Podcast: Diagnosing the Heart of Anger (Christopher Ash)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

What Does the Bible Have to Say about Anger?

In this episode, Christopher Ash discusses why anger is such a powerful, dangerous emotion for the Christian. He walks through some of the key Bible passages that address the topic of anger, explains how we should think of imperfect, often selfish human anger compared to God’s perfectly righteous anger, and offers advice to the person who struggles to control his or her anger on a regular basis.

The Heart of Anger

Christopher Ash, Steve Midgley

Christopher Ash and Steve Midgley explore the root and character of human anger, examine the righteous anger of God, and offer readers practical wisdom about the way the gospel can gradually transform a heart of anger into a heart filled with the love of God.

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | RSS

Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:30 - A Drawn Sword

Matt Tully
Christopher, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Christopher Ash
It’s very good to be with you, Matt.

Matt Tully
You have this really powerful line in the opening of your book that just really stood out to me, and I think it would be really helpful to hear you unpack it a little bit more. You write: “Anger is the drawn sword of human relationships.” What do you mean by that?

Christopher Ash
I guess it was an image that came to me when I was thinking about this. It’s an old fashioned image because nobody draws a sword now except on a film set, but it’s the idea that before a sword is used to strike somebody, somebody has to reach their sword arm to touch the sword and think about drawing it. And then they draw the sword. And then they hold the sword up in the air. It’s a kind of process, and it just seemed to me it was a way of getting hold of the idea that anger is that strange, in between thing that starts with a seed of thought and desire and feeling in the heart, and then ends with an angry word or an angry deed or something like that. I just hoped that it was an image that might convey that—the drawn sword. I felt it was quite evocative.

Matt Tully
I did too. It is interesting because it is that in between before the violence that the sword implies actually occurs, but there’s actually something intentional about your drawing that sword—you’re readying yourself, and there’s this kind of threat implied in that. Is there something to that? Sometimes we think of anger as this unbidden, uncontrolled emotion that just appears and wells up, maybe outside of our control to some extent. Is that true? Or is there more active engagement on our part? Is there an intentional drawing of the sword on our part at play there?

Christopher Ash
Matt, that is such an interesting question, and such a difficult question. I think Ed Welch has famously used the phrase “the madness of anger.” There is a madness, an out-of-controlness. We talk about flying off the handle. We all have memories of ourselves—let alone other people—of flying off the handle where it’s just out of control; I’m out of control, and I know I’m out of control. So there is that, but I guess it’s trying to get a hold of the idea that you dig down into your heart and you find there’s something there that’s going on that’s got a sort of logic to it. Theoreticians talk about perception. I perceive something which either harms something I value or threatens something I value. Then I appraise that, and I decide I don’t like it. I don’t like something I value being attacked or harmed, and then the anger follows. So I think it’s that sense that that diagnosis you can do something about, even if it’s afterwards in retrospect. I think that, in a way, offers hope because it means I’m not simply a victim of some random thing that just happens to me. I think that’s what I was trying to get at.

Matt Tully
As I think about my own life and experience, there are times when I have that feeling of anger that just sort of comes to me, but I also think often it feels like there’s a moment—even if it’s only a brief moment—of I know I’m feeling upset about something, and now I have a choice to make: Am I going to indulge this and go forward in that feeling, or am I going to exercise self-control and check that? It’s both happening to us and also something that we have a part to play in.

Christopher Ash
I guess so. We live in a culture of victimhood, don’t we? We’re very used to everybody portraying themselves as a victim. There’s something in that. Sin is a power and whether it’s my own sin or bad behavior of others, I am, in some measure, a victim. But it can be overstated. I’m also a moral agent in the presence of God; I have responsibility for myself. I guess it’s wanting to try to get a hold of that as well.

06:31 - Are Emotions Neutral?

Matt Tully
What do you think about that broader question of emotions? It seems like it’s fairly common today, even among Christians, the sentiment that your emotions are never sinful in and of themselves. It’s only what you choose to do with those emotions—maybe how you act in response to them or what you say to someone else in response to them—but the emotions themselves are just kind of there and they are morally neutral. What do you say to that?

Christopher Ash
I think the Bible speaks pretty strongly against that. When the Lord Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says murder is wrong—obviously, the sixth commandment—but when you get angry with malicious, sinful anger, then that’s a guilty thing. You’re liable to the judgment of God. There’s something rather naive when people say that what I do and what I say can be separated from what’s going on in my heart. The emotions are expressive of what’s going on in my heart. Therefore, emotions must be either virtuous or sinful or often mixed. Therefore, the shaping of our emotions is a very important part of sanctification. It’s interesting, as you know, one of my big projects at the moment is working on the Psalms. I think one of the things the Psalms do is to shape our messed up affections and emotions so that we feel as we ought to feel. If we take the Bible seriously, I don’t think we can buy that idea that emotions are just a neutral thing and that they’re just there.

