I once heard a respected Christian teacher assert that there are no annoying people, just annoyed people. Is this true? If so, then it means that no one can annoy me because I am the one with the heart problem. But it also means I can make my best effort to irritate you and IT’S YOUR PROBLEM! So no, it is not true. But there is an important element of truth here. Let’s explore it.
Jerry Bridges defines impatience as “a strong sense of annoyance at the (usually) unintentional faults and failures of others.” There are several ways that I tend to express impatience, and these expressions affect those same people who are objects of my impatience. I tend to express impatience when things don’t go my way (according to my pre-envisioned plan). I observe that this is pretty common for people, but that doesn’t make it right. Yesterday, I scheduled a volunteer orientation meeting at the local hospital to do chaplaincy work. It was also my scheduled day off, but I figured I’d been back in only a couple of hours to enjoy the rest of my day with family. I also planned to finish a few chores. When I arrived at the meeting at 8am, I discovered that the orientation was an all-day event. Immediately my impatience and irritability shot through the roof. I suppose that I should have rejoiced that I actually had the time to do an all-day meeting that would not impede on my regular work and ministry schedule for the week. But I was thinking of all the ways I would have to alter my plans in light of this unexpected development. My impatience and irritability came through not to those at the meeting, but to my family. I figured I could complain to my wife with impunity, but it would be bad form to pout or complain in the presence of hospital volunteers or staff. I noticed that throughout the day (and even into the next) my wife was being very careful with my temperament. Even though it was not a bad day, in my mind I wanted it to be because I was perturbed. And dangitbill! I had a right to be! So because of my attitude, I affected the mood of my entire home for the rest of the day and beyond.
I also tend to express impatience by becoming more strict and less gracious with those around me. For example, if my children are not following the letter of the law of our house rules, or if they are just being loud as kids do, I tend to bark at them or refuse to play with them. That of course makes them upset and louder, and only exasperates the problem. Usually to get out of this kind of funk I have to cool off by either having a little space to think, decompress, and often pray through my heart issues of being impatient and irritable.
Situations do not cause us to be impatient. “They merely provide,” Bridges writes, “an opportunity for the flesh to assert itself. The actual cause of our impatience lies within our own hearts, in our own attitude of insisting that others around us conform to our expectations.” This is definitely not a new distinctive for me. I have understood this principle for about a year now. Reading Paul Tripp’s book Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands helped me to see that impatience and being irritated with others is primary a heart issue. Although, Tripp’s proverb (OK, I gave away the teacher’s identity–so sue me), “There are no irritating people, just irritated people” seems a little simplistic. I’ve noticed that my children sometimes go out of their way to bother their siblings. They know which buttons to push of their brothers and sisters, and when they want to be a bother, they know just how to go about it. That, it seems to be, is an example of an irritating person provoking an irritated person. But not withstanding all those caveats, I still think it important for us to understand this perspective, because it provides a window into our own hearts on how to deal with sin issues that we can control. After all, if others try to push our buttons without realizing that we have repented of our fleshly indulgence and “deactivated” those buttons from being reactive, then real progress toward peace and harmony between people is possible.
Speaking through Paul in the Scriptures below, God reveals how he wants us to act when we’re tempted to be impatient.
a. 1 Cor 13:1, 4. According to this passage, we must respond in love, not loudly demanding our right to be undisturbed. We must be patient by responding rather with kindness, not envying what we cannot or do not have, and not boasting when we get what we desire. All such arrogance is the opposite of love, which is our duty and delight as Christians.
b. Gal 5:22-23. Similarly, Paul instructs us to respond with temptations to be impatient by cultivating the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We will inherently do God’s will and obey his law when we act out of such character, because there is no law against the Spirit’s work of righteousness.
c. Eph 4:1-2. In these verses, the familiar words of humility, gentleness, and love surround the exhortation to be patient. We must be humble and gentle so that we walk worthily of our calling in Jesus Christ, being patient (bearing with on another) in love.
