Most of us tend to think of irritability as a natural response to life’s little frustrations. We also tend not to worry too much about our irritability, although some Christians may perhaps be wise enough to make it a matter for prayer. When was the last time you asked the Lord to help you respond graciously to that special person who always annoys you?
We should take our irritability much more seriously, because it is the very opposite of love. We know this because 1 Corinthians 13:5 says that love “is not irritable.” Irritability is the antithesis of charity. It is not merely a way of complaining, therefore, but actually a way of hating.
Ryken uses Mark 6:30-44 to show how Jesus dealt with a situation that irritated the disciples. Understanding the anatomy of irritability can help us battle it.
The Anatomy of Irritability
- Who gets irritated: Everyone does, including people who are busy serving the Lord. When Paul told the Corinthians that love is “not irritable,” he was writing to believers in Christ who were active in their local church. If an apostle can get irritated while he is spending time with Jesus, then we can get irritated too. Whenever we start to get exasperated, we should see this problem for what it really is: a failure to love. We know this because the Love Chapter (1 Cor 13) tells us that love is not irritable.
- When do we get irritated: The disciples were tempted to this sin at the end of a full day after a long trip, when they were tired and hungry. This happens to all of us. Physical weakness puts us in the way of spiritual danger. So if we find ourselves getting more irritated than usual, we may need to take the small but very practical step of getting something to eat and drink, or taking a little rest. This is also something for parents to keep in mind when their children are getting angry: taking proper care of them will help them fight against sin. Notice as well that the disciples were tempted to irritation right after they had been successful in serving the Lord. The strongest temptations can come right after we have been busy doing kingdom work, and the Devil is desperate to regain lost ground. We need to anticipate when we are likely to be physically or spiritually weak and thus in special need of prayer and the help of the Holy Spirit. When we are weak, we can be strong only by the power of God.
- How does irritability treat other people: Basically, it doesn’t want anything to do with them. When the disciples were irritated about how long they had to wait for dinner, they wanted Jesus to send everyone away. This was not the only time the disciples tried to keep people away from Jesus: they did the same thing when mothers were bringing their babies for Jesus to bless (see Luke 18:15–17). When we are irritable, we want to get away from other people—our family members, our neighbors, our classmates, our coworkers—even if it means keeping other people away from Jesus, too. Our exasperation is not just a failure to love other people but also a failure to love God. This is how irritability treats other people: by putting what we want ahead of what they need and, if possible, by trying to avoid their needs altogether. The real problem is us, not them. We need to be honest about this, because often we blame the people around us for the way we respond.
What irritable people need—what we need—is more of the love of Jesus. Thankfully, we see such love in Mark’s story of the feeding of the five thousand. What we see is not only an example to follow but also a Savior to receive into our lives, a Savior who has the power to change anger into love. Everything Jesus did in this story is exactly the opposite of what his disciples did. This is because Jesus is everything that we are not. He is the living demonstration of nonirritability, which is simply another way of saying that Jesus is love.