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A Biblical View of Anger

Truth In Love 406

How do we recognize, understand, and biblically deal with anger?

Mar 20, 2023

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I have with me, Dr. Robert Jones. He serves as a professor of biblical counseling at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville Kentucky. Prior to this role, he served for 19 years as a lead pastor in West Virginia, and for 12 years as a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary as a part-time pastor of biblical counseling in Raleigh, North Carolina. Bob received his B.A. in history from the King’s College. His M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical and his D.Min. and pastoral counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary. And finally, his Doctorate of Theology and Systematic Theology from the University of South Africa. He’s written several books: Uprooting Anger: Biblical Help for a Common Problem, Pursuing Peace: A Christian Guide to Handling Our Conflicts, and most recently, The Gospel for Disordered Lives: An Introduction Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling, which he co-authored.

He’s a Council Board Member of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, a Certified Christian Conciliator with the Institute for Christian Conciliation, and a Fellow with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. He’s an active member and an elder nominee at Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Bob and his wife Lauren have two adult sons, two daughters-in-law, and four granddaughters. Bob, I’m always grateful to have you here with us and specifically talking about this topic, which you’ve written quite a bit on. So, thanks for being with me today. 

Robert Jones: Dale, it’s my joy. I love being part of this.

Dale Johnson: Okay, we’re just going to start with a basic question and even as I think about how I would answer this question, it’s more common than we would all wish to admit, but we’re talking about this issue of anger. I want to talk about its commonality. How common is something like anger?

Robert Jones: You know, I say this always with a smile, Dale that as one who did some study and research in this area, I always tell people that after my extensive research, of course, in the area of anger, I concluded that approximately one out of one people deal with anger. And if you’re married, you know the stats double, and you add a few kids it quadruples the stats. So yeah, it’s such a common problem and I think it’s a common problem because we are people who interpret life and we see right and wrong and we want to respond in certain ways. 

Dale Johnson: Now we need to ask ourselves why. Because I mean there are lots of other sinful responses that we have in life and that sort of thing and some are more egregious, maybe than others and maybe they happen more in our lives and other things. Why do you think anger is such a common response?

Robert Jones: I think that we are people in relationship with other people and we have an inveterate desire to want things to go the way we want. And I think when we boil down anger we really find this a real strong component of judging, judgment, it’s a righteous judgment if you’re God and unrighteous too often for us with our remaining sin problem. So, we don’t like what people do or say.

Dale Johnson: Man, that’s so true and we experientially, I think we would all be affirming everyone listening right now is shaking their head, and we get that I think the danger is us defining this issue of anger or justifying our issue of anger based on our experiences. So, let’s take a step back. I want you to help us to understand this issue by, let’s first define what we mean by this issue. 

Robert Jones: I refer to anger as a whole person’s response of judgment against another person or against perceived evil that someone might do. Anger at the weather I suppose and I kind of like to break that down in a couple of points. What is that? We really need to think of anger, I believe, as an activity. It’s not like a thing that sits within you. It’s not like a puss that has to be lanced. It’s actually a response. It’s what we do, not what we are or have. It’s a response to something. Someone has done something to provoke us, and in response, we become angry. Our perception of that anger of that wrong can be righteous, a right perception, but often it’s not a right perception. We see something and we call it evil when it really isn’t evil. 

Dale Johnson: Now, I appreciate the distinction that you’re making there. These are things that we do activities as you mentioned, not who we are in our identity and I think that’s a helpful distinction. What I’d like for you to do is maybe describe some of those forms that anger takes so that we can recognize what forms we might see in ourselves consistently.

Robert Jones: I think in a very broad way, we can think of forms in which we reveal our anger, we express it with our words or actions, we can explode or we can even in a more calculated way, doesn’t have to be explosive. You can be angry and reveal your anger in more calculated, careful ways, but I also think there’s ways in which we conceal our anger; we kind of keep it in, and we internally resent other people, and though it might come out in our actions immediately or it might not come out till later, or the action and you know, through which it might come out is pull away from you, you know. I just move away from you. I separate from you and you know, there’s no expressions of anger. There’s no yelling or anything, I just ignore you. And our relationship is done.

