist in God's space in a more aggressive way, whereas asking questions, you know, why did this happen? I'm so upset about this. I can't believe this happen.
Those types of responses can actually be pretty life giving for people if they give themselves permission to do that. People who are able to address the problem but still stay engaged and still be caring about the relationship and saying, I want this relationship to continue, but we need to talk about this. They tend to be the ones who end up reporting more of a sense of having grown from a conflict in their relationship with God, for example, or feeling like their faith has been defect.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. I'm Evan Rosa, with the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Sometimes things go wrong. Your British Premier League football team loses a game. Or maybe your dog eats the birthday party cupcakes. Maybe someone cuts you off in traffic and you, when you get angry, looking for someone to hold responsible for this injustice.
Sometimes things go wrong in even more serious ways. Your kids getting bullied or mistreated. Justice system fails you for someone you love. You're betrayed or deeply hurt by a friend, and you get angry. Still looking to hold someone responsible, tempted to move toward vengeance, and even if you can muster the strength to forgive and absolve, the anger might still persist.
But what about when things go so seriously wrong in life? That questions of meaning, purpose, and sense of existence come under doubt. When there's no human left to hold accountable, do you then turn your eyes to God, the creator of all this who allowed it to happen? You know, "the whole world in his hands" kind of thing?
Have you ever been angry at God? Today we're continuing our series all about bringing psychology to theology with a look at the psychology of spiritual struggles, and specifically a scientific study of what happens when we get angry at God and how we might grow or decline in the wake of it.
In this series, we've been exploring the tools of psychological science. It might contribute to a deeper, greater, more nuanced theological understanding of the world. We started with a conversation between Miroslav Volf and experimental psychologist Justin Barrett. Justin evoked the image of erecting a giant cathedral of theology and how the task must be done with a variety of tools and subcontracted skills, which psychology might offer.
Then we heard from Pamela Epstein King with a developmental approach to thinking about human spirituality, the dynamic nature of human purpose, and how relationships factor in moving from surviving to thriving.
The hope for this series is to highlight the prospects of a science engaged theology and how it might contribute to the most pressing matters for how to live lives worthy of our humanity.
In this episode, Ryan McAnnally-Linz is joined by research psychologist Julie Exline. She's Professor of Psychology of Religion and Spirituality at Case Western Reserve University and author most recently with Ken Pargament of Working with Spiritual Struggles in Psychotherapy: from Research to Practice. Her research has examined forgiveness, humility, and human spirituality, and she's widely recognized for her work and the psychology of anger at God in religious struggles.
In this episode, Julie reflects on the meaning of spiritual struggle as well as the possible outcomes and factors that contribute to a personal sense of healing and growth. She speaks to the anxiety and fear that seem to hover around an expression of anger toward God, dealing with objections and concerns that it's immoral or presumes God to be guilty of wrongdoing.
And she offers practical and insightful considerations in light of the psychological research around what happens when people choose to express their anger at God or not. How different responses of disapproval or acceptance can lead to positive growth or a sense of successfully dealing with the anger. Thanks for listening today,
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Julie, thanks for coming on For the Life of the World to talk about the psychology of anger and its religious and spiritual context.
Julie Exline: Yeah. Thanks so much, Ryan, for having me here and for giving me a chance to talk about these things.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: I was hoping we might start with the broader setting that you place your research and thinking about anger in, and that's the study of spiritual struggles. In fact, you've got a book that recently came out on that subject. What do you mean by a spiritual struggle and how did that research area become significant to you? Why does it matter?
Julie Exline: So when we talk about religious or spiritual struggles, we're basically talking about sources of tension or strain or conflict that people have around religion and spirituality, regardless of whether they are religious or spiritual themselves.
So these could be things like conflicts involving God or feeling like you're being attacked by the devil. Maybe questioning whether your life has any deeper or ultimate meaning, having doubts about your faith, having moral struggles, things like that.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Wow, that's a pretty capacious category.