Matt Tully
You mentioned Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, and obviously the Psalms also capture so much human emotion and even speak to God’s emotions at times. This idea of anger is a pretty common theme in the Bible as a whole. You note in your book that there are at least fifteen different Hebrew or Greek words associated with anger occurring in nearly 800 verses or passages throughout the Old and New Testaments. Honestly, hearing it spelled out like that was actually pretty surprising to me. I think I knew it was a fairly common theme, but not that prevalent. What do you make of that? What do you make of how prevalent this idea of anger is in the Bible? A lot of those references, I think, are references to God being angry.

Christopher Ash
Yes, they are. I reckon between a half and two-thirds are to do with the righteous anger of God, in both Old and New Testaments I think. It’s hard to do accurate statistics, but there’s a lot of it, as you say. I wonder if that just says to us that this anger thing is bigger than we sometimes think. I think in some of our Christian circles we naturally hone in on certain virtues and certain sins, some which have a kind of magnetic quality. We’ll naturally talk about this or that sin, particularly in the area of sex because those are the hot-button issues in our culture. We’re right to talk about those—the Bible does. At some point in the book Steve Midgley and I talk about anger having cousins, as it were, a family photograph of vices. Anger is a significant issue, and therefore a Christian people thinking about how the gospel of Jesus addresses our anger and how anger is going to be reshaped in our sanctification is important.

11:02 - Righteous Anger, Injustice, and Forgiveness

Matt Tully
What should we make of God’s anger? How should we understand that? We obviously have a reference point in our own experience of anger and maybe seeing other people around us getting angry. But as we’ve already noted, so often our anger is, if not wholly sinful, it’s at least tinged with sin and selfishness and pride and all these other vices. And yet, God’s anger is not. How should we understand what it means for God to be angry?

Christopher Ash
I felt I had to do quite a bit of work on this because our culture is so against that, and there’s that rather shallow misreading that the God of the Old Testament is a nasty, vicious, angry God. I remember somebody saying to me, Jesus was never angry, was he? I said to them, Actually, you probably need to read the New Testament. I hope I said it kindly, but it’s true. We’ve tried to identify in the book some of the differences about God’s anger from ours. For example, God’s anger is based on perfect knowledge. There’s a really good chapter that Steve wrote in the book about how we like to think we know everything—especially when we’re angry with somebody, we like to think we know all about them—and we never do.

Matt Tully
We assume their motives and their intentions.

Christopher Ash
Exactly. We hate it when people do that with us, but we do that with other people naturally. But God’s anger is based on perfect knowledge, and it’s always got good as the goal. It’s always directed simply and purely against evil. There’s something about God’s anger that it’s forewarned. Clearly in Scripture it’s not a random thing; it’s a steady, good thing. It’s a necessary thing. It would be terrible to live in a world where there wasn’t one sovereign God who is angry at evil. Strangely enough, people in society implicitly acknowledge this. There’s plenty of anger around. There’s been a lot recently—angry protests about racism, for example. Of course, there are things that haven’t been right about all that, but fundamentally, we’re right to be angry at racism. We’re right to be angry at injustice. When people say, I don’t like the idea of God being angry, those same people think it’s absolutely right to be angry about things they reckon are wrong in the world, and often we would want to agree with them.

Matt Tully
Unpack that a little bit. What is the connection between anger and injustice? It seems like that righteous anger—whether that’s God’s righteous anger or even human righteous anger—is connected to justice in some way or another. Unpack that a little bit.

Christopher Ash
Yes. John the Baptist is an interesting example, isn’t he? When people come to him and he says, You brood of vipers! He’s pretty forthright!

Matt Tully
Harsh words!

Christopher Ash
Yeah! He’s pretty strong really. They say to him, What shall we do? And he says to the soldiers, Don’t extort money from people, be fair . . . —it’s very practical. There’s something about injustice which arouses the anger of God, and ought to arouse our anger. Our anger is always mixed, isn’t it? We never feel pure, righteous anger, but if something wicked and evil happens or is said and we feel angry, we are right to feel angry. With us the problem is that if it’s something which impacts me, I feel angrier than if it’s something that impacts other people.

Matt Tully
Right. Maybe you’re right that this kind of thing is an objective injustice in some way, but it seems like it’s especially angering to us when we perceive that injustice to be impacting us unfairly or wrongly. Speak to that a little bit. At times it seems like it’s very hard to even assess our own hearts to know the difference between a good anger that’s justified and a bad anger. It seems like at some point the anger gets uncontrolled enough that it’s no longer righteous. How do you think about that dynamic in your own life and in your own heart when it comes to dealing with anger?

