Offering It Up Honestly: Can Angry Prayer Help?

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Photo courtesy K. Perry

Book Review

How To Pray When You’re Pissed At God –

Or Anyone Else For That Matter  

Ian Punnett. Harmony Books, 2013. 192 pp. $24.00 Cdn.

Every once in a while a gem of a book finds its way to my attention.  This happened recently when, quite serendipitously, I came upon the title of this book while I was online searching for something else. I figured I just had to check out any book that had the words “pissed” and “God” in such close proximity!

There is great value in exploring what we do with our anger towards God. I have always loved, for example, the image of Lieutenant Dan in the film Forrest Gump. Having lost his legs in battle, Lt. Dan perches atop the mast of a shrimp boat in a terrible storm. He waves his fist at God and yells at the violent sky, “It’s time for a showdown – you and me! I’m right here! Come and get me!” It is a powerful scene – an angry man who has the audacity to call God out.

Living with other people means that we must have at least some capacity to feel, express and deal with anger. Speaking with a friend the other day, we talked about our shared impression that expression of rage seems to be on the increase in our society. We were wondering where this rage is coming from and what can possibly be done about it.

Punnett’s book addresses this topic as one that is becoming an important matter for religion to address. That is, what do we do spiritually with our anger? How do we move through anger to reconciliation? Very importantly, is it OK to take our anger with us, honestly, into prayer? The idea of ranting at God when things are going badly is nothing new, Punnett reminds us. Anyone who is familiar with the Psalms knows this. There are many psalms that express the anger of the people towards God, towards enemies and towards continued suffering that seems wrong or pointless.

Punnett has some pretty impressive credentials. He received his Master of Divinity at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta and was taught by the legendary Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. Punnett is a deacon in the Episcopal Church and one of the hosts of Coast to Coast, a syndicated radio show in the States. His writing style makes his knowledge of biblical sources very accessible to readers who may not be well versed in Scripture study. It is his sense of humour, combined with his knowledge and love of the psalms, that makes this book such a treasure.

I was impressed with the author’s instructive model for moving through angry prayer with a constructive horizon in view. He adapts Brueggemann’s three part model of interpreting the psalms – “orientation, disorientation and reorientation.” Instead, Punnett advises a three part structure for angry prayer as, “name, proclaim, reframe.” This is an effective model that will surely be of great help to people in ministry and pastoral care.

In How To Pray When You’re Pissed At God, we receive the point of view of someone who has served people who have real reasons to be angry.  In Punnett’s ministry, he has attempted to help these people to converse honestly with God about what is happening in their lives, and to tell God how they really feel about it. The book contains many personal stories and a whole section of prayers that have been written by people helped through Punnett’s ministry.

Perhaps the most surprising element of this book, for me, was the humourous approach the author often uses to deliver his message. I found myself laughing out loud with delight at various points. I am amazed that a book that deals with such a serious topic could do so with such a light and personal approach.

Early in the book Punnett insists that “if you aren’t mad about something, you’re probably not paying attention.” If observers like my friend and I are correct, and we are a population that is growing angrier, how are we bringing that to prayer? I found myself asking, What is the significance of a radical decline in religious affiliation and the coinciding growth in social rage?

I did encounter some moments of resistance as I read. Some of this came from the conditioning I have undergone as a modern Christian who finds the violence and retributive justice we encounter in the Old Testament quite difficult to deal with. Some of my resistance arose because the author’s delivery does have a very American flavour that reminded me at times of the language I have heard on evangelical television shows. The honesty of the anger and hatred expressed in the constructed prayers in the book is quite startling, too. Readers will be confronted about what to do with that. Punnett does not use inclusive theological language, so God is portrayed only in terms of the male gender. These resistances did not prevent me from apprehending the book’s central themes and messages, but some readers may have a few things to overlook as they make their way through the text.

This book is an important contribution to the literature on anger and spirituality. We must do something with our anger and I agree with the author that the Bible offers us some very good resources to study and reflect upon as we consider the place of anger in our spiritual life. Anybody who is experiencing deep anger themselves or who is trying to help someone burdened with anger will find this book helpful. The author’s delivery makes the book an accessible and enjoyable read.

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About Kathryn Perry

Kathryn Perry, MDiv, is an alumna of Regis College, Toronto. She is the author of The Courage To Dare: The Spirituality of Catherine Donnelly, Founder of the Sisters of Service (Novalis 2013).
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2 Responses to Offering It Up Honestly: Can Angry Prayer Help?

  1. estherdwumaa says:

    Thank you for your article and it raises some fascinating points. Retributive justice may have its reasons but I find it difficult to condone it when it looks like a justification of wife-beating domestic violence or any kind of domestic violence!

    • I agree with you. The Bible has often been used to explain away violence, repression, and even the taking of lives. Retributive justice depends on a theology that many have come to reject – that of a God who punishes, who supports and empowers aggressors and who seeks “an eye for an eye.”

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