Hollerin’ at God

What do you say to God when you’re mad at him? Do you tip-toe around and allude to it but never come out and name it? Do you focus on the positive and ignore the negative, because after all, he’s God, and you’re not, and he must have a reason for what he’s doing? Or do you not talk to God at all, too wounded and confused to want to pray?

What do we do with such pain, even anger? A great picture of the biblical approach comes in Robert Duvall’s movie The Apostle. Duvall’s character Sonny has been buffeted by the revelations that his wife has cheated on him with the youth pastor and conspired to get the church to kick him out as pastor. Sonny decides he needs to take this up with God.


Sonny yelling at God seems hard for us to swallow. It feels too irreverent, too raw, too doubting. Where is his trust that God is in control and still loves him? If he felt that, wouldn’t he temper how he talks to God?

What Sonny is doing is actually bold faith. He’s showing how much he trusts God precisely when he’s hollerin’ at him. Why is that?

First, he’s not sugar-coating things. He’s taking his actual experience, the messy reality of what has happened, and being honest about it. He’s not pretending or minimizing things to seem more pious. God knows our hearts—there is no hiding.

Second, he’s taking that honest reckoning to God. Anything that happens, including and especially the hard stuff, goes to God. If God is in charge, then God needs to hear about it.

What Sonny does is what the Psalms so often do. The most common type of biblical psalm is actually the lament, when the writer prays that God will deliver him from some kind of crisis. Examples include Ps 3, 13, 42–44, 88, and many others. The psalmist brings his complaint to God, asks him to act and tells him why, and then usually expresses confidence he’s been heard and praises God.

Lament psalms are hugely important. Jesus prayed the laments, with one of them, Ps 22, on his lips as he died. The early church followed his example, and we should too. Perhaps we come on Sunday morning, weighed down with troubles and grief, but the songs all seem happy and up-beat. Or maybe we want to bring our trouble to God but don’t know how. The great gift of the psalms is that they can meet us where we are and give voice to what we need to say to God. They can guide what it may be hard for us to express, or even what we might direct wrongly elsewhere, to God. They offer a model for how to pray in our struggles and lead us in doing that very thing.

Even if you are not going through a hard time right now, and the laments seem foreign to your experience, Gordon Wenham suggests you can pray them on behalf of others. He uses a prayer guide with stories about Christians suffering persecution in the world. He prays the laments on their behalf, crying out with and for them, ‘How long, O Lord?’ That kind of prayer softens your heart to brothers and sisters in places far harder than ours.

The laments, then, need to become a steady part of our diet of how we pray to God. They can teach us to holler at God and yet hold on to him, just like Jesus did.

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