The Heart of Anger: How the Bible Transforms Anger in Our Understanding and Experience

Written by Christopher Ash and Steve Midgley Reviewed By Duncan Woods

Anger traverses our lives, indeed whole societies, on a bewildering scale. It lurks in an unspoken mild, momentary irritation. It bursts forth in red-faced, vein popping, violent rage. In between it hangs out in all sorts of alleyways and gutters of ugly human behavior. Christopher Ash and Steve Midgley describe anger as “the drawn sword of human relationships” (p. 11) and the purpose of their theologically insightful and pastorally rich book is “to bring the Bible to bear” on the phenomenon of anger from the moment our hands reach for the sword to the aftermath of the strike.

While making no direct reference to it, The Heart of Anger implicitly follows the helpful biblical counseling model of three trees: replacing the thorns and thistles (tree 1) of human anger through the cross (tree 2) so that the gospel might produce good fruit (tree 3). Consequently, in Part 1 of the book, Ash and Midgley first give a rich survey of “Biblical Portraits of Human Anger,” which is full of many sharp thorns and stinging thistles. This portrait reveals the central premise of the book: that at the heart of (ungodly) anger is “the desire to be god” (p. 33). Part 2, “Leave Room for an Angry God,” wonderfully contrasts divine anger with ours and is essential in leading to and from the cross of Christ. This paves the way for “The First Steps in Defusing Human Anger” (part 3) and genuine change to “Find Joy in the Peace of Christ” (part 4). The book ends with two appendices which are short but worthy of lengthy meditation.

One of the great strengths of this book is the refreshing approach to the many biblical examples of anger. There is a rich taxonomy of human anger because the text is given space to breathe and the reader is enabled to see the heart motivations of a Jonah or an Ahab, a Cain or an Ahasuerus. We also see how anger moves from the feelings that stir within the human heart all the way through to the actions that result. On numerous occasions the book caused me to open my Bible, double check and have a quiet inward “Ah, yes!” moment.

One reason why the book succeeds in its portrait of human anger is because the authors look beyond word studies and the obvious biblical texts. The exchange between Nabal and David in 1 Samuel 25 is a good example where none of the normal anger words are used yet David is clearly “seething with fury” (p. 13). This makes for a profound survey, revealing the complexity of causation as we reach for the sword as well as making sense of the various harms the drawn sword can do. We are reminded that “sinful behavior is like a Sicilian family photograph of the mafia” (p. 13). Anger might dominate but he has some ugly mobster cousins like “sadness, regret, shame and despair,” hidden in his shadow. Ash and Midgley put the whole mob in the dock and later (in parts 3 and 4) put them away for some serious time because of their deep biblical insight and refreshing exegesis.

There is opportunity to swim in some deep and wondrous doctrinal waters in this book. It could have, and arguably should have, begun with a biblical portrait of God’s anger (which the authors acknowledge on pp. 15 and 77). Nevertheless, they begin with our own experience of anger, convinced that “we can only understand the Bible’s language about the anger of God when we first have some grasp of the phenomenon of human anger” (p. 15).

Part 2, however, is essential reading to grasp the whole. In just twenty-four pages the authors clarify what God’s anger is and is not, deconstruct some serious misconceptions and present complex doctrines (such as divine simplicity) simply. This rightly leads to worship. There is particular wonder expressed at Christ’s anger (drawing heavily upon B. B. Warfield’s famous essay, “On the Emotional Life of Our Lord”) and great wisdom displayed in discussion of why God’s anger is actually a good thing, rather than something about which we should be embarrassed. Crucially, the theological rigor here helps to explain what righteous anger looks like. Clear doctrine, strong exegesis and a wealth in church history (Augustine, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Bonhoeffer, Chalmers, and several others receive mention) give foundational strength. However, as expected in a book written by two pastors, the authors are keen to see real change in the lives of believers. Accordingly, there is a right and particular focus on application in part 4 with desires exposed and re-shaped by the love of Christ.

However, much like a good sermon, application is not just left to the end but runs throughout. I had to stop reading regularly after ghosts of anger past re-surfaced in my mind, sometimes followed by ghosts of anger present from the kitchen table that very day. In part, then, this is a devotional book. Time is needed to sigh and confess personal failings, to feel again the pain caused by others, to forgive and be forgiven.

If there is one criticism to be made, however, it is that the life examples are overwhelmingly middle classy and tertiary educated. That does not mean the examples are unhelpful or not thought-provoking, but they involve a pastor preparing a sermon, a teacher, a doctor. For those either from or ministering among a different demographic it would have been good to have some different examples—the Christian refugee waiting for her visa to be approved or the young man recently converted who has not seen his heroin addicted dad since he was 9 and is deeply angry at the mess left behind.

Leaving that aside, there are numerous unexpected insights. As a church leader, I appreciated reflections on the communal aspect of anger and its cousins. We preach Christ into the culture of the crowd (chs. 7 and 20) and are shaped by the crowds from which we come. In a season with much reflection on healthy church culture and leadership this is timely. There is also a very welcome exploration of the value of good biblical music and how the Holy Spirit might use the words He has authored to bridge the gap between head and heart knowledge (pp. 170–72). Other insights will surprise other readers. I mention these only as examples of how wide and deep the issues of anger go and how the Lord graciously leads to a better way.

So, what specific contribution does The Heart of Anger make, particularly when compared with David Powlinson’s Good and Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining, and Bitterness (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2016)? While the fact that it is written for a British audience does give it a particular flavor, the title holds the real clue. The Heart of Anger gets to the theological heart of the matter, developing a full biblical doctrine of God’s anger. Good and Angry, on the other hand, is focused more on methods to transform our anger. I might encourage church members to start with The Heart of Anger before picking up Good and Angry. But both books are needed, and both will do God’s people much good.

Duncan Woods

Duncan Woods
Trinity Church Sunderland
Sunderland, England, UK

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