Dale Johnson: Man, I think that’s so helpful. And I know folks listening right now are even contemplating maybe the ways in which they typically respond and the different types of forms that the anger would take, and I think those are helpful categories as we think about this, especially we who think about the Bible a lot and that sort of thing. It’s very easy for us to try and justify our anger. And some of the ways that we do that is we justify it by calling it righteous. We’re angry in a similar way that God may be angry about a given subject, and we need lots of clarity here, Dr. Jones on what we mean by righteous anger. So let’s distinguish, I want you to help us to think about categories of righteous versus sinful anger. 

Robert Jones: Yeah, let me first echo what you just said. I do think that we think about our anger so often as more righteous than it actually is. And, you know, we look in the Bible, and we see God’s wrath. The most angry person in terms of the number of references in Scripture is God, He’s concurrently also the most loving, and then we think of our Lord Jesus, and he has some aspects of righteous anger, and there’s some human examples of righteous anger in Scripture too. And we’re ready to say, well, there it is. And I’m sure you and I in our counseling Ministries, over the years and decades now we have seen people who try to justify that.

I think the way I try to make the distinction is I use three criteria, our friend who ceased, our late friend, David Powlison, you know, we talked about seven things in his writings. There’s three that I think about. I think righteous anger is marked by three things. First, it’s a reaction against actual sin, one’s sin. It’s not just preferences that I have. Secondly, it is God-oriented, we are thinking about God, and God is our goal here. It’s not my will be done, but His will be done. And the third criteria and we can think about Jesus and all three of these, and I can do that with you in a moment. It expresses itself in godly ways, it doesn’t rage, it doesn’t go out and explode, it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t pull away, it moves toward a person with wisdom. That’s righteous anger. I think we need to definitely discern that more carefully. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I think those categories are very helpful, and I think we’re all thinking about this personally. But if we were to turn a corner and start thinking about this, even as we counsel, how should we, as counselors then help people to see their anger and listen, I get this is dicey, right? This portion is difficult and hard. We’re seeing these characteristics in a person consistently, maybe in a marriage situation, maybe as an individual. How do you help turn a corner to help a person see their anger? especially when they seem to be denying it or justifying it.

Robert Jones: Well, again, it’s typically some form of, as you just said, a denying or justifying it. Let me mention one other thing about the righteous versus unrighteous anger that does kick in right at this point because sometimes Jesus is appealed to them. What was striking to me, Dale, as I studied, the gospel accounts of our Lord was actually how seldom He got angry. You think of all the abuse in his life even before the cross, or we’re in the gospel of Mark 15 right now in our church, our lead pastor, he was sinned against in so many ways, physically and verbally, and manipulative so many ways yet, I see basically three main texts. I’ll just mention them, you know, in Mark chapter 3, He’s angry at the Pharisees because they’re trying to stop him from doing His messianic mission of healing a man who had a hand that needed to be healed. And He looks at them in anger, and that’s a good example of what we’re talking about here. It’s an actual sin; they’re denying Him His ministry. It is God-oriented because He’s on a mission, and it’s also one in which He exercises self-control as He does His ministry. I think of John 2 or places where He cleared the temple; the same kind of thing going on here. You know, you’ve made my Father’s house a house of thieves, and then even with His own disciples in Mark chapter 10, He gets angry with them. Why does He get angry with them? Because they’re denying the children from coming to Jesus for Him to be able to do His messianic ministry there. And in all these cases, those criteria just seem to be seen, and in all those other cases, we don’t see anger. We don’t see anger. That’s our Lord.

I took a little detour on that because I want to make sure we thought about this righteous anger. You know, for me asking good questions. Our model as we enter into someone’s world, we try to listen to what’s going on. We’re going to hear an awful lot about what people have done to them. We’re going to end up having to linger a little bit on the heat that they’ve experienced and often they have been sinned against. I mean, we understand there’s two sinners in the marriage, right? But at a certain point, I want to be able to say, you know, what were you hoping would happen? What would you want to see happen there? What were you desiring? and try to get to those roots that have to do with the demands within the heart to be treated a certain way. 

