Lay Aside the Weight of Irritability
Sunday morning. The Bloom family is bustling to the van for church and a debate arises between two or three about who’s going to sit where. We’re cutting it close for time as it is. Out of my mouth come firm words in a sharp tone, “Stop the bickering! Get in and sit down!”
Saturday, early afternoon. The Saturday family chore list is still long and my anxiety rises when I think that we won’t get done what needs to get done. I move into sergeant mode and start barking brusque orders. Things get done but the family tone has turned surly.
Weekday night, about 9pm. I enter the children’s bedroom to give the occupants their bedtime blessing and find clothes and toys still on the floor. With a clap of my hands I tersely say, “Get up and get these things put away—now! You were told to do this earlier!” Nothing like a peaceful bedtime blessing.
Irritability. I give into it too often. It’s time to take this sin more seriously and lay it aside (Hebrews 12:1). Every time I’m irritable I burden myself with the detrimental weights of prideful selfishness and relational conflict. And as my irritation overflows on others, it burdens them too because my harsh words stir up anger in them (Proverbs 15:1).
Does God Get Irritated?
We like to blame our irritability on someone or something else. We try to convince ourselves (and them) that they make us irritated. If they were different, we wouldn’t be irritated. Or we blame it on being tired, ill, or stressed. But Paul diagnoses irritability as a heart disease; a failure to love: “Love… is not irritable” (1 Corinthians 13:5).
But we need to press on this a bit, because the Greek word that Paul uses here, paroxynō, which the ESV translates as “irritable,” can also be translated as “provoked” or “kindled,” or “incited.” It’s the same Greek word (paroxynō) that the Greek Old Testament uses in Isaiah 5:25 when the prophet said that God was provoked or kindled to anger by Israel. So if love (agape) is not provoked (1 Corinthians 13:5), and God is love (agape) (1 John 4:7), how can it be okay for God to be provoked to anger?
The answer is that being provoked to anger in general isn’t the issue Paul is addressing. He (and we) knows there are just, righteous, loving, and therefore necessary reasons to be provoked to anger. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:5 is addressing the short fuse, our becoming too quickly or too easily provoked to anger. That’s why the ESV chose “irritable” and why the KJV translators chose “easily provoked.”
When God gets angry, he takes a remarkably slow time to get there (Exodus 34:6). God is provoked to anger, but he is never irritable. He only gets angry for very good reasons, when the glory of his holy righteousness and justice is despised and violated. And his anger, though when unleashed is the most devastating and terrifying thing any conscious being can experience, is always thoughtful, faultlessly appropriate, and perfectly measured. And like God, we too are to be “slow to anger” (James 1:19). We are to be angry, but not sin (Ephesians 4:26).
The Selfishness of Irritation
Our irritability never has its roots in the soils of righteousness. It springs out of the soil of selfishness and springs up fast, like the sin-weed that it is. We get irritated or easily provoked, not when God’s righteousness or justice is scorned, but when something we want is being denied, delayed, or disrupted. It works like this:
When I’m weary I want rest, but if it’s denied/delayed/disrupted I get irritated.
When I’m sick or in pain I want relief, but if it’s denied/delayed/disrupted I get irritated.
When I’m preoccupied I want uninterrupted focus, but if it’s denied/delayed/disrupted I get irritated.
When I’m running late I want to avoid appearing negligent, but if it’s denied/delayed/disrupted I get irritated.
When I’m disappointed I want my desire fulfilled, but if it’s denied/delayed/disrupted I get irritated.
When I’m fearful I want escape from a threat, but if it’s denied/delayed/disrupted I get irritated.
When I’m uncertain I want certainty, preferably reassuring, but if it’s denied/delayed/disrupted I get irritated.
When I’m enjoying something I want to continue until I wish to be done, but if it’s denied/delayed/disrupted I get irritated.
The reason irritability is unloving, unrighteous anger is that it is a selfish response to an obstacle to our desire. What we desire may not be sinful, but a selfish response to its denial, delay, or disruption is a failure to trust God at all times (Psalm 62:8) — and often a failure to value, love, and serve another human soul.
Jesus didn’t die for our punctuality, earthly reputation, convenience, or our leisure. But he did die for souls. It is likely that the worth of the soul(s) we’re irritable with is infinitely more precious to God than the thing we desire. We must not dishonor God, whose image that person bears, by being irritable with them. There are necessary times for considered, thoughtful, measured, righteous, loving anger at priceless but sinful souls. But there is never a right time for irritability. Love is not irritable.
S.T.O.P. Being Irritable
If you’re like me and have cultivated over the course of your life a habitual indulgence in selfish irritation, it’s going to take some hard work to retrain ourselves in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). We need something simple to call to mind when the oft-pulled irritation trigger is squeezed. This might be helpful:
S. — Stop, repent, and ask. We must awkwardly stop immediately — even mid-rant — to repent of our sin, and ask, “What am I desiring that is being denied, delayed or disrupted?”
T. — Trust a promise. Collect promises like 2 Corinthians 9:8, Philippians 4:19, and Philippians 4:11–13 to trust that combat your areas of temptation to irritation.
O. — Obey. Remember that your emotions are gauges, not guides. Don’t let irritation reign in you (Romans 6:12). As you obey 1 Corinthians 13:5 in faith you will find that your emotions will, however reluctantly at first, follow. Love obeys (John 14:15).
P. — Plan. Yes, plan. More forethought and intention can be a spiritual discipline, an act of love, and a weapon against sin by avoiding temptations to irritability. Ask yourself, “When am I frequently irritable?” To test your self-understanding, ask this question of those who know you best (and often may be the recipients of your irritation). And based on the answers, seek to put into place some systems and habits that will remove irritable stumbling blocks from your path. Pursue the escape from temptation offered by the Lord (1 Corinthians 10:13) by taking advantage of the grace of planning.
Don’t be discouraged by the fact that this is hard going at first. Changing ingrained habits is hard work. But it is possible through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13). Keep working at it. Faithful effort to lay aside this weight will result in lighter, more loving, and more joyful faith-running down the road.