Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

"If I Tell Others about My Anger toward God, How Will They Respond?" Predictors, Associated Behaviors, and Outcomes in an Adult Sample

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

"If I Tell Others about My Anger toward God, How Will They Respond?" Predictors, Associated Behaviors, and Outcomes in an Adult Sample

Article excerpt

When people experience anger or other negative feelings toward God, do they admit these emotions to others? Participants in an internet survey (n = 471; mean age 41.7) described an incident involving suffering and their responses. Among those reporting negative feelings toward God (n = 256), those who had stronger negative feelings and saw such feelings as morally acceptable were more likely to disclose their feelings to others. Supportive responses to disclosure predominated over unsupportive responses. Yet about half of participants reported some unsupportive responses, including indications that such feelings were wrong or responses that made participants feel judged, guilty, or ashamed. To the extent that participants saw others' responses as supportive, they reported greater spiritual engagement. In contrast, reports of unsupportive responses were linked with continued anger toward God, more suppression attempts and exit behaviors (e.g., rebellion; rejecting God; doubting God's existence), and greater substance use.

When people experience traumatic or highly stressful events, a common response is to blame God (e.g., Gray & Wegner, 2010) and to experience anger toward God in response (e.g., Exline, Park, Smyth, & Carey, 2011; Wood et al., 2010). Past research has framed anger toward God as a private experience. The present study moved beyond this purely intrapersonal level to consider how people communicate about anger and other negative feelings toward God. We examined several factors that were expected to predict people's willingness to admit feelings of anger toward God. We also assessed interpersonal responses to such disclosures and whether the supportiveness of these responses would be related to anger resolution, behavioral responses, and subsequent faith in God. Understanding which responses are seen as supportive, along with the outcomes linked with supportive versus unsupportive responses, could help people to intervene more effectively with those dealing with trauma and spiritual struggles.


Within monotheistic belief systems, people often relate to God as a personal being and see themselves as being in a relationship with God, as documented in the literature on relational spirituality (e.g., Shults & Sandage, 2006; Simpson, Newman, & Fuqua, 2008). A perceived relationship with God can provide a sense of comfort and security that helps to meet attachment needs, as shown in Western (and predominantly Christian) samples (e.g., Beck & McDonald, 2004; Kirkpatrick, 2004). Many people experience a powerful sense of God's presence (Hall & Edwards, 1996, 2002) and see the bond with God as a source of intimate communion (e.g., Beck, 2006) and a focus for dedication (e.g., Davis, Worthington, Hook, & Van Tongeren, 2009).

Yet at the same time, conflict can arise within a perceived relationship with God, much as it does within a human relationship. For example, when things go wrong, people may believe that God is punishing them (e.g., Pargament, Koenig, & Perez, 2000) or worry about being rejected by God (e.g., Hall & Edwards, 1996, 2002). In addition, when people see God as being involved in the world and in people's lives, this raises the possibility of anger or other negative feelings toward God when bad things happen.

Recent research (Exline, Park, et al., 2011) demonstrates that many people experience anger toward God, and they get angry at God for the same reasons they get angry at others: when God is seen as responsible for severe harm, when God's intentions are viewed as cruel, when it is difficult to find meaning in the event, and when there is a low level of commitment to the relationship with God. As a form of spiritual struggle, anger toward God tends to correlate with other indicators of emotional distress (e.g., Exline, Park, et al., 2011; Gall, Kristjansson, Charbonneau, & Florack, 2009; Strelan, Acton, & Patrick, 2009; Wood et al. …

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