What is it that irritates you to no end? Someone using all the hot water in the morning? The WiFi going out? Your favorite team blowing a late-game lead? Traffic? Screaming kids? The opportunities to grow irritable in a day seem endless.
I am often surprised how little it takes to grow frustrated with my circumstances or people around me. In my irritability, there is a major disparity between the size of my problem and the extent of my reaction. I often wonder if I would respond more God-pleasing to a real tragedy in my life than I do when I step on a toy left out by my kids. I’m sure I’m not alone. For many of us, there is a fit of anger lurking just beneath the surface, ready to leap out at the slightest inconvenience. Before we have time to stop and think, we’ve expressed our displeasure with biting words, a darting glare, a disgruntled sigh, or shutting down. We wonder, why am I in such a bad mood? Where is this coming from?
I’ve Had My Coffee and I’m Still Irritated
We’ve all seen and laughed at the coffee jokes on social media:
“Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee.”
“My favorite coworker is the coffee pot.”
“How to approach me before I’ve had coffee: Don’t!”
When it comes to irritability, coffee helps, but it is not the solution. These and other memes like them are lighthearted attempts to pin our irritability on something external to us. Unfortunately, the source of our irritability is more personal. The Bible reminds us that this behavior flows from within us. Solomon made this point in saying, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23 ESV). The hard truth is that we grow irritable when our circumstances and the people around us don’t fall in line with our expectations or desires (James 4:1-2). The people in our lives that God has given us to love become obstacles in the way of getting what we want. When we don’t get our way we lash out with a quick verbal barrage, punish with the silent treatment, seclude ourselves from others, or pout. Our irritability may look different on the outside for each individual, but the root is the same–we wanted something and didn’t get it.
It is necessary to admit that our irritability is an internal sin problem, not an external people problem. This admission is an important step towards change. When we know the source of our problem, we can find real solutions. For instance, my oldest son Brennan once shut his brother’s left hand in the sliding glass door. Harrison began screaming in pain as his hand was still stuck. Brennan, aware that something was wrong, began fervently looking his brother over to figure out what was causing the distress. Brennan looked over every square inch of Harrison except the hand that was stuck. Since Brennan couldn’t identify the real source of the problem, his solutions were inadequate. The same is true with our growth in Christ. If we identify irritability as a problem outside of us, we will work to change our circumstances, or worse, we will demand that people conform themselves to our agenda. Knowing the true problem leads to real solutions, and to that we now turn.
Where to begin
Remember the hope of the gospel. Irritability is necessarily self-centered. Thankfully, In Christ, we are free from living for self and empowered to live like him—patient, kind, meek, etc (1 Corinthians 5:15). Because of Christ, we can please God even amidst difficult circumstances or people. For more on this, consider a previous post from Tyler about our freedom from sin’s power.
Ask good questions. Seek to discern what exactly you are wanting when you are irritated. As G.I. Joe would say, “knowing is half the battle.” Asking simple questions like, “what is it that I’m desiring right now?” Or “what is the one thing that would change my mood right now if I could snap my fingers and get it?” The answer for me is usually comfort. I want to live a life of uninterrupted ease. When that gets compromised–I have 3 young boys; it gets compromised–I can grow irritable. For others it could be an over-desire for respect, love, attention, success, safety, order, etc. that leads to irritability.
Turn away. Knowing the heart motive behind your irritability allows you to repent more specifically to God and others. Saying, “Forgive me for desiring comfort so much that I became frustrated when you needed my help” is more helpful than simply apologizing. It acknowledges the real sin and keeps you from blaming others or the pressures you were facing.
Put on thankfulness. It is hard to be thankful and moody at the same time. When the Apostle Paul wanted to urge the Colossian believers to “bear with one another” he mentions thankfulness 3 times (see Colossians 3:12-17). Even if everything has fallen apart around you, you can be thankful for Christ, his gospel, The Spirit’s sanctifying work in you, the Father’s care and concern for you, among many other blessings we have in Christ.
In the recently released documentary Free Solo, Alex Honnold climbs 3,000 feet straight up the granite rock face of Yosemite’s El Capitan. He does this all without the safety of ropes and anchors. In other words, one slip, one mistake and he plummets to his death. Naturally, many have asked him about controlling his fear while hanging from a cliff thousands of feet above the valley floor. He said that his goal is not to push the fear out, but to expand his comfort zone. For him, focusing on removing fear is ineffective. Instead, he pours himself into preparation, practice, and planning to a point that he is comfortable with the most dangerous situations. Focusing on removing fear, creates more fear.
Similarly, focusing on the circumstances and people surrounding our irritability just exacerbates the problem. We can’t fight our irritability by merely focusing on our irritability. Instead, we ought to focus on Christ, his work for us and in us, all the blessings he has given to us, and we might just find that our irritability cannot thrive next to joy in Christ.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Proverbs 4:23 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.