Mad at the World? Look Away from It

You’ve probably met people who are always scowling, always ready for an argument, always complaining that everyone and everything is against them and no one understands or cares. Maybe they’re right at that. It’s hard to care for long about someone’s misery once you learn that no attempt to help is ever enough:

  • If you smile at them, they snap, “What right do you have to be happy?”
  • If you suggest they cheer up and count their blessings, they take it as further proof that no one understands how unfair life is to them.
  • If you point out specific things they have to be thankful for, they belittle those things one by one. The sunny day is too hot or too cold or too windy; the new job means more work they won’t have time to keep up with; the fresh salad should be gourmet steak; the gourmet steak is too tough.
  • If you try to solve the problems they’re complaining about, the solution is too late or too incomplete.

After a few rounds of that, initial sympathizers have little choice but to distance themselves or have their own joy eaten away by infectious negativity. Which, of course, gives the grouch one more thing to complain about, one more incident proving that nobody cares.

Have you ever been that grouch–or are you still? Are you, on some level, actually enjoying it?

Chronic “mad-at-the-world-itis” is, if nothing else, a tasty snack for one’s pride (albeit at the price of emotional indigestion). It’s the perfect tool for proving to your own satisfaction that you’re right and others are wrong. It’s the smooth voice of assurance telling you that in spite of everything, you really do deserve to have your every whim granted. It keeps you the center of at least your own attention, it makes it hard for others to ignore you completely, and it keeps anyone in your circle of influence from getting too satisfied with the world you find so chronically imperfect.

But, really, who since the Fall has found life to be anywhere near perfect? Why is it, then, that nonstop grumblers are in the minority–and why is it that they seem more or less evenly distributed among the people who have one problem after another, those who lead comfortable-though-not-luxurious-or-exciting lives, and those who seem to have everything in terms of wealth and prominence? What really drives the mad-at-the-world types?

“Pride and selfishness” is only part of the answer: many with ample supply of both are smugly content. The other thing that most chronically surly people have in common is that, underneath it all, they feel scared and powerless. Because the imperfections of life remind them that they aren’t in control of everything–which they hate–they live on the defensive against those imperfections. Many of them work a simultaneous offensive, striving for control through endless hard work and obsession with not missing a single detail–which, of course, adds mental and physical fatigue to the mix and makes it all the harder to be cheerful. And leads to further bitterness when things stubbornly insist on going not-according-to-plan “after all I’ve done” to get everything right.

The cause of anger is, at its root, a determination to usurp God’s sovereign role or at least put Him in our debt. The Pharisees and legalists of this world are rarely criticized for smiling too much. They’re much better known for begrudging grace to anyone who hasn’t done what they have to “earn” it.

That there’s no such thing as “earned” grace, or that we’re all equally impure before our Maker, are near-impossible concepts for the control-craving mind to grasp. Ironically, it’s grace itself that enables us to see these truths clearly–but grace can only be received by relaxing our struggle and releasing our bitterness. In other words, you aren’t allowed to keep any of your anger (read “pride”), even if what happened to you was horribly unfair by all human standards. You have to admit that you deserve no better than the worst, if you want to experience the full joy of God’s best.

St. Paul was a man who knew all too well what it was like to work harder than average and still see constant trouble. He also knew what it was like to see his own sinfulness and follies set next to God’s eternal power and purity–and that forever humbled him and crushed any tendency he might have had toward “I deserve better” anger. He sums up his secret in 2 Corinthians 4:18:

“We don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.”

While “fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen” may sound like a contradiction in terms, it underscores that the things of God, invisible to eyes dimmed by original sin, are far more “real” and lasting than the obvious and temporary things of this world. “Counting one’s blessings” is fine (and no one is so sick or poor or persecuted as to be beyond the reach of all earthly joys), but it will have no ultimate benefit unless we also know the One Who gives those blessings. When a blessing is removed–or replaced with a more challenging one–it quickly becomes obvious whether the person worshipped the Giver or only the gift. Will we follow the example of Job and say even in the pain of loss, “The LORD gave me what I had, and the LORD has taken it away. Praise the name of the LORD!” (Job 1:21)? Or will we scream, “Lord, how could You let this happen?” and stop there? The answer will reveal whether our eyes are fixed on God or on “the things we see now [that] will soon be gone.”

While we can’t “see” God in the standard sense, we do have access to “lenses” that can open our inner eyes to His reality:

  • The glory of creation. This is the most basic level, and itself corrupted both by the original Fall and by the activities of Fall-driven humans. However, nature still bears the marks of God’s craftsmanship and eye for beauty. Are we willing to put aside our rushing for a while and get lost in wonder over the moon and stars, the fresh air of a breeze, or–even on a city street–a tiny blossom poking through the sidewalk or the iridescent feathers of a starling?
  • The Scriptures. It’s amazing how many Christians have never read the Bible through; some have never read it at all, others stick to the sections that highlight sins they haven’t committed. If you really want to get the most from the Bible, ask God sincerely to open your mind as you open the Book; read slowly and carefully as if for the first time; and be prepared not only for new insights, but for the discomfort of realizing you haven’t been a “doer of the Word” in an area you thought you knew well, or that what every Christian you know agrees is the obvious interpretation may not be flawless. Oh, yes–you also have to go in prepared to do whatever God shows you through the Scriptures, whether you like it or not! (And you have to remember that the full context of the Bible emphasizes the “speak the truth in love” principle [Ephesians 4:15], lest you develop either a judgmental or an ultra-timid attitude.)
  • Fellow believers. As Jesus said, “Where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). “Christian backup” isn’t infallible–and if you’re looking to others to do your decision-making, God may choose to withhold His will for you from the most discerning eyes until you’re willing to listen for yourself–but where everyone is humbly submitted to God and unafraid to gently correct others, spiritual support is invaluable in unmasking blind spots and stubborn areas.
  • Prayer. Talking (and listening) to God directly should be not only an indispensable part of every Christian’s life, but an indescribable joy. Too often, we let prayer become something recited by rote, rushed through in our few visible seconds of spare time, or used solely to present our requests without asking God what He thinks. Certainly, even most of us who try to listen find it anything but easy to be sure that what we think we hear actually comes from God, particularly since most of us live in a jumble of mental noise. Truly deep, effective prayer takes practice–time set aside specifically for that purpose, preferably bordered on both ends by “no-rush” activities and extended to at least an hour on a regular basis; the trouble to set up a quiet spot with few distractions; often the journaling of insights to keep them from getting lost–and even then, there’s no guarantee we’ll get a clear unmistakable word from God with any frequency. But if we back our prayers with a solid knowledge of His nature and a humble willingness to obey–plus a willingness to check any genuine uncertainties with our spiritual support network–He will protect us from going astray.
  • Circumstances. This is the trickiest “lens,” and the worst thing to do (in fact, a quick way back to a mad-at-the-world attitude) is to take it as any kind of “God’s will = easy way; sin = hard way” formula. Thousands of Christians have followed God’s will wholly and yet had to battle their way through near-constant persecution and discouragement; thousands of others have had an easy time despite being lukewarm and self-centered. Still, God does use circumstances to guide the humble and prayerful believer; “if the door opens, go through” does frequently work if it’s consistent with everything else you know of God’s nature and His will for your life.

Often, the door is one of service. If we truly know God, we’ll have no time to be angry at the world. We’ll be too busy obeying His command to love others.

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1 Comment

  1. Jo Swank

     /  February 5, 2016

    Amen! Another “meaty” offering! Thank you for sharing your insights, Kathy!


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