Julie Exline: Yes. So, there's a lot of different struggles that people experience around religion and spirituality, and I got interested in studying this in part because of my own personal background; I'm somebody who was raised in a very religious home. I think you would describe it as a fundamentalist Christian tradition and had both good experiences and struggles around my faith from an early age. So it's been the life theme for me.
And when I decided to go back to grad school in psychology, which was a career change from computer science, I really wanted to study the struggles that people had around religion and spirituality. And at the time there wasn't very much literature. There was a growing body of work that was starting to show that religion and spirituality can be good for you in terms of making you live longer, giving a source of social support or meaning, and can maybe help with your mental health.
And although that was great work, I felt like the shadow side wasn't getting very much attention. This is in the late 1990s, so in the couple of decades since then, Ken Pargament and I and a lot of other people have gotten into looking at this more challenging side of religious, spiritual life. Not trying to say religion's bad, just saying that sometimes religion and spirituality can be difficult or can create problems.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Is there anything in particular that draws you to those shadows?
Julie Exline: I would say my own personality is one where I often find it more interesting to look at the shadow side of things. You know, if you look at the personality types, the old personality types, I'm considered a melancholy. So I tend to like to look at the dark side of things.
So even when I was doing positive psychology, studying things like forgiveness and humility and altruism, I was always wanting to look at, well, what's the dark side? What are the problems? I think I'm kind of a defensive, pessimist at heart, so I tend to look at, well, even if something is good, what might go wrong with it?
So it's kind of a natural fit for my personality and also something that really fits for me in terms of religion and spirituality because I've had profoundly positive and profoundly painful, and in some cases damaging, experiences around religion. And I know a lot of other people that have too. So I feel like this is something that we really need to talk about.
And I love it because regardless of whether people are currently religious or spiritual or not, most people have some struggles around religion. So it's actually a good conversation starter with strangers too.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: So it's a pretty wide category. There are a lot of different forms of struggle. Are there kind of big picture things, ways that people tend to respond to these struggles that you've found in your research?
Julie Exline: Well, so Ken Pargament's model of how people cope with challenging events around their faith from his 2006 or 2007 book on spiritually integrated therapy I think is really helpful here. So the idea is that we have this baseline set of beliefs, and then challenges might come in, in the form of some kind of a struggle. Maybe there's some religious teaching that you don't agree with, or you have a disappointment in your life and you become angry at God.
There's often an initial impulse to try to conserve our beliefs to try to keep them, so we'll try to fit whatever information is coming in with our existing belief system, whether that's religious or non-religious, or part of a certain faith tradition, or maybe a belief that God is good. We try to fit things in with that because it's easier for us as humans if we can fit things in with our existing beliefs and don't have to make big changes.
But if we can't just modify things or assimilate it in with our existing belief system, then we face this sort of fork in the road where we might choose to try to engage with this struggle in a way that could lead us to maybe approach God or seek spiritual support or try to find ways to grow from it. Or we might enter a state that's more like decline, where we disengage, we are maybe afraid of dealing with the struggle, or we deal with it in a very, maybe aggressive way or a way that sort of pushes the struggle away from us. And we try to just come to a quick resolution like, "okay, so I guess God doesn't exist" or "I guess I'm just gonna stop going to church" or "I guess I'm just going to switch religions."
Sometimes those can be reasonable things to do, but sometimes people can experience this sense of decline if they make choices that pull them away from their whole religious and spiritual beliefs and support systems, and they don't have another good alternative waiting to take its place. People can then feel kind of adrift.
But if they do things like pray, talk to God about the problem, talk to other people about what's going on, especially trusted people who can give them a good perspective, maybe people from within their tradition or people from outside, and try to find some kind of meaning in the situation and an opportunity to grow, a lot of people do that. And they can actually come out stronger on the other side of the struggle with maybe a faith that's a little bit more nuanced than it was when they were going into it.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Out of curiosity, how analogous is that to how psychologists think about our responses to ordinary, interpersonal struggles?
