You Don’t Have to Believe in God to Get Mad at Him

A 21st century dilemma

“I’m mad at God, Stephen. I’m sorry but I can’t help it.”

“I don’t blame you Johanna,” I said.

This was no time to argue metaphysics. Johanna and Stan, clients I’ve become fond of, lost their son unexpectedly over Christmas. Just when they thought he was recovering from a road accident, he took a turn for the worse. She described his decline in horrifying detail. “It was terrible,” she said. She wasn’t weak; she wasn’t tearful. She was defiant.

“That’s awful,” I said. “I can’t imagine how you feel.”

“No one should have to bury their child, Stephen.” She wished me a Happy New Year and hung up.

I was mute. What could I say? I have no more stomach for platitudes: “Resting in the arms of Jesus.” “Bound for the Buddhist Pure Lands.”

The pretense that we know what life’s about
is for those who just can’t accept its treachery

The pretense that we know what life’s about, and what follows, is for those who just can’t accept its treachery. Some people are compelled to say something — anything — even if it’s ineffectual, even if it’s make-believe. It’s supposed to help the bereaved, but I can’t see how. To be bereaved is to be inescapably face-to-face with loss. These one liners are for those who are not currently afflicted, a vain attempt to keep death at arm’s length.

Johanna’s mind is on something more immediate. “I can’t believe I’ll not speak to him any more.”

Of course, she does believe it. That’s where the pain is. She’s not denying the truth but voicing her disillusionment. She feels the urge to deny reality, but how can she? So she’s mad at God.

Why not? It’s her way of coping.

I found that I hadn’t been seeking security
after all, but freedom. Big difference.

Coping isn’t always so dignified. Our daughter once had a friend over for the afternoon and we met her mother. When Caroline mentioned that she had multiple sclerosis the woman exclaimed in her cheeriest voice, “Oh, I knew someone with MS. She died!” She laughed involuntarily. Caroline and I looked at each other. In her clumsy attempt to make things better, she made everyone feel worse.

People who face life’s sufferings simply don’t behave this way. They can’t; they’re in touch with reality. Idiocy is a trait of those who try to deny suffering and maintain their illusions about life’s intrinsic goodness. They’re somnolent, zoned out.

The pursuit of happiness may be natural, but the denial of suffering is dumb. My distrust of people who have all the answers turns quickly to anger, but that’s not entirely fair. After all, I’ve been there myself.

As a young man I had qualms about all systems of moral security, but out of insecurity I dared not trust my distrust. Alarmed by the thought that no one knows what life’s all about, I felt an emptiness in the pit of my stomach. I suspended my disbelief and gave the benefit of the doubt to one orthodoxy after another: Christianity, Communism, Buddhism. I wanted very badly to believe, so I did — at least, I tried to.

That’s another story, but eventually I was sorely disillusioned and had to understand why. The result was my memoir, The Novice. In writing it I realized that I hadn’t been after security at all, but freedom. Big difference.

As I approach old age my doubts diminish. Nobody has a handle on everything; everybody has their insecurities; few people admit either of those things. I’ve figured out a few things, but no longer fear what I haven’t.

Life can be good, but it also hurts like hell, and it ends. Pretending otherwise makes me dumb and insensitive. So if I’m silent in the face of Johanna’s agony, I know at least that my honesty frees me from pretentious, patronizing and ultimately harmful illusions.


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

9 thoughts on “You Don’t Have to Believe in God to Get Mad at Him”

  1. As someone whose husband and two sons have died, I can empathize with Joanna and Stan. However, as Jung says: “The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.”

    For those who have not gone through the loss of a child the following might be of help:

    Grieving mother: Do not judge the bereaved mother, she comes in many forms. She is breathing, she is dying, she looks young but on the inside she has become ancient, she smiles, but her heart sobs. She walks, talks, she laughs, she cooks, she cleans, she works, she IS but she IS NOT, all at once. She is her but part of her is elsewhere for eternity.