Dale Johnson: And I think that gives us clarity on how we try and help people and you’re doing that in such a gentle way. I think that is helpful because you’re helping a person at a different level to ask questions about the wants, and the desires. I think you can appeal to even something like James chapter 1, the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. And what is it that you really want? Well, you’re using this sort of means to accomplish something that is not going to accomplish what you hope it’s going to accomplish, and so that turns to the corner, okay, we get established with the person that okay. They’re responding in anger, sinful anger at that, even with all their justifying or they’re denying. How do we help people then deal with these things? Because it’s one thing, you know, I’m teaching my intro guys right now, it’s one thing to recognize a problem. It’s another thing altogether to then know how to apply the Word appropriately to help people to deal with these types of issues, particularly a stranger. So how do we do that? 

Robert Jones: Well, having spent that time listening, enter into their world again and under-emphasize and lingering over where their struggle is. We begin to turn that corner. You know, how does God want you to handle this? How can I help you grow and change in the midst of this? And I think, for me, it’s going to take me into a passage. You mentioned James one; we could also think of James 4, a pretty common text for our listening audience here, of course, in biblical counseling. But what causes those fights and quarrels among you? And what’s really interesting to me about James 4 is that the desired object. So we don’t know what they are. James doesn’t tell us, we don’t know what his readers were wanting, but we know they were wanting it so bad that they were willing to sin. And you know, those things that they wanted were not necessarily evil things; they were not necessarily bad things. God even says there, you know, you don’t have because you don’t ask and you ask with wrong motives, and it’s not that the things are evil, but it’s something that I wanted too much, and we refer to that wonderful historic category, Dale of inordinate desires. Desires that control us are not necessarily bad things, but things have become gods in our life. 

Dale Johnson: Now I want to ask a few more questions about that. I use a phrase that Luther used quite a bit is, when we take a good thing, we make it an ultimate thing, it becomes a wicked thing. And when we follow that path, we see those desires revealed. Walk our listeners a little bit is to when something like that revealed. How do you help a person begin to change some of those desires that you’re seeing, you’re recognizing within, seeing it as a good thing, but how do we temper those pursuits in a case like this? 

Robert Jones: Yeah, I want to do two things. First, I want to make sure they see how the desire itself has given birth to sinful behaviors, but in terms of talking about those issues themselves, I think I want to talk to them about what does it look like to submit the desire for a good thing under the lordship of Christ? I think that’s the problem of James 4 is addressing and you know, hence, he calls us later in the right after that to humble yourself before God and submit that desire to God, to pray for that, to do what God has called you to do. If it’s a marital situation and you have anger toward your spouse. Well, what is God calling you to do toward your spouse? But you have to constantly submit that desire for a changed husband or a changed wife, changed kids to the Lord, and believe that the Lord is indeed big enough and strong enough and loves you enough. He will care and provide for you what you truly need even if your spouse or your kids don’t change.

Dale Johnson: I have two more questions, Dr. Jones, before I let you go today. One has to do with how we deal with this. Because you know, sometimes when anger has occurred, we leave a wake of destruction in our path behind us. And as we leave a wake of destruction in our path behind us, I want you to talk a little bit. Maybe about how you help a person deal with some of those broken relationships that we see, we have to certainly do with those things as we deal with them internally in crucifying desires or putting those desires in right priority and that sort of thing. But we also have this wake of destruction. How do you deal with things like that with your counselees in front of you?