“Irritability”, writes Bridges, “describes the frequency of impatience, or the ease with which a person can become impatient over the slightest provocation.” What do you think lies at the root of the irritability? Being irritable is definitely a sin, because it is the opposite of kindness and gentleness, those fruit of the Spirit to which we are called to walk in. At the root of irritability is our impatience, pride, and selfishness. We are prideful when we believe that we deserve to be king of our lives, expecting others to serve us instead of our being the servant of others. We are selfish when we demand that others serve our perceived needs (lusts). We then become impatient when others don’t serve us according to our schedule and liking. Our impatience then gives birth to irritability when we live in a state of unrepentant and brooding impatience, forcing others to walk on eggshells around us. We end up being a king, but not a righteous vassal-king mirroring the King of kings. Rather we make ourselves tyrants, mirroring the rulers of this world, lording our power through emotional sway over them. This is the imitation of Satan, not God.
Regarding anger and those sins related to it, Bridges defines anger as “a strong feeling of displeasure, and usually of antagonism…often accompanied by sinful emotions, words, and actions hurtful to those who are the objects of [the] anger.” To a large extent anger has permeated our homes, friendships, and churches. Unfortunately, anger (and its expression) has infiltrated our lives as Christians and gained a foothold because it has become a respectable sin. Anger is funny in the world’s eyes. To see someone lose his temper on TV or in a movie is to guffaw at a buffoon. Rarely is anger portrayed for what it is—hateful emotions, words, and actions that destroy relationships. If we could reorient our view of anger as a malicious sin that is more destructive and heinous than most, then I believe we would take the first step toward cleansing our homes, friendships, and churches of anger. As it is, anger is everywhere and it is nowhere. It is the “funny” sin that is “out there” but is never my problem. That is the lie that we must confess and repent of. Anger is a serious problem in our homes that leaves the bonds between husband and wife, father and children, mother and children, brothers and sisters, in relational ruins. Euphemisms like “battle of the sexes”, “generation gap”, and “sibling rivalry” will only cloud the fact that anger is an enemy that must be eradicated from the Christian home, our friendships, and yes, our churches as well. Until the sin of anger is brought to light, exposed, confessed, and repented of, the ramifications of anger will continue to plague us and leave a path of brokenness in its wake.
Notice the contrast of what the Bible reveals about righteous anger with what it says about sinful anger.
a. Righteous anger (self-controlled, arises from an accurate perception of evil, focuses on God and His will).
i. Ex 32:15-20. Moses’ anger at the idolatry of the Israelites burned hot, but this was a righteous anger. He rightly recognized the evil that the Israelites were doing. In fact they were actively breaking the covenant that God has just made with them as a nation—and they were having a party in their covenant-breaking frivolity! Moses became angry, yet his actions reveal proportional and appropriate responses to their sin. He broke the tablets of the covenant, not in a temper tantrum, but to visually and prophetically demonstrate to the people what they had done. Their sin had “broken” the covenant, so Moses broke the stone tablets to clearly show them their sin. Furthermore, Moses destroyed that which provoked their idolatry (the golden calf which was a prohibited graven image—probably representing the Lord) and made the people experience the bitterness of their sin by making them drink water made bitter mixed with gold dust of the idol. Moses therefore destroyed the idol, put an end to idol worship (at least at that time), and forced the Israelites to see the bitterness of their sin in breaking covenant with God. All for the zeal of the Lord, Moses’ anger remained righteous indignation.
ii. Neh 5:1-8. Nehemiah, God’s chosen leader to teach God’s word to the returning exiles, was very angry with his people the Jews for committing the sin of hypocrisy in their covenant breaking. God’s people were not to charge interest from each other and were not to enslave fellow Jews. This should have been obvious to them because they had been unjustly enslaved and economically mistreated throughout their national history. The memory of Egypt, the Canaanites, the Philistines, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians should have prevented them from even entertaining the thought of abusing their brother. Yes that is exactly what Nehemiah found them doing to each other. Nehemiah understood that God had saved Israel from their enemies, but Israel had not learned its lesson. Nehemiah was angry for God’s sake, thus his anger was righteous.
iii. Mt 21:12-13. Jesus became angry when his zeal for his Father’s house consumed him. He witnessed in the outer court of the temple a marketplace that prevented the Gentiles from worshipping God properly. People had usurped the court of the Gentiles intended for them to worship God at the temple (it was the only area in the temple precinct designated for them) and had converted it into a city shortcut and bazaar. And not just an honest marketplace, but a place for the thieves and robbers—those who exploited the poor and the outsiders—to come and seek shelter in the “temple of the Lord”. Seeing this left Jesus aghast, so in the spirit of the prophets he cleansed the temple, purifying it of unrighteousness, and also condemning it as no longer the dwelling of the Lord. Every bit of Jesus’ anger was righteous, and he was pretty mad!