Julie Exline: I'm really glad you raised that too, because let's say that you're talking about a struggle with God or with the church, for example. You could really think of that as being the equivalent of having a conflict with another person. And we actually have some work on how people approach these conflicts with God and it draws directly from work on interpersonal conflict and forgiveness.
So if you're feeling hurt or angry by another person, you have these choices about whether to maybe stay sort of meek and passive and submissive, kind of unassertive. Like, I'm just gonna pretend there's nothing wrong. And a lot of people do that with God, certainly.
Or you could choose to be more assertive, like, I'm gonna stay in the relationship, but I'm going to bring up this problem. I'm going to maybe raise a complaint or ask some tough questions. So in a relationship that might be like where you have a partner where you have a problem, this is where you are bringing up the problem in a constructive way.
Or you could have more of a disengagement response that could either be more passive, as though you're just gonna maybe avoid talking to somebody or pull back and the relationship grows cold, or something that's more active, where you might actually become aggressive toward the person, yell and scream at them, or go out of the room and just slam the door.
So people can behave in these similar types of behaviors toward God or toward a religious community where it's like you're either addressing the problem or not, and you're either trying to keep positive emotion going or not. So you're either trying to keep things smooth or not, and you're addressing the problem or not. So it's definitely very much parallel to how people approach conflicts in their relationships and probably not surprisingly, people who are able to address the problem, but still stay engaged and still be caring about the relationship and saying, "I want this relationship to continue, but we need to talk about this."
They tend to be the ones who end up reporting more of a sense of having grown from a conflict in their relationship with God, for example, or feeling like their faith has been deepened.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: That's really interesting. And we've wound our way around to the area where I'd like to focus... I wanted to bring you on to the podcast so we could talk about being angry at God. Anger and rage, resentment, these really volatile emotions, it feels like they're common, they're in the air these days. There's a sort of general sense of upheaval in public life that anger is a pretty steady emotional reaction to the world around us. And it seems like we need to address that.
And it's particularly interesting for those who believe in God to think about how that sort of emotional reaction, that sort of emotion inflects and shapes a life of faith. And so maybe the first question that my eight-year-old daughter might have when asking about anger towards God is, wait, is that okay? Isn't it bad to be angry with God? When people come to you with that sort of question, what do you say to them?
Julie Exline: Now, I of course, I'm just a human being like everyone else. I'm a psychologist. I'm not the arbiter of whether it's okay to be angry at God, but we do have quite a bit of research on this. So what I can say is that a lot of people, and certainly within the Christian tradition, the more conservative you are, the more nervous people are about feeling angry at God or having any feelings that could be seen as a sign of disrespect.
So we found that conservative Christians and Muslims definitely are seeing this as being... seeing angry at God as being something that is morally not okay. And I know even when I was giving some of my initial talks about anger at God, I would have people coming up to me afterward and saying basically, "are you sure you should be studying this?"
There was this fear that there was gonna be a lightning bolt coming down for talking about it. So to the extent that people think that God doesn't welcome any kind of assertiveness or any kind of negative emotion in the air, they might get really scared about this idea of being angry at God and might see it as being something that's clearly morally wrong.
Other people might believe more that if God is truly a relational partner of sorts, or if God is just a being that maybe has mixed motives, which some people believe, or negative motives, that it's appropriate to be angry. So it's really important for people to know that anger toward God is extremely common in the studies that we do. Anywhere between a third and two thirds of people report anger toward God. Usually just a little bit of anger, you know, in response to a specific negative life event or we'll say that they have felt angry at God over the course of their lives. So this is a huge number of people, but people do get really nervous about it and often feel like it's morally wrong.
And I think a really important distinction here in practical terms, and this is something that occurred to me years ago while I was in a Beth Moore Bible study. So credit to Beth Moore for this insight, which we have tested empirically. This is a long time ago. But the idea is that people are often afraid of questioning God. They feel like it's wrong to question God. And I think a really important distinction here, which Beth had pointed out, was a distinction between questioning God's authority versus asking God questions, which might include tough questions.
