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How to Pray with Anger

Lessons from Popular Culture

Published on:
March 11, 2019
Read time:
7 min.
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You’re a son of a bitch, you know that?” 

So begins one of the most powerful prayers in popular culture. It comes from President Jedidiah Bartlet, the central character in Aaron Sorkin’s White House drama The West Wing

Bartlet’s prayer at the climax of the 2001 season two finale “Two Cathedrals” rings with undeniable honesty. Overwhelmed by the political decisions hanging over his head and devastated by the sudden death of his beloved secretary Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten), Bartlet lingers after the funeral to pour out his heart to God, in all its bubbling rage. 

Who among us has not found God unfair? Who among us, even the most dedicated Protestants, has temporarily forgotten sola fide and sola gratia to marshal a list of accomplishments against God’s mistreatment?

“Yes, I lied,” Bartlet admits as he strides through the sanctuary’s center aisle, staring down the stained glass windows at the cathedral’s peak. The camera leads, trails, and moves beside Bartlet as he buries his confession with self-righteousness and demands to know, “Have I displeased you, you feckless thug?”

Bartlet closes with an ostentatious flourish, barking in Latin, “I was your servant, your messenger on earth. I did my duty. To hell with your punishments and to hell with you.”

Whatever distance I might have felt during Bartlet’s prayer—refusing to identify with him because I don’t swear or I don’t speak Latin or I wouldn’t light up a cigarette in a beautiful cathedral—I cannot deny the truth of his feeling. Who among us has not found God unfair? Who among us, even the most dedicated Protestants, has temporarily forgotten sola fide and sola gratia to marshal a list of accomplishments against God’s mistreatment?

Praying with Honesty

Watching the episode, I sense that Bartlet’s aware of how haughty he sounds, but he doesn’t stop. He lets his anger fly at a God who can take it, because where else is he supposed to go? Who else could hear it? 

I get that same feeling when watching another television drama, one whose angry prayer occurs a little more than three years after Bartlet’s. With its unvarnished take at the American frontier and its profane dialogue, the HBO series Deadwood never garnered the audience enjoyed by The West Wing, but that same rawness allowed it to tackle issues with even greater complexity. The story of a mining town in the 1870s Dakota Territory, Deadwood explored the dynamics in a community without a functioning government. All of the series’ characters existed on a moral spectrum, good people forced to make bad decisions or bad people surprised by their own goodness, but none captured this tension more succinctly than Doc Cochran, the crotchety physician played by Brad Dourif.  

The season one finale “Sold Under Sin” finds Cochran exhausted by the battle of caring for Deadwood’s citizens and with the political maneuvering that has overtaken the camp. When a brain tumor begins slowly killing Reverend Smith (Ray McKinnon), the town’s one upright man, Cochran finally breaks down.

He tries to keep his civility throughout the prayer, asking to be excused for his poor kneeling posture and blaming the missing “wad of cartilage covering the patella.” But Cochran can’t keep up the facade, and his face soon twists in helplessness and rage as he mutters, “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ . . . Just please God, take that minister!”

Shaking his fists in the air as the pleading turns to shouting, Cochran questions, “What conceivable godly use is in the protracted suffering to you?” Overcome by memories of soldiers dying in the Civil War, Cochran repeats the question with a more pointed charge: “What conceivable godly use was the screaming of all those men? Did you need to hear their death agonies to feel your omnipotence?”

As he demands that God hear him and see the suffering he’s endured, Cochran reveals an essential fact. He wants an audience with God, and he believes that God hears him, insults and all.

As Cochran drops to the floor and repeats the dying wails still reverberating in his memory, the camera pulls back, letting us listen to his complaint from a respectful distance. But despite the space between us, we still feel the physicality of Dourif’s performance, watching him contort his body and his voice, thrusting into God’s face the last words of men who Cochran fears have died meaningless deaths. 

As he demands that God hear him and see the suffering he’s endured, Cochran reveals an essential fact. He wants an audience with God, and he believes that God hears him, insults and all. 

When his shouting and wailing is done, Cochran raises himself, steadying his voice and his posture. “Admitting my understanding’s imperfection, trusting that you have a purpose, praying that you consider it served, I beg you to relent,” Cochran restates. He doesn’t say this with calmness or respect. Cochran’s voice still underscores his doubt in God’s purpose and his expectation that the suffering can now end, but he speaks with a recognition of his position in relation to that of God. 

Having gone through the process of anger and dissatisfaction, Cochran can declare the fundamental metaphysical truth: “Thy will be done. Amen.”

Praying Without Understanding

When Cochran accepts that God’s will has been done, he does so because he’s prayed through his anger. When “Two Cathedrals” ends with Bartlet declaring that he will run for re-election, a decision that the show treats as an act of service, he does so because he’s prayed through his anger. 