  2. How others handle a friend’s loss of a child; I believe deep down compassion is there but, out of fear, some people will not dare speak of the deceased child. They just do not know how to handle our grief. For the same reason some may run from our lives. Others who remain friends, may be helpful but also may feel uncomfortable talking about the deceased, again out of fear of upsetting us. The grieving parents DO want to talk about their child. The death of a child leaves a huge hole in one’s heart which will never heal but the suffering will eventually.

    1. I agree that people don’t speak out of compassion for the mother, but there are other, less noble, motivators. There’s plain awkwardness, fear of saying the wrong thing and, last but not least, embarrassment (and/or guilt) for being themselves untouched. It’s certainly not easy, but as you say, parents DO want to talk about their child. Just knowing that helps break through the passive silence.

  3. Having changed our wedding date we thought it would be better to marry at 3 months pregnant was better than 6 months. The unthinkable happened Megan was born at 23 weeks and died just a short time. Being 21 I planned my first funeral, nobody to see Megan! “It would only make it harder if we saw IT” Only me and grandparents at the grave side on top of Sue’s grandfather. Many did not we where expecting, she would have been 40 last September. We moved on she was sick and now she’s better. ” I doing my infamous dealing by not dealing.
    Five years later a bothersome miscarriage. Again it must have for the best. This is “GOD’S” way to fix something that was not well, there must have bern “SOMETHING WRONG WITH (((((IT)))))!!!” Ok more dealing with out dealing, I done with this!
    We but our name on the list for a home study for adoption thinking thr other was “wouldn’t work”
    So now 7years married pregnant again! Being cautious no eork after 3 months. No planning, no nursery planning, no showers, pragmatically under planning. W
    would deal when iT gets here.
    Yes at 24 weeks premature birth Abbe lived an hour and half. I did things different I’m not a 21 year old planning my daughter funeral im 29 doing it again.
    Private viewing just family including Sue. Our family priest it was pleasant.
    I still believe funerals are for everyone but the ones that had the loss. You end up saying all the right things to make those telling you how bad we must feel, feel better.
    Your grief does start till everything is done, saved flowers look almost as bad as you feel, thank you’s sent,
    Enter not dealing again till 6 months later I thought I was having a heart attack, funny what grief panic can do.
    Eight years 2 daughters and a miscarriage to deal with. FUCK.
    I then remember the priest saying don’t be afraid of yelling God
    How can a loving and caring God do this to me! Why ME lord, yesh yeah Thy will be done not MY will be done!
    You never get over it. You get by it and you never know when it will come back with that pain.

    Now everyone else, do call, genuinely ask if they need help dealing with food, phone calls, setting up.
    More importantly do not say, it was for the best, your still young yet
    Note to self call next week, call in 2 weeks, offer to address thank yous
    Offer to go for a ride, past the cemetery when you’re ready.
    Be kind to yourself, if someone says something to make you feel better, and it really does the opposite tell them.

    1. Ron, your story is heart wrenching. I can’t imagine the pain. One of the most honest comments I received , was from a young PAB at the nursing home where I was working at the time my 32 yr. old son died. As news spread, everyone gathered around me for hugs. This young woman hung back and did not join the others. I understood immeditately she felt uncomfortable. The next day she came to me and said, “The reason I didn’t join the others yesterday was because I didn’t know what to say.” Then I gave her a hug. I

    2. Ron: dealing by not dealing is the default mode for too many. Getting past that is a gift for which you’ve paid in raw pain. We all want our illusions. Being divested of them is the only real truth we encounter, and I only hope it’s good for us. You are still kicking, still insighting. Can we take comfort from that?

  4. Stephen, I accidently came to your website while searching for something unrelated. I find your blogs interesting but it’s always the people’s comments that are much more insightful. Having lost a child very recently and suddenly I have tried everything from reading philosophy to quantum mechanics to Vipassna to cloning but realize that no one has an answer and perhaps there is none. Being an atheist I used to call peoples’ faiths delusions until I got hit with this unbearable pain myself.
    I unfortunately can’t go back to that warm fuzzy blanket of faith but I do now realize the psychological value of this “illusion/delusion” in everyday life.
    Marlene Donegan makes lot more sense than your whole article and your subsequent comments.
    Ron Mercer I honestly don’t what to say to you but I know your pain.

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