So in our work, we've found that it's pretty different. Questioning God's authority tends to go with these rebellious behaviors. Like, I'm going to walk away from God, I'm going to rebel against God. More of this, you know, rage response, or I'm gonna slam the door. Whereas asking God questions tends to go along with complaint type things or what we might call in the Judeo-Christian tradition lament, which is supposed to be a part of the Judeo-Christian tradition within the Psalms.
So there's a very important distinction because questioning God's authority often leads people more on this path of spiritual decline, at least in terms of your relationship with God. It's more like you're walking out and slamming the door or shaking your fist in God's face in a more aggressive way. Whereas asking questions, you know, why did this happen? I'm so upset about this. I can't believe this happened. Those types of responses can actually be pretty life giving for people if they give themselves permission to do that.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: You mentioned the fear or worry about disrespecting God, and it seems like maybe, I suppose the definitions could be helpful. When you're talking about anger, how does that relate to something like respect and disrespect? Are there respectful and disrespectful forms of it? Is it just a different thing? How do you conceptualize that?
Julie Exline: It's a great question, and I don't have a complete answer for it, but what I can say is that we find in our studies that feeling love, or respect, reverence, awe, appreciation toward God is something that's quite separate from feeling resentful, mistrustful, angry, annoyed.
They're largely separate things, and the point here is that it's not that feeling angry at God implies that you don't love or respect God. And I think this is a very important point. You think about the people in your life that you might get the most angry at. They're often people in close relationships where you have a lot of your lives overlapping. So you do care for this person and respect them, but you're really mad at them. And in this relationship with God too, as people think about this, they're often afraid that if I raise any questions at all, if I feel the slightest bit frustrated or annoyed, that means that I don't respect God or that I don't love God.
And statistically speaking, these things are pretty independent, which, just a fancy way of saying that you can be angry at God and really love and respect God, or you can be angry at God and not love and respect God at all, and all kinds of things in between. It's an independent thing.
But in most close human relationships, there is a blend of these emotions. So I think it's really important for people to be aware that being angry at God doesn't imply a lack of love, a lack of respect, a lack of gratitude. In fact, sometimes the two might go hand in hand as you're trying to resolve problems and work through tough feelings that you're having.
Because if you don't go there and you don't allow yourself to experience this anger toward God and at least admit to yourself that you have it... think about how it is in a relationship when there's something going on that nobody's talking about. You know, we sometimes call it the elephant in the room. Think about yourself trying to pray to God, and there's something you're really angry or upset about. You're just not bringing it up. You're like, okay, I've been taught to praise God and I'm going to praise God and thank God and try to obey God, and I'm just not gonna bring up this thing that I'm angry about as though God isn't going to know. And that effort that goes into having to suppress those emotions would probably be better spent just being open about it and trying to work through it.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: So it seems like anger, there's, well... on some classic definitions of anger that seem pretty plausible, intuitive to me at least, anger implies the accusation of some sort of wrongdoing. That to be angry at someone is to suggest that they've harmed you in some way. They've treated you some way that they ought not to have treated you.
And I wonder if that, I mean, that seems to raise the stakes a little bit. Even recognizing that, you know, anger and love are very independently... That you can have both. Is it the case that anger implies an accusation? And so it would then make sense for folks who are convinced of the or at least committed to the inviolable goodness of God, that God is always good. But then to be angry at God would seem to be imply that God had not been good. And there's a kind of contradiction there and you can see why you would shy away from that. Do you have any insight or wisdom on that?
Julie Exline: Well, I can tell you some things about how we've changed, how we talk about it over the last couple decades. So the very first paper that I wrote on this topic, which was about, it was over 20 years ago, was on what I call "Difficulty Forgiving God." And the reason I used that terminology was because I was just getting into research on forgiveness and I was thinking, well, nobody's talking about forgiving God.
So we did this paper on difficulty forgiving God and based on some reviews and just my own reflection, I immediately backed off of that language shortly thereafter because if you want to get technical, forgiveness is supposed to only be offered in cases where there is a clear offense or wrongdoing as you're saying, Ryan. So forgiving God would seem to imply that God did something wrong or committed some kind of injustice. So what I prefer to talk about now is I just talk about people resolving anger toward God, and I don't go into that forgiveness language for that very reason.
