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“How Long O Lord!”A Meditation on the role of anger in prayer.

April 9, 2014

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Among the struggles that many face in their spiritual lives is one in which we at times feel angry with God. While the sources of this anger can be varied, they tend to be focused in three areas: the existence of evil and injustice in the world (which God seems to permit), God’s seeming delay in answering our prayers, or some personal setback or trial in our life.

The thought that God can prevent bad things, often leads to expectations that he should prevent them. And then when such expectations are not met, resentment, disappointment, or anger can follow.

Sometimes our anger at God is obvious to us. But other times, it can take more subtle forms, such as depression or a kind of spiritual sadness, avoidance of God and spiritual things, a loss of hope, or a reduction in asking things of God at all in prayer. Sometimes too, we like to hide our anger with God by using understatements such as saying we are simply “disappointed,” or “frustrated.”

But the reality is, at times we are angry with God, sometimes very angry. What to do about this anger?

God himself seems to say, over and over again in the Scriptures, that he wants us to speak to him about it, to tell him that we are angry, and to pray out of this reality in our life.

God actually models this in the Scriptures. The book of Psalms is the great prayer book that God gave to Israel. In the Psalms is enshrined every sort of human experience and emotion: joy, exultation, hope, gratitude; but also dejection, hatred, despair, and yes, anger, even anger at God. God himself, through the Holy Spirit, authors the very prayers of the Psalms and says to us in effect, that every human emotion is the stuff of prayer. He models for us how to pray out of our experiences not only of joy and gratitude, but also of despair and anger. God says that whatever you’re going through should be the focus of your prayer.

Thus, God tells us that even if we are angry with Him, we should speak to Him about our anger. And he does not ask us to mince words, to minimize our emotions, or even to speak politely.

One of the most common expressions of human anger toward God in the Scriptures is in what might be called the “usquequo verses.” (pronounced “ooz- kay-quo”) The Latin word usquequo is most literally translated “how long?” And thus, in the Psalms, and in other verses of Scripture, will often come the question “How long Oh Lord?”

Now while the word usquequo can simply be a straightforward question, as in, “How long until lunch?” the adverb usquequo usually has more of a rhetorical form wherein one asks “how long?” in a plaintive and exasperated tone, as in “How much longer!?” As if to say, “Oh Lord, why do you let this awful situation go on? Where are you!?” Thus, the word bespeaks not only disappointment, but also even a certain sense of injustice that God would care so little about us that he would allow such terrible things to go on for so long.

God knows that we feel this way sometimes. And even if our intellect can supply some possible reasons that God would allow bad things to go on, or that He is not entirely to blame for the mess that we’re in, still it is clear that our feelings often are not satisfied with any rational explanation and simply cry out “How long, oh Lord!?

God knows this about us; He knows that we are feeling like this, and wants us to speak with him directly about it, to articulate it; to pray out of this experience.

Let’s sample some of these texts:

  • Psalm 13:1-2 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
  • Psalm 6: 3-6 My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me, save me because of your unfailing love. Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from my groaning.
  • Psalm 10:1-2 Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance, the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises.
  • Psalm 35:17 How long, Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my precious life from these lions.
  • Psalm 44:24 Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?
  • Psalm 89:46 How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all humanity! Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David?
  • Psalm 79:5-7 How long, Lord? Will you be angry forever? How long will your jealousy burn like fire? Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you, on the kingdoms that do not call on your name; for they have devoured Jacob and devastated his homeland.
  • Psalm 74:10-11 How long will the enemy mock you, God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
  • Psalm 94:2-3 Rise up, Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve. How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant?
  • Lam 5:20 Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long?
  • Habakkuk 1:1-4 How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.
  • Job 7:18-19 Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant? If I have sinned, what have I done to you, you who see everything we do? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins? For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more.

Thus we see modeled for us that God desires us to speak what we are feeling, to give voice to our anger. Why is this? First of all, he knows already that we have it and does not desire our prayer to be suppressed, pretentious, or phony. If anger is the “elephant in the room,” let’s admit it rather than trying to pretend it’s not there. Second, in expressing our emotions aloud we often help vent or at least reduce their power. Suppressed feelings often become depression if they are not given respect and a voice.

The biblical texts also model a kind of Jewish insight and practice known as taking up a “rib” (pronounced “reeb”) wherein one argues, complains, contends, strives, or pleads a case with God. Even early on in the Biblical text we see Abraham and Moses often in (sometimes tense) negotiations with God (e.g. Genesis 18:16ffExodus 3Numbers 14:10ff). And thus the psalms and similar texts model a kind of “rib” wherein one asks God to deliver on his promises and expresses exasperation at the apparent delay of the same. God the Holy Spirit models and encourages this sort of prayer in including it in the inspired text.

Mysteriously, God does not often answer the “Why?” implicit in our groans. But he is able and most willing to hear them. And sometimes it is our very groans that yield the desired relief. Scripture says, I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry, my appeal. He turned his ear to me, and thus, I will call on him as long as I live (Ps 116:1-2), and, Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy (Psalm 126:5). And St. Augustine says, More things are wrought in prayer by sighs and tears, than by many words. (Ltr to Proba, 2) Thus, our groans and soulful protests do reach God’s ears.