Praying with anger is never an end to itself, but a process of working out our faith, making it part of our lived experience. 

For me, no piece of art captures this process better than the 1960 Ingmar Bergman film The Virgin Spring. Adapted from a medieval ballad, The Virgin Spring takes place when Christianity in Sweden began to supplant belief in Nordic gods, where practical-minded farmer Töre (Max Von Sydow) reluctantly adopts the former religion at the behest of his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg). 

When their beloved only daughter Karin (Birgitta Petterson) is raped and murdered by three thieves—thieves who sleep in Töre’s barn before unwittingly revealing that they’ve killed the girl, Töre abandons Christianity. He undergoes a ritual of revenge, killing the thieves, including their largely innocent youngest brother.

Justice served, the farmer and his family travel to the place where Karin’s body still lies. And in all of his anger and confusion, Töre begins to pray. 

The camera holds still in the middle distance while Töre stumbles forward, keeping his back to us as he collapses onto a sunny grove. We hear no music, no incidental dialogue, just the sound of singing birds and a babbling brook. When Töre finally speaks, he begins with an accusation. “God, you saw it,” he charges. “An innocent child’s death, and my vengeance—you allowed it to happen.” 

But when a confession enters into Töre’s complaint, Bergman cuts to a closer shot. We still cannot see his face, but the camera positions us directly behind his trembling back as we listen to him say, “I don’t understand you. And yet I still ask for forgiveness.”

With those two sentences, Töre captures the heart of all angry prayers, fictional and real. Like Bartlet and Cochran, Töre recognizes his own powerlessness in the face of God, a recognition that the world is more terrible and difficult than he could possibly understand. He doesn’t say that he’s wrong to be angry and that he’s sorry that he raised his voice, because there’s nothing for which he needs to apologize. He said nothing wrong: God did see it and did allow it to happen. And just like Bartlet and Cochran, Töre realizes that he can’t do anything about the cause of his anger, other than pour himself out before God. 

But Töre continues, experiencing a revelation that Bartlet and Cochran do not receive. “I know no other way to live but by my own hands,” Töre confessing, admitting that while God’s ways are not his ways, he still needs to live in the world. And so Töre reconciles the ineffable with the practical by raising one trembling hand, still spotted with the blood of his victims, and promises to use his hands for God’s glory by building a church on the site of his daughter’s grave. 

Joining Märeta next to Karin’s lifeless body, the farmer and his wife tenderly lift her up. As her head rises, a spring bubbles up from the indentation she left, a stream of water pours out for the group to wash their face and hands. 

It’s a beautiful moment, but it does not negate the horror of what preceded it. Bergman’s camera still captures the blood on Karin’s dead face, the sores on monk in their party, the ceremonial weaponry Töre still wears.

But as the sound of a hymn seeps into the soundtrack, voices singing, “Grant me everlasting peace at your side, O Lord,” we see that Töre has undergone the process of angry prayer.

Praying Like Jesus

These examples move me to tears and to faith. They make me feel more human by showing me how other people deal with their anger with God. But the screen isn’t the only place I can find them. 

In fact, I find one of the most important examples in bright red letters on the white pages of my Bible. 

Praying with anger is never an end to itself, but a process of working out our faith, making it part of our lived experience.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

Here is Jesus, God incarnate, getting angry with God. He’s charging God with abandonment, he’s reminding God of his good faithfulness. He’s calling God unfair. 

Throughout my life, I’ve heard people try to explain away this scene, claiming that Jesus was actually experiencing abandonment because God had to turn away from the sins that Jesus took on himself, but that doesn’t track with me. A complex theological explanation weakens the simple truth of what I read: Jesus is mad at God. 

And he’s not the only one. In fact, the line itself is a quotation from Psalm 22, in which David asks. We find similar sentiments when Job complains that “the arrows of the Almighty are in me” and Jeremiah insists that his enemies be “carried off like sheep to be butchered.” 

Throughout the Bible, we find people expressing their anger at God, inviting God into this very real part of their lives and undergoing the necessary process of praying through the anger. It’s not a moral failing in these examples, but an unavoidable, even holy, part of the discipleship process.

And yet, because of discomfort or because of insufficient teaching or because of my own ignorance, these examples somehow feel too distant to be real, something that’s fine for Jesus and the prophets, but not for a regular person like me. 

For that reason, I thank God that pop culture isn’t afraid to get angry at God, because it’s through those examples that I see how humans can bring all of their emotions into their faith. It’s those examples that lead me back to scripture and back to Christ.

Joe George
Joe George (@jageorgeii) has written for Think Christian, Living Lutheran, and Tor.com. He hosts the web series Renewed Mind Movie Talk and collects his writing at joewriteswords.com.

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