Christopher Ash
That’s a really good question. I probably don’t think about it enough. The example of Jesus is, I think, hugely helpful. Jesus was very angry at hardness of heart in the Synagogue—the man with the withered hand and the people who couldn’t care about him. He was very angry when his Father’s name was dishonored by what was happening in the Temple. He was angry in John 11 against sin and death spoiling the world. I was really convicted by this: in his own sufferings when he himself is falsely accused by false witnesses and tried in an unjust trial and executed completely unfairly, Jesus shows no trace of anger at all. I was thinking that there’s something there rather profound. I’m the opposite. I don’t care terribly if other people are badly treated. I might care a bit, but I don’t care an awful lot. But I care a great deal if I’m badly treated and I get angry at that.

Matt Tully
What’s the relationship between anger and forgiveness? As Christians, we know that we are called to forgive those who treat us unjustly, who sin against us. Sometimes we can think that if we forgive someone, then that means part of that forgiveness is no longer being angry at them. Is that true?

Christopher Ash
I think probably eventually. It takes time. I think we all find that it takes time for our emotions to catch up. If I could just speak personally: my wife and I are very happily married, but we’ve had a difficult weekend. There’s been some anger. Even in the happiest of marriages that happens. We’ve forgiven each other, but I find that I can forgive—and I genuinely forgive—but it takes time for the anger to die down. I think it needs to. I was really struck, actually, by that extraordinary story in Matthew 18 of the unforgiving servant. Jesus talks about this astronomical debt that the servant owes the master and that the master has forgiven him. What I really need is a deeper sense of my own sinfulness. If God gives me a deeper sense of my own sinfulness, my own wickedness, my own failure, then somehow forgiving others falls into place. It’s a difficult thing in the realities of life. It’s easy to say.

Matt Tully
I think any married person listening right now will resonate with that. It does seem like so often it’s the people that we’re closest to that we have the least patience with, that we are most prone to assume motives for, and all of that leads us to get angry. One passage that I remember always stood out to me, especially during those early days of marriage, is that well-known passage in Ephesians 4 where Paul says, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph. 4:26–27) I remember always reading that passage as a pretty firm command to, in relation to my wife, to make sure I work things out and make sure we’re no longer feeling angry at each other—even if we’ve just had an argument or disagreed on something—before we went to bed every night. How do you understand that passage, and others like it, when it comes to dealing with our anger in relationship with other Christians?

Christopher Ash
I think what you’ve described is right. Not letting the sun go down on your anger, there’s an urgency about that. We don’t want to be silly about that. If you have an argument just as the sun is setting and you’ve got thirty seconds to put it right, we don’t want to be silly about that, but there’s an urgency about it. I think the urgency comes from “don’t give the devil an opportunity.” Which I think can mean something like giving him a beachhead in an invasion. It’s almost like letting him get onto your landmass.

Matt Tully
Do you think there’s something uniquely dangerous about anger that hasn’t been dealt with in terms of letting Satan get a foothold in our lives in some way?

Christopher Ash
It seems that that’s the case, that there can be resentment that breeds. It’s something dangerous because it’s not static. It doesn’t just stay there; it breeds. And we all know that feeling of lying awake at night getting angrier and angrier. If you’re like me and you spend a lot of your life doing words, you compose the most eloquent put downs for people.

Matt Tully
The best response to something.

Christopher Ash
Yeah. And it’s a very good thing if they’re not written or sent. Of course, that’s part of the trouble with social media nowadays is that they do get posted, and then they can’t be taken back. I think there is something about anger that is not dealt with; it breeds resentment, and it can destroy me. That’s the destructive thing because that’s what my mind and heart go into. If you use the image of a manual gearbox. When you’re in neutral, you just default to that.

Matt Tully
When we think of anger, I think the default picture is someone getting more and more upset that they finally explode and there’s lots of yelling and maybe, in the most extreme cases, there’s physical violence associated with extreme anger. But anger can be expressed in a lot of different ways as well. What would be some of those ways that you think anger is most often expressed by different types of people?

Christopher Ash
There are huge personality dimensions and, indeed, cultural dimensions to this. But I was struck looking at the Bible that the hot, explosive anger is very dangerous; but the cold, nursed anger that just goes on being—it may not be expressed in hot words, but there’s a cold, bitter anger brewing up. I suspect a lot of the anger against Jesus was like that. Sometimes people blew up, like in the Synagogue in Nazareth. They were obviously openly angry. But other times, they were just behind the scenes plotting to kill him. There’s that cold, calculating anger. It’s almost worse than the explosive anger because it’s premeditated. In the Old Testament law, if you lose your temper and lash out at somebody and hurt them, it’s wrong. But if it’s premeditated, it’s more serious. We have that in our law codes today—a premeditated crime. A premeditated murder is worse than one in the heat of anger. They’re both wrong, but there’s something there. The other thing I was struck by is when anger gets frustrated and it’s neither played out in revenge nor is it dealt with in the heart, that it can lead to depressive illness when it’s all bottled up. There’s something there that’s destructive as well.