Robert Jones: One of the metaphors that I like to use with particularly if you think about anti-smoking cigarette campaigns in the past, right? Is your kids are breathing secondhand smoke of your cigarettes. Well, I think our children are breathing the secondhand smoke of our anger. If you think of those cartoon stereotypes of the angry person with the steam coming out of his ears, you know who’s breathing that in? The kids are, and your spouse and your friends and your co-workers are, and you talk about a trail of relationships that often might be not just family problems, divorce and anger and all that but lost jobs, and lost ministry positions, Etc. Out of that sinful anger, and it always must begin with repentance towards God. We always have to start there. Anger is ultimately a vertical problem, and that’s the way James treats it in chapter 4; he sees the verticality there you have to humble yourselves before the Lord, but once you do that and as we help our counselee do that, then we need to talk to them about what does it look like to go to the person that they’ve express their anger toward to. And what does it look like to repent and confess and repent before that person, seek to make things right. In other words, it’s just biblical peacemaking, how to pursue peace with wisdom and care. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, well said there, so final question. And this is not uncommon as well in our anger, especially as these things begin to be revealed in a similar fashion as Adam and Eve in the garden from the very first sin that occurred. We have a tendency eventually as we’re pressed where we see man, what we’re doing is we’re sort of blaming God for this, or in this case, we can be angry at God for a situation that he’s put us in or the scenario or why things are difficult or whatever. How do you help people, when it’s revealed that they’re really just genuinely angry at God for whatever situation they’re in?

Robert Jones: You know, this is a challenge that we who believe in the sovereignty of God run into because if you don’t believe in the sovereignty of God, then who cares, right? But if you have a right view of God that He is wise and sovereign, then you are tempted. Dale, I would say that anger against God, is always wrong. I was just reading some something from John Piper recently along these. It’s just always wrong because, by definition, anger against God is a judgment that God has done something wrong. I think what we need to train people to do, however, is to talk about lament. What does it look like to be able to go to God and talk to God about your concern? So let me give you just a quick comparison, a contrast. Here’s what anger at God sounds like, “God, you’re wrong. You should not have let this happen in my life. You were evil for doing this.” Here’s what lament looks like. “God, I know you’re not wrong. I know you are loving and right; that’s what your Word tells me. But I, Lord, I, for the life of me right now, I can’t figure out why you allowed that into my life. Lord, please help me to understand.” That’s a lot different than an anger against God, and I think we’re in danger as Christians to think, well, God is a big boy. He can handle anger, go ahead and vent, and blaspheme. That’s not what I see in the Psalms. 

Dale Johnson: I’ll tell you what, I’m glad you answered that last part because that was a question I was going to ask, I mean, there’s such an important distinction there in how we bring these concerns, these troubles, these cares before the Lord, even asking questions, why I don’t understand? Those are humbling dispositions and lamenting toward the Lord. I noticed the direction that we’re bringing those, we’re bringing those to the Lord in prayer. We’re not going in complaining to other people about these things. We’re bringing those, as the Lord tells us bring these cares and concerns to Him, but it is with a certain disposition, it is with a certain heart, and I agree with you, I think anger before the Lord is always wrong. All right, I’m going to give you a final word in this whole process as we seek to consider this issue of anger. 

Robert Jones: One more on anger against God and that is that we do need to understand that, you know, the depth of the psalmist and Job, etc. We can debate as to whether the Psalmist in every different place or Job at some points sin or didn’t sin, but what you see at the end of the Psalms of Lament is a resolution in which they recognize God is good and wise, and loving. And you see the same thing in Job at the end, where he repents—last word on anger. For me, I want what I want when I want is really the theme of James chapter 4. And if I can even bring a musical note here, brother, my little ditty that my wife and I put together, we call it the chorus of the demanding heart: “I want what I want when I want it, and when I want it, it better be there.” That is a summary of what’s going on in every time I’m angry. And I’m angry a lot more than I want to be. That’s what’s going on. I need a Savior who can do two things, Dale. He can forgive my sin, right? forgiving grace and who can empower me, Hebrews chapter 4:16, enabling grace, grace to help us in our time of need including when we’ve been provoked by other people. 

Dale Johnson: Dr. Jones, very well said. And this is when I would commend to everybody because I think, as we mentioned at the very beginning, this is more common than we care to admit and wish to admit, but it’s one that since we’re so well practiced, we should be good repenters. So, thanks for the encouragement here, brother.

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