The Ordinary War with Irritability
You’re running late for work. So you rush, but you catch every light. Perfect.
You walk back to your car after a long day at work, and someone parked so close to you that you feel the need to be let down through the sunroof to get in. You’re angry. You leave a note on their car that doesn’t include the gospel.
Then you need to pick up two items from the grocery store on your way home. You get in the express aisle. “Ten items only,” the sign says. The lady in front of you has seventeen! You’ve counted them three times and can’t believe she was so rude as to get in the express line and make you wait. You give her the look so she knows that you know that she was wrong.
You get home and jump on social media, and you are appalled at another Christian’s post that you deem to be on the wrong side of history. So, what do you do? You vent your frustration with a well-crafted, snarky comment. Why? Because he deserves it.
How do you react in situations like these? If your consistent response to testing circumstances or challenging people is to become annoyed or angry, then you are irritable. But I have good news for you. Because of Jesus, believers can have godly attitudes even when our patience is tried, and we don’t have to make self-justifying excuses when we don’t. We can confess our failure as sin, knowing Jesus forgives.
If there is a New Testament church that reminds me of the American church today, it’s the church in Corinth. When they didn’t like what the apostle Paul told them, they called him frail and told him he couldn’t preach (2 Corinthians 10:10). You can only imagine how they responded to each other.
“Because Christ’s love pours through our hearts, Christians now have at our disposal other responses.”
In pride, they were tribal, like we are (1 Corinthians 1:12), and they waged war against each other, like we do (1 Corinthians 3:4). To this church, God shows believers a better way — a more excellent way — to respond to challenging people and difficult circumstances. It’s clearly a message they needed to hear, and one we too need to learn. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s classic chapter on love, he teaches the community of God’s covenant people what true love does and doesn’t do. And right in the middle of Paul’s description, we read, “[Love] is not irritable” (1 Corinthians 13:5).
Not irritable. Even when things don’t happen according to our expectations, because of Christ and his Spirit dwelling in us, believers can still respond in a righteous, loving way. Paul explains how.
1. Accept responsibility for your attitude.
The word irritable describes someone who is easily provoked or angered. So when the Bible calls us to love others, it teaches that, in Christ, we can choose not to indulge impatience, annoyance, or an argumentative spirit. We can choose not to respond in incendiary ways. Anger is not simply an emotion that’s on autopilot. We choose anger as our response to people and circumstances that fall short of our expectations. And when we do, we first have to silence our conscience in order to justify that punitive response.
Because Christ’s love pours through our hearts, Christians now have at our disposal other responses. We can choose to be patient. We can choose to let love cover a multitude of sins. We can choose to be gracious and kind.
How? Because we know that, in spite of being guilty sinners, we’ve received immeasurable patience and grace from God. We’ve not only joined the express line with more than ten items, cut people off on freeways, parked too close, and posted something foolish on social media; we have done far, far worse. But God in Christ has shown us mercy (Luke 6:35–36).
As the church, we have an audience. The world is watching us (John 13:35), and so too is our God. My co-pastor exhorts us to not attack the church on social media. He likes to say, “We need to be careful disparaging another man’s bride, especially when that other man is the Judge of all, Jesus the God-man.”
2. Grow in wisdom and grace.
Believers aren’t victims of our attitudes. We are responsible for controlling our attitudes by means of God’s grace. God teaches us how to do so (Titus 2:11–12).
Spiritually, we were once dead, and now Christ has made us alive, and living organisms grow. Believers grow into greater and greater Christlikeness. So, what should the believer do when tempted to be irritable? Ask God to conform you to greater Christlikeness.
As you pray, remind yourself that ungodly anger cannot achieve God’s righteous ends (James 1:20). Making yourself judge, jury, and executioner against someone who fails to meet your expectations usurps God’s role as judge. Tell yourself that vengeance is God’s, and as judge, he will not leave the guilty unpunished (Romans 12:19). Justice will be served.
As a recipient of God’s unmerited favor, convince yourself that the momentary relief of yielding to the fleshly outburst of anger pales in comparison to yielding yourself to be a witness of God’s mercy and grace. Also acknowledge that we don’t make good self-vindicating judges. We are too prideful and too self-righteous, and we aren’t omni-anything. We don’t have all the facts. We don’t know why someone cut us off on the freeway. He may be rushing to get his pregnant wife to the hospital. There may be good, or at least acceptable, reasons for someone’s behavior of which we are unaware.
Seek God’s grace to grow in patience and humility so that you can extend the same kind of grace that God has extended to you in Christ.
3. Deal with real problems righteously.
Being like Christ means being patient, gracious, and kind, but that doesn’t mean Christians should never become irritated. The Bible commands Christians to “be angry and . . . not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). Because God loves righteousness, he hates sin. So, we need a category for righteous anger. When people and circumstances anger God, those who are concerned about God’s name are right to become angry.
However, when Christians choose to become angry, we also have to heed the second half of Ephesians 4:26, and that is not to let anger tempt us to sin. Anger is like fire. It can be used for good, but it can quickly spread and destroy countless blessings and years of good labor. So, be careful to let it motivate you only to work toward making what is unrighteous righteous, which means using only righteous means.
“Of all the virtues we have at our disposal to deal with unrighteousness, none is more powerful than love.”
In Athens, Paul became “provoked” (the same word for irritated in 1 Corinthians 13:5) by the many idols that he saw (Acts 17:16). So, what did he do? He preached the gospel to the Athenians and taught them that God could be known through the one who died and rose again — Jesus. Remember, of all the virtues we have at our disposal to deal with unrighteousness, none is more powerful than love (1 Corinthians 13:13), and no response is more powerful than the gospel, which proclaims that God sent his Son to die for sinners to save us from the wrath that we deserve (Acts 17:30–31; Romans 1:16).
Choose Love over Irritability
While I was intensely focused on trying to finish this article (with my noise-canceling headphones on and ocean sounds playing), my beautiful, loud, and animated 15-year-old daughter burst into my room. My serene meditation evaporated.
As fast as she could, she told me all about a competition the school had and how her group was tied for first. Then, as quickly as she appeared, smiling and happy, she turned and whisked off.
Mind you, I really hadn’t wanted to be interrupted. That’s why I secluded myself in my room with my special headphones. I was determined to finish this article! Her interruption was a real temptation to become irritated. But praise God, instead of being irritated, I laughed, enjoyed the blessing of my gleeful teenage daughter, and thought that maybe this is a good place to end.
The love of Christ is greater than irritability. For his glory and the testimony of the church, let’s have God’s grace teach us that.