But I do think you make a really important point, and this is something that's a little bit beyond some of the level of subtlety that we've gotten into in our own research on this, but you mentioned the idea of anger being a response to injustice and certainly with interpersonal anger, it's often used by people as a sign that an injustice was committed, like, look how angry I am. There must have been an injustice. So that is certainly one of the functions that anger has.
However, people can also get... if you think about lower levels, like a lot of times we don't just ask about anger at God. We ask about impatience, annoyance, irritation, mistrust, some of these more subtle things. You could think about how you could get angry at another person even if they didn't do something wrong to you, but just because they did something that caused you an inconvenience, or they're taking too long, or you don't understand what they're doing and you're frustrated because you can't understand what they're trying to say to you, so you get annoyed with them.
So there are other reasons that a person could have these angry emotions that don't imply this accusation of the other person. So I could see a real difference even theologically between accusing God of wrongdoing versus just saying, I'm really frustrated because I don't... I understand that there are promises about X, Y, and Z, but I'm not seeing this happening and I don't understand what your plan is. And I'm really aggravated that these things are happening and I'm just kind of yelling to you about it. So it's kind of like God included in this angry conversation and maybe even a certain degree of saying, "God, why are you allowing this? Or why are you causing this?" But it's not the same as coming out and accusing God of an injustice.
So I think it's important to think about how, injustice we might think of as, "oh, that's the thing that makes people angry." But we get angry about a lot of other things too that don't necessarily always imply that same level of accusation.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: I do wonder whether some of the places where anger at God is most pronounced are places where there are really, really deep suffering and when things seem really profoundly out of joint and it seems... I guess I'm suggesting, it feels like anger and God and the sort of things that really push on the problem of evil come close together.
And so there's... actually, maybe that's the question. Do you find that people who are wrestling with anger towards God, articulate it, think in some of the same ways as people trying to find a way to live with the problem of evil?
Julie Exline: So there are these issues of theodicy. How can an all loving and all powerful God allow suffering and evil?
And in fact, my colleagues, Amy Hale-Smith, Crystal Park, they and others had a wonderful article in psych assessment about this; looking at, measuring people's responses to suffering theologically and getting at these different, what we call theodicies, these different ways of trying to reconcile God's role in suffering.
And in fact, in most of our studies, we ask people to focus on a time when there was intense suffering in your life or intense suffering of someone else that you cared about. And these are often the situations, as you suggest, where this anger comes in. So people are often really just wrestling with these questions and trying to make sense of things.
We certainly find that there are these theodicies, these ways of explaining God's role in suffering and evil that are more benevolent, like that God has a good plan, God is suffering along with me, God is helping me grow. If you're able to reframe things in that way, that's certainly going to help to resolve anger toward God that you might have, and you might not even get angry at God to start with.
But there are other ways of handling it, which might involve seeing God's role as being harder to understand or more random, or maybe seeing God as having more cruel intent that could feed anger toward God. But it is often these issues around suffering, evil, why would God allow these terrible things to happen in the world?
These are usually the things that get anger toward God off the ground in the first place. You know, why did God allow my grandparent to die of Covid under these horrible circumstances when they didn't take any risks. Why did God allow me to be fired from my job when I didn't do anything wrong? Why did God allow the Holocaust to happen and didn't step in to intervene?
So these are often the situations where anger toward God arises or around these deep issues that you're talking about, Ryan. But sometimes people get pretty annoyed at God for just more garden level things too. Like one of the students that, in a study where we had people write letters to God, one of the students who just ranted and raved and swore at God was somebody who wanted to go to MIT and had to go to our university instead.