At other times, God gives a Job-like answer (cf Job 38 ff) in which he reminds us of our feeble capacity to see the whole picture when we protest suffering or evil. And thus, his answer is a kind of “non-answer,” in which he reminds us that our minds are very small.

But nevertheless, the point here is that God instructs us to ask, to protest, “How long?” as a sign of His understanding, even respect, for our anger and exasperation.

It is also interesting to note that God oftentimes takes up the complaint “How long?” as well! It ought not to surprise us that God is also at times “exasperated” with us, and in a kind of anthropomorphic turning of the tables, he too laments “How long?” Here are some of those texts:

  • Psalm 82:1 God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the “gods”: “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?
  • Jer 4:21-22 How long must I see the battle standard and hear the sound of the trumpet?“My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.”
  • Jer 23:26-28 “I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds? They think the dreams they tell one another will make my people forget my name…”
  • Matt 17:17 “Unbelieving and perverse generation!” Jesus replied, “How long must I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?

So it would seem that God is willing to admit into prayer both our anger and His. Where there is love there is also bound to be some anger, for things matter when we love. God would rather have us speak openly and honestly of our anger toward him. He also often reveals His anger toward us. In this matter, vituperative anger, name calling, and cursing is in no way commended, but only honest airing of the fact of our anger and the basis for it.

There is an old saying, “No tension, no change.” The simple fact is that God allows some tension in our lives and in our relationship with him. One reason is that tension helps keep our attention and evokes change. In instructing us to cry out “How long, O Lord?” the Lord invites us to take up the energy and tension of our anger and make it the “stuff” of our prayer. In so doing, our prayer is more honest, and it soars on the wings of passion. It keeps us engaged and energized and fuels a kind of insistence and perseverance in our prayer.

Within proper bounds, and with humility presumed, anger in prayer has a proper place, and God himself both prescribes it and models it for us in the Book of Psalms and in other texts. Be angry, but sin not. (Eph 4:26)

This video is rather long, but it is a wonderful musical setting of Henry Desmarets’ (1661-1741) Usquequo Domine. Put it on in the background to play.

The translation of Psalm 13 sung here is as follows:

How long O Lord will thou forget me, must thy look still be turned away from me? Each day brings a fresh load of care, fresh misery to my heart; must I be ever the sport of my enemies? Look upon me, O Lord my God, and listen to me; give light to these eyes, before they close in death; do not let my enemies claim the mastery, my persecutors triumph over my fall! I cast myself on thy mercy; soon may this heart boast of redress granted, sing in praise of the Lord, my benefactor.

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  1. Paul says:

    THANK YOU ! Msgr Pope.

  2. Kat L says:

    Thank you. I remember a grief counselor saying to me “Why don’t you tell God how you feel? Do you think He doesn’t know? Do you think He appreciates you pretending everything is fine when it isn’t? You won’t get struck with lightning”. And it’s great advice-but deep down, it’s hard to accept it. I went to Catholic school. You could be a lot of things ..but angry at God? No way!! I was afraid to even think it. Thank you for those passages from the bible that prove the counselor was right. It makes it easier for me and encourages me to talk to God about this lingering mistrust I have.

  3. Mary Ellen says:

    Thank you Msgr. Pope. I read your blog every morning as part of my Lenten devotions and I’m going to share this one with my RCIA group.

  4. Micky Wolf says:

    Beautiful! Thank you!

  5. C Beltz says:

    Thank you Msgr. Pope! I had always heard the phrase “It’s okay to be angry with God, He can take it”.

    As I have recently dealt with some frustration with God, my “How Long” questions have consistently been answered with “Slow down”. Of course, that seemed super frustrating until I realized I was getting in my own way and making the resolution of my problems take longer. In my quest for a quick solution, I sped past what God wanted me to see or do. I discovered with the help of the Holy Spirit, that if I let go of my goal and use any perceived delays to do God’s work (even if it’s to let an old lady cross the street slowly while I patiently wait for her to pass), He will ensure my goal is met and probably in a more beneficial way than if I had done it myself by rushing through.

  6. JohnR says:

    I certainly empathise with this theme. I have felt this emotion often enough. However, the last time I felt this way a voice within me said “Don’t blame God for the misdeeds of others. He gave everyone free will and if He takes it away from some because of the evil that they are doing then He will be diminishing His creation. He simply cannot take away the free will of some people because they use it for sin. They would not be full human beings if He did. God allows evil to happen because He honours His Creation. There is no doubt that the evil doers will pay for their sins because they freely chose to do evil. They are to blame. God is not!”
    And so it is!
    I pray for those who do evil but I accept that they have free will just as I have.
    I seem to remember, somewhere, reading that Archbishop Fulton Sheen remarked that God sends opportunities and prompts, to the evil doers, to try and persuade them to repent and turn away from what they are doing. But He will not take away their free will in order to prevent them from doing evil. If He did, then they would no longer be blameworthy for the evil which they are doing.