25:41 - For Those Struggling with Anger

Matt Tully
Speak to someone listening right now who would say, Yeah, I struggle with anger a lot. Maybe it’s really, really severe and they’re having outbursts. Maybe it’s that other kind of cold, calculating resentment that is just sort of nursed over days and weeks and years. What advice would you offer that person? Obviously, the specifics of a situation matter, but what would be some general advice for starting to work through that in a healthy way?

Christopher Ash
I think the first thing I would want to say is don’t despair, because the gospel of the Lord Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit can change us. You think of Saul of Tarsus who was a very angry man before his conversion. Violently angry. And the Lord changed him. So I think that’s the first thing I would say: don’t despair. The second thing is that it’s only the gospel of the Lord Jesus that can change your heart or my heart. There are lots of good strategies around—anger management stuff. A lot of it is very sensible. But they can’t change the heart. The gospel of the Lord Jesus can change the heart. I was really struck, actually, in the letter of James. It’s clear that the people that James is writing to are being badly treated and have plenty to be angry about. He says, If you lack wisdom, ask God. God will give you wisdom (James 1). When you read through the letter you discover that wisdom is a quality of character. It’s not knowing what decision to make necessarily. It’s a quality of character and it includes peaceableness and control of the tongue and gentleness and things like that. So, pray that God will gradually change you. Talk to a pastor, talk to a Christian counselor, talk to somebody who can point you to Scripture and pray with you. But there is hope. God does change us.

Matt Tully
Speak a little bit more to the relationship you see between the gospel, as you just said is that foundation and real source of power for any true change in our hearts. And yet, there’s also some of these more practical, step-by-step tools or advice for in-the-moment dealing with anger or thinking about the situation that we’re facing that’s causing our anger. How do you think about those methods, techniques, or tools in relation to the gospel?

Christopher Ash
I think they can have value. By the common grace of God there could be real value in learning some of those strategies. But, I think the gospel says—the Scripture says to us—only Christ can change my heart. And I need deeply to have Christ at work in my heart. I was very struck working on this by the place of Christian hope. James says, The judge is at the door. Wait. Be patient. That’s when these things will be put right. Hold on in hope (James 5). I’m also very struck by Romans 12: leave room for the wrath of God (Rom. 12:9), which is the antidote to our anger. Trusting that there is a God who says, Vengeance is mine and that he will put all wrongs right, and he’ll do it perfectly. I need those disciplines of prayer to keep coming back to that. Perhaps I should just say this if there’s someone listening and they’re struggling with this, it’s good not to struggle on our own. It’s good to have a Christian brother or sister who can walk with us through it and pray with us and remind us we don’t always need to be told things we don’t know. We sometimes need just to be told things we do know. I need Christian brothers to tell me things I know perfectly well, and just remind me of them.

Matt Tully
What would you say to someone who is living with somebody who struggles with anger and that’s just an ever-present reality in their home? What advice would you have for that person?

Christopher Ash
It’s really hard to know what advice to give in general terms. That can overflow into abusive behavior, and there are times when somebody needs to be physically protected from that and taken out of the situation. So, I think it’s important to say that there are times when things are so dark and dangerous that somebody needs to be removed. But for many of us, it’s a case of a marriage partner or a parent or a teenage child or somebody is just rather an angry person. It’s not abusive, but it just makes life difficult in the home. If the person will see the problem and seek help, that’s a wonderful thing. If they won’t, I think all we can do is to model grace and patience and forbearance and kindness in the home. Sometimes we forget, I think, how powerful that can be. I think about how plenty of teenagers go through a period of being very angry—it often seems to go with teenage years, and plenty of us have known that in our own lives. But the effect of a kind, patient parent who doesn’t hit back, it’s hard to overestimate the impact of that kind of Christlikeness.

Matt Tully
Yes, the power of a gentle word. Christopher, thank you so much for taking some time today to speak with us and offer some encouragement when it comes to how we think about anger, how we deal with our own anger, pointing us back to Scripture where we see that it isn’t silent on this issue. We appreciate you taking the time today.

Christopher Ash
Thank you. It’s been a joy to be with you and talking to you.


Popular Articles in This Series

Podcast: Help! I Hate My Job (Jim Hamilton)

Jim Hamilton discusses what to do when you hate your job, offering encouragement for those frustrated in their work and explaining the difference between a job and a vocation.

View All


Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.