So sometimes there's just sort of infantile rage that things didn't go my way or it rained on my wedding day, but often it's these deeper issues that you're talking about.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: So many of the examples that you gave point to some theological presuppositions that are in the background. Why did... God, why did you allow this? Why did you cause this? Things of that sort. Turning a little bit towards the question of resolutions of anger toward God, to what extent have you found that the resolution comes through adjustment of those theological presuppositions, changing one's understanding of who and what God is, how God works and relates to the world? Does that play a significant role in how people work through anger at God?
Julie Exline: Yeah. I'm so glad that you asked that, and I'll try to keep my answer relatively brief. So my biggest response to that is, yes, sometimes people do tinker with their theological beliefs, or somebody will suggest something that's helpful to them.
So, for example, a person might decide at the extreme that God doesn't exist or that God isn't good or they might decide that maybe God wasn't really responsible for causing this event, or that maybe God's suffering alongside me. Maybe God had a purpose in it. Maybe God's ways are mysterious. So there's these theological ideas that could be introduced or that a person might even work through and come to their own resolution that might help them with the anger.
But one of the biggest points that I try to make when I'm talking to people about this, especially if you're trying to help somebody else through their anger at God, is to not jump right into trying to have theological tinkering. Because usually people who are really angry at God are really hurting or they're really upset about something and what they need more than the theological tinkering, especially if they're going through a real crisis, you know, they've just lost a loved one. They really need that gift of presence, and we have some work showing quite clearly that just being able to share with somebody that you're feeling angry, annoyed, not trusting God, you're having these feelings toward God. If that person that you tell responds in a way that is supportive, so saying, you know, I felt that way myself, or I heard in a study that like two thirds of people feel this way, or, "it's totally understandable that you'd feel that way," if people just got that acceptance and maybe an affirmation that this was normal and that this was healthy and that a lot of people feel this way, they tended to feel as though they were more able to approach God themselves.
So it's like if somebody says it's okay to be angry at God, it actually makes you less afraid to go approach God and try to work on the relationship. And then people were more likely to say that they had grown as a result of this struggle that they went through.
But sometimes, and we found in our study it was about half the time when people told somebody that they were angry at God and they admitted it, they got at least a little bit of a response that felt judging or disapproving or rejecting. I mean, "you shouldn't feel that way. Maybe you should just try to get over that. Don't say that." And if people had that sense of judgment or rejection or disapproval, like that "this isn't okay," they actually were more likely to try to sweep this anger under the rug or suppress it, the anger was more likely to remain, and people were more likely to walk away from God, exit the relationship, and they were more likely to abuse substances.
So a big take home point from that is there's not a magic theological bullet. There might be one that worked for you, but it might not work for someone else. I know that in therapy settings and other settings where I've tried to impose my own theological magic pills on people, you know, the things that worked in my life, I had a few cases where it worked and several cases where people got really mad. "Well, it's nice if God has God's plan, but it'd be nice if He'd tell me about it." You can't assume that the magical thing that helped you to resolve it is going to work for someone else.
And I think it can be a real mistake to jump into that mode of, "I have to fix this person's theology." There might be a time when you can have that discussion, but when a person is in a crisis, unless they bring it up, don't put that pressure on yourself to come up with the Scripture verse or the philosophical or theological insight that's going to take care of it.
They really need to know that this anger is something that a lot of people experience and to have this affirmed that it's normal, that people can be a part of a healthy, dynamic spiritual life. For people to know that, it's like it helps them to relax and then they can explore what they might want to do in this relationship with God, which might include changing how they think about God.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: So how can anger be part of a healthy, dynamic spiritual life? What are the potential goods that can come out of being angry at God and working through that?
Julie Exline: Well, again, if you go back to anger in general, so if anger is seen as a sign of things that matter to us... you know, something that mattered to me is being violated, I'm not getting something that I want, or there's a way that I feel let down or that something's not fair, just being able to use that anger as a signal of something that matters to you and getting you to approach that and engage it and think about what is it that's really bothering me here?
And then just think about it. If you're a person who wants to stay close to God, maybe you're a person who prays, just think about it as an ongoing conversation with God. Sometimes people will even use what you call a two chair technique where you say something to God and you imagine what God might say back, for example, or talking to God in this empty chair or writing a letter to God.