b. Sinful anger (sinful reactions to people’s actions and words).
i. Mt 5:22. In contrast, Jesus warns us that if we are angry with our brother and condemn him with our words (or in our heart), then it is we (not the one whom we are angry with) that is in danger of being cast into hell.
ii. Gal 5:19-20. Paul lumps “fits of anger” in with many other works of the flesh, and concludes that those who practice these will not inherit the kingdom of God. In other words, anger (which we tended to regard as a respectable sin) is in the same list of sins as sexual immorality, idolatry, drunkenness, orgies, impurity and rivalries—all of which will keep us from heaven. They are all, including anger, damnable sins in the sight of God.
iii. Eph 4:29-31. In another passage, Paul teaches that anger grieves the Spirit of God. Again, he associates anger with the less respectable sins of bitterness, wrath, clamor, slander, and malice. Anger spoken of in this company is unrighteous, and is opposed to kindness, tenderness, and forgiveness—all virtues that belong to God and that we should imitate because we have been delivered from the kingdom of sin and death and darkness.
Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13 offer excellent guidance for guarding our attitude toward people whose words or actions tempt us to be impatient, irritable, and/or angry? So how do we combat anger and the weeds of anger? The parable of the unmerciful servant illustrates what Paul teaches as the guiding principle in these passages. We have been forgiven by God a much greater debt that we did not deserve. No sinner can merit forgiveness. It is by grace alone and comes through faith alone and from Christ alone. The sins that others commit against us are in comparison nothing to what God in Christ has forgiven, therefore we must also forgive. He who has forgiven much will love much. He who has been forgiven little will love little. Sometimes people sin against us unintentionally (and sometimes they don’t actually sin against us at all!), tempting us to the sins of impatience, irritability, and anger. Likewise, we are to remember the love of God and the forgiveness we have received, undeserving as we are. You are undeserving of God’s forgiveness. I am undeserving of God’s forgiveness. Both you and I are great sinners. Left to ourselves we would act out the part of the unmerciful servant every day of our lives. So let us not walk in the darkness of sin, casting off our impatience, our irritability, our anger (and our perceived right to feel this way), and instead follow the way of our Lord Jesus, who although tempted to sin, chose to forgive those who sinned against him, thereby mirroring the way the God.
Through my study and reflection on the sins of impatience, irritability, and anger, God has revealed to me that I tend to manifest these particular sins most when it comes to encroachments upon my schedule and general expectations of how I’d like things to go in any particular situation. I’ve realized that when I don’t have a set agenda, then usually I deal quite graciously and flexibly with change, uncertainty, and even chaos. But watch out when I think I’ve got something to accomplish!
As I ponder how these sins happen in my life, I resolve to try, by the Spirit’s power, to be more flexible and gracious with others, and to try to recognize that God may have a different agenda than my own (this is almost always the case!), and his is always better for everyone involved. I hope that I can remember each day that God is in control and sovereignly guiding everything that happens to me and around me (and even through me). Since I desire to be in the will of God, I hope to be more understanding, kind, gentle, and loving in a selfless way to others, even if it means that I won’t get everything done according to my liking. And when I inevitably “blow it”, I pray that God would convict my heart quickly of my sin, and move me to confess and repent of it to him and those whom I sin against.
Dear kind, gracious, and all-good heavenly Father, you are a God who hates impatience, irritability, and anger. You classify these seemingly respectable sins with some of the most heinous sins we can commit as fallen creatures. Yet you are a loving and forgiving God as well. Thank you for the sacrifice of your only Son, my Lord Jesus Christ, to deal once and for all with not only my sin, but the sins of all your people whom you’ve called out of the world—out of darkness into your marvelous light. Thank you for taking your wrathful anger that my sin deserves and pouring it instead of your willing and obedience son. Thank you for loving me so. I will forever be grateful for the cross. Lord God, help me, by the power of your Holy Spirit, to deal with my sin (especially with my tendencies toward impatience, irritability, and anger) proactively, responsively, and retrospectively. Cause me to feel the conviction of your Spirit in my heart so I may be more and more transformed into the image of your perfect son, Jesus Christ, to whom be all glory forever and ever. Amen.