How do I pray when I’m angry?

by Rachel Syens

Three of my close friends and I created a group chat together. We share silly photos, memes, and updates on our favorite celebrities. But we’ve also deemed the group chat a safe space to vent—to get out our frustration, to speak openly, without fear of judgement, and to share our emotions. We juggle many emotions in our lives, and recently, I’ve experienced an extended season marked by one emotion standing out far more prominently than any other: anger.

Perhaps you’ve felt anger, too. Anger over the state of our world. Anger over loss. Anger over division among our friends, family, and communities. And perhaps you’ve been unsure of how to approach God with your anger. For many of us, myself included, we were taught to bring our prayer requests to God, but we were never taught what to do with the emotions that came with them. In her book Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, Tish Harrison Warren writes: “When I do have conflict, it’s usually with those who I love the most.” God loves us unconditionally, and we put our unconditional faith, hope, trust, and love in him. I’ve started thinking about my prayer time with God in a similar way to my conversations in the group chat: that it’s a safe space to vent, to be emotional, to come to God in anger, joy, sadness, and every emotion in between. As Warren continues, “[H]ere is where I find myself on an ordinary day, and here, in my petty anger and irritation, is where the Savior deigns to meet me.”

A Primer on Anger

Anger can bring out feelings of shame and guilt—we may feel ashamed of our own emotional state, or frustrated with ourselves for being angry. Verywell Mind reminds us “Anger is a completely normal and typically healthy emotion. However, it can be detrimental to both your emotional and physical health when you lose control of it.” Vulnerability researcher Brené Brown has spoken about two common and unhealthy ways in which we cope with and offload feelings of anger. The first, chandeliering, is what happens when we bury our emotions deep down, especially heavy feelings like anger. We risk “flying off the handle” when something triggers that pent up anger. The second, stockpiling, is when we keep our anger and hurt to ourselves, causing ourselves internal distress, like depression and anxiety, and even physical illness.

If you’re like me, you may find yourself in the category of chandeliering or stockpiling, trying to hide the “ugly” emotion of anger from others. But it’s important for our physical, mental, and spiritual health to find healthy ways to express our anger. For me, that began with open and honest prayer time with God. I prayed with anger. I gave my anger to God, who is big enough to handle it. Psalm 4:4 (NIV) says: “Tremble and do not sin.” This has also been translated as “In your anger do not sin.” Anger isn’t sinning, but in praying when we are angry, we trust that God is going to take care of it. He can take our feelings of hurt and pain and in return, leave us with peace.

Praying with Emotion

God created us as people capable of many emotions. We come to prayer in praise and thanksgiving, but often we find ourselves feeling less than joyful. As Brown shares: “We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” I’ve come to reframe my prayer time with God as a moment of open, honest dialogue. Instead of hiding my emotions, especially when I deem them to be “ugly,” I present my full self to God. I remember that God has seen me at my best and my worst and despite it all, he still loves me. Despite it all, he has given me the beautiful gift of grace and salvation. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Despite it all—my anger, my frustration, my questions, my doubts, my pain—God still loves me, and you, unconditionally. Author and theologian Rachel Held Evans wrote, “Dignified or not, believable or not, ours is a God perpetually on bended knee, doing everything it takes to convince stubborn and petulant children that they are seen and loved.” We can come to God with childlike anger, in a tantrum, and he will give us compassion. He is our Father, ready to comfort us.

Tools for praying through anger

Praying in anger doesn’t always come naturally, especially if we’ve been taught to put aside our feelings of frustration when we enter into quiet time with God. I have begun to treat my prayer time like conversations. Just as I’d express my feelings of frustration to my friends in our group chat, I share my anger with God. I find that speaking through my pain helps me to release it. The hurt may still be there, but the pressure on my heart is lessened.

Another way to approach prayer is through writing. Evans said: “I am writing because sometimes we are closer to the truth in our vulnerability than in our safe certainties.” Sharing our emotions is vulnerable, and it can be very hard. But sometimes the act of writing, of physically removing the words from our minds and placing them on paper, can help us share our deepest emotions. I’ve incorporated writing into my quiet time with God. Remember that your prayer time doesn’t have to look the same as your friend, your family, or anyone else. There is no right way to pray—God invites us to spend time with him in ways that are comfortable and beneficial to us and our spiritual life.

I’ve also used the psalms as a guide to help me pray. The psalms express a wide variety of emotions: jubilation and thanksgiving, but also grief, pain, and suffering. If I’m at a loss for words, or finding it difficult to express my feelings, I read the psalms. Theologian N.T. Wright wrote in his book The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential, “The Psalms offer us a way of joining in a chorus.” Prayer can be both solitary and communal. I love the idea of joining with others who I felt the same way as me, praying to a God who is compassionate, gracious, and loving, despite our anger, despite our flaws, and will always offer us comfort.