There are these different ways that people can bring that energy of anger, use it for good in a relationship because if you think about it as we're often angry about things that matter to us, and anger is like an approach-oriented emotion, like it's about approaching a problem and trying to really zero in on it, it gives you an opportunity to maybe find a problem, clarify a problem, work on a problem that you might not have noticed if you had never bothered to get angry about it. It might have been something that was just there in your subconscious. You weren't really sure that it was bothering you, and that all of a sudden this anger is there.
I think if we can use anger as a signal of a problem that maybe deserves our attention, we can do a lot of good things with it in this perceived relationship with God just like we could do in a relationship with another person.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: You've mentioned a couple times just how many people report feeling angry at God, and presumably when you expand back out to spiritual struggle more broadly, it's even more people. This is part of our lives. I wonder if you have any thoughts about what role we should think of these struggles as playing in our lives?
Julie Exline: I think it's a wonderful question because I think in many ways, because these spiritual struggles are about what it means to be human and what we're doing here in this world and what the purposes of it are, these struggles are a fundamental part of being a human being.
So I think it's a really beautiful thing for people to be able to say yes, I struggle around religion and spirituality, but I'm still working, I'm still trying. I'm trying to create the healthiest, most engaged life that I can for myself, which might still include religion and spirituality. And to not expect ourselves to just get over these struggles or resolve them like they're symptoms that we're just going to be able to get over.
I think that in many cases it's better to see these as a vital part of our life story and who we are as a person and how we're choosing to make sense and meaning out of our own lives.
I think this metaphor here from Japanese pottery, this word called "kintsugi," having to do with putting together these broken pieces of pottery with gold filigree so that there's restoration, there's healing, there's something beautiful that's there, but you can still see where the scars are. You can still see where the hurts are. But there's gold around them now. You can see what's beautiful in the story.
So it's a story of pain and it's a story of restoration and of growth, and hopefully that's what our human journey is ultimately going to be about.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: So to close, I wonder for those of us who are feeling angry toward God, what's the first thing you would recommend when you notice it? What's the next thing you ought to do?
Julie Exline: Know that you're not alone and a lot of people are feeling this way, and give yourself that space to acknowledge it. We have some work showing that people who engage in what's called experiential avoidance, meaning you push these struggles away, is associated with more anxiety and depression and worse outcomes.
So just being able to say, "you know, I'm angry at God" and maybe clarify what you're angry about, and clarify, "well, maybe I'm not actually angry at God, I'm angry about this situation." So clarify what you're upset about, and what your actual feelings are. Give yourself the space to feel that way.
And then you can decide if you want to talk to someone else about it, if you want to write in your journal about it, if you want to have this kind of conversation with God. But just give yourself that chance to know that many, many people have traveled this road before and if you believe in a loving God who is all knowing and all powerful, then within that type of theology, shouldn't God be able to handle your anger?
And might this not be a good way to keep the relationship going? And remember that if you do decide to express some of this anger, there's nothing saying that you have to express it disrespectfully. I'm not saying you have to go shake your fist at God or start swearing at God or raging. I mean, if you feel that way, again within this belief system, God will probably be able to handle it, but there's nothing implying that you have to be disrespectful.
Imagine that you're trying to bring up a problem with a romantic partner or with a close friend. How would you bring it up in a way that is respectful and shows that you care about the relationship but that there's a problem and you just want to talk it out? You just want to work it out because you value the relationship.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Thank you, Julie. This has been a really great conversation.
Julie Exline: Thank you, Ryan. It's been such a pleasure to be able to talk about these things. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to be with you today
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured psychologist Julie Exline and theologian Ryan McAnnally-Linz. Production assistance by Kaylen Yun and Macie Bridge. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show.
Special thanks to Blueprint 1543 for sponsoring this show and for more information about the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, visit us online at faith.yale.edu where you can find past episodes, articles, books, and other educational resources that help people envision and pursue lives worthy of our humanity.
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