Christopher Ash and Steve Midgley’s new book, The Heart of Anger, addresses a pressing issue in our families and churches. Anger is one of those sins that comes all too easily for many of us. For the opportunity to think further about this vital issue in my own heart and for Christian ministry in general, I was pleased to receive a review copy of The Heart of Anger as part of the Crossway Blog Review Program. In the books four parts, Ash and Midgley offer much godly wisdom and confront the reader in a gentle yet firm manner.
After raising the importance of addressing anger in the introduction, describing it “a strange, powerful, confusing, multifaceted phenomenon,” the authors set out to bring the Bible to bear on this issue (12). In Part one, the authors present “Biblical Portraits” of anger. Chapters 1 and 2 consider the heart behind anger, both what goes on beneath our expressions of anger and what they perceive to the core behind the feeling of and acts of anger, desiring to be in the place of God. The following five chapters then look at the relationship between anger and various other things, its damage (Ch. 3), its related vices (power, self-righteousness, and pride, Chs. 4-6). Chapter 7 looks at the infectious nature of sin, how it is easily “caught” through cultural values, personal influence, and in corporate circumstances. They argue that one angry expression of our desire to be god is drawing others into “angry madness,” collaborating with others to justify our sin (Ch. 8). In Chapter 9, the final of Part 1, the authors argue “righteous anger” is our imitation of God’s indignation towards injustice and the devaluing of his glory. In their estimation, our anger is not often righteous. Part 2 then considers God’s own righteous anger displaying and describing it from Scripture. They rightly point to the need for “leaving room for an angry God,” entrusting “vengeance and perfect loving justice to him” (105). Part 2 is the strongest in the book.
Part 3 turns from describing anger as it is found in man and God to defusing it. These chapters contrast our anger with God’s in terms of knowledge (Ch. 16) and purpose (Ch. 17). We do not know everything when we get angry: we never have the whole picture and are liable to become angry in ignorance. It would be better to seek to understand rather than presuming upon what we think we know. Even when we feel our anger is most righteous, they argue that our purposes behind anger are often to usurp God’s control and frustration when these attempts are thwarted. Chapter 18 examines the various emotions that often provoke anger in use (fear, frustration, sadness, shame). In Part 4, Ash and Midgley contrast the distorted purposes and emotions behind anger with the desires, emotions, and circumstances that are found “in Christ,” in his church and renewing work. The book finishes with two appendices for diagnosing and working through our issues with anger.
The Heart of Anger says many good things well. The reader will benefit from many Biblical insights into the human heart and (if your anything like me) will be confronted by the many ways they fall short in this area. The book’s presentation could perhaps have been sharpened with longer chapters that present a specific dynamic of sin and its solution (merging part 1 and 4); as it stands, many of the chapters felt too short.
The topic of righteous anger perhaps deserves more attention; the authors write off Ephesians 4:26, “be angry and do not sin.” In both Hebrew (Ps 4:4) and Greek, this is an imperative verbal form. I do not think they are justified in glossing this as “an acknowledgment that we do get angry” (159). Rather, it commends—indeed, it commands—a certain form of anger, doing so with much warning against anger gone awry. I also question the value of approaches to sin that search for the root cause behind all “anger,” which, for Ash and Midgley, is the desire to be in the place of God. This is certainly one way of looking at anger in most, perhaps even every, sinful expression. However, it is not clear how much this analysis contributes. That is, by stripping away the uniqueness of sinful anger in search of underlying unity, the result may be too general to help in real-life situations of anger. It is true that when I am angry towards my daughter, there is an element that could be described as desiring control as God controls. But I am not convinced that this will always be the element that should be addressed directly. Perhaps reinforcing God’s command for gentleness (Eph 5) would be more appropriate than a big picture indictment of sin. As much as my anger is sin for presuming control as God has control, it is also sinful as a direct contradiction of God’s commands, betraying neglect for my responsibilities towards God and man. The authors do address anger from many angles and provide many examples of the problem and solutions, so this is not a crippling problem. Nevertheless, I do think it is a problem that reflects a general tendency among Reformed Christians to search for the “essence” of things, the unifying cause behind the diversity of experience.
The Heart of Anger provides many helpful portraits of the sinful human heart, along with useful Biblical correctives, but does not get to the “heart of anger,” as if to ascertain its essence. Read it for the former, not the latter.