As a psychologist, I frequently see couples for therapy. A common scenario in couples counseling goes like this: The husband and wife sit before me, with a palpable feeling of discomfort in the room. I ask for one to start and the wife does, laying out a litany of complaints. “Dave has no self-respect. He walks around like a slob and doesn’t care what impression he makes on people. I tell him he is not going to get a job looking like that, but he doesn’t listen. Also, I have to tell him a hundred times to take out the trash before he’ll do anything about it. And he never picks up after himself. I’m not your mother, Dave. It’s time for you to grow up and pick up after yourself…”
On she goes, until she is finally done, for now, venting her frustration. During this speech, her husband looks away towards the wall, registering no reaction whatsoever. After she is done, he sits silently, until I turn to him and say, “So, Dave, do you have any thoughts about all this?”
He looks at me blankly, and I wonder if he is hearing anything we are saying. Finally he responds, shrugging his shoulders, “Not really.”
Most people would be angry if they had just listened to this harangue, or at least irritated. But he doesn’t look angry; he looks cold, impassive, untouched. And I know this is going to be difficult therapy.
Dave’s cold disconnection from his wife may eventually result in the death of his marriage. Perhaps I will be able to communicate this to him before it is too late. Unfortunately, he believes (and probably has been taught by his family of origin) that “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” He probably fears what will happen if he expresses his anger. So he expresses nothing at all, leading his wife to get increasingly angry and driving the two of them further and further apart. (Of course the same scenario often occurs with the wife as the aloof, distant player.)
If our heart is not there, then it is a distant and imperiled relationship.
Some people think the “if you don’t have anything nice to say” maxim also applies to their relationship with God. They believe that it is inappropriate to say to God that they are disappointed or angry with Him. And just as a marital relationship withers when genuine emotions are not shared, so does the spiritual relationship weaken and wither. Sure, we can go through the motions. We can attend synagogue, eat only kosher and observe Jewish holy days. But if our heart is not there, then it is a distant and imperiled relationship.
This is not an uncommon problem. As a therapist, I know that anyone in a love relationship will experience anger, at least now and then. Why should it be any different in our relationship with God? In addition, anger is a common response to suffering. After all we Jews have suffered, especially during the twentieth century, it is not surprising that many Jews are angry.
The Book of Job
The Book of Job clearly illustrates that God views an honest expression of anger towards Him as far superior to a more seemingly respectful and less emotionally-engaged relationship.
As the story relates, Job is a righteous man and his character is so untarnished, that God himself affirms Job’s righteousness at the beginning of the book. God starts to test Job, taking away his children, his money and his health. Job sits on the ground, with an agonizing skin condition, bewailing his fate and saying that it would have been better if he had never had been born. Three friends come to Job and tell him that God is just and does not give man suffering for no reason. They tell Job that he must carefully scrutinize his past deeds, identify his sins and repent. Then, they say, God may have mercy on him. Job defiantly says he did not sin and that his suffering was not earned. He does not want their platitudes. He expresses increasing anger towards God and demands a direct conversation with Him, in which He will explain why He has made Job suffer so much.
What is most striking about the communication of the three friends towards Job is that they are long on advice, but short on compassion. The reader has no indication that they have empathy for Job or that they are suffering alongside him. They are more interested in defending their philosophy than reaching out to a soul in agony. The three friends finally fall silent, when they see that they are having no impact on Job.
It is then that a younger man, by the name of Elihu, speaks. He states that he is angry with the friends, who claim to be Job’s friends but have nothing to offer but their preaching. Elihu tries to speak to the heart of Job, saying that Elihu’s soul bleeds to see Job’s physical, emotional and spiritual suffering. Elihu tells him that God appears to be cruel only because we are so small compared to Him. From God’s point of view, everything that He does is an act of love towards us. After Elihu reaches out to Job, God himself speaks to Job directly, out of a whirlwind. God does not give answers, but only asks a series of questions of Job, questions that drive home the point that God runs the world and our demands that he justify Himself are like a baby questioning the decisions of adults.
God wants us to offer Him our wounded souls with all of their “ugly” realities, including our anger.
Job is moved when God reveals Himself. Job indicates that he will cease questioning God and will accept His will. Then a very interesting thing happens. God tells one of the three friends, who defended God to Job, “My wrath burns against you and against your two friends, for you did not speak properly about me as my servant Job did” (42:7). This statement seems very strange, especially because the rabbinic commentators tell us that the three friends were right — God always has a good reason for his actions, even if we do not understand it. The problem was, though, that the friends presumed too much, they tried to speak for God, and describe the reasons for his actions. They denied Job what a suffering person needs the most from a friend — emotional engagement and care. Elihu gave that to Job and thereby led him back to God.
We need to be open with our feelings towards God. But did that make it acceptable for Job to imply that God is unjust? In answer to this, the Talmud says that a man is not punished for what he says when he is troubled. Life hurts. Sometimes we may need to be unreasonable, sometimes we may need to shout and cry. God wants us to offer Him our wounded souls with all of their “ugly” realities, including our anger. That is a real relationship, and it is the only path to real healing, spiritual or otherwise.
The ideas above are examined more fully in Dr. Milgraum's novel, Never Forget My Soul, a story describing a psycho-spiritual journey of two children of Holocaust survivors. More information about the book can be found at www.doctormmsolutions.com/book.html, where the book can also be ordered. It is also available from major online booksellers and bookstores.