Yesterday I listened to a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 by Haddon Robinson in which he dealt with the phrase in v. 5 that says “love . . . is not easily provoked” (KJV). Other translations say “it is not irritable” (NLT), “not easily angered” (NET), “does not take offence” (NJB), is “not quick tempered” (CEV), is “not quickly made angry” (BBE). Here are two more colorful versions:
Love “is not touchy” (Phillips).
Love “doesn’t fly off the handle” (MSG).
The underlying Greek word means “to sharpen.” It can be used in the positive sense of urging or spurring things forward. But in the negative sense it means to irritate, exasperate, or even to scorn or despise something. It is easy to see how quickly the positive slides over into the negative. What starts as motivation becomes criticizing that ends up as demeaning and despising.
This is tricky because down deep we don’t see our irritability as a big issue. It’s just the way we are, we’re wired tight, we have a lot to do, we’re under pressure, we’re up against a deadline, we’ve got people breathing down our neck, we demand a lot of ourselves and of others around us, hey, it’s the way the world works. Get on board or get out of my way. So under pressure we are curt, rude, cutting, short, demanding, unappreciative, uncaring, and quick with a cutting remark or a joke that lacerates. We give a withering look, we sigh deeply, we roll our eyes, we turn away abruptly, and sometimes we lose our cool altogether.
Haddon Robinson said that irritability is especially a problem among morally upright people. Pious people. Religious types. Spiritual types. Bible readers. Churchgoers. Folks like us. Because we have high standards (or so we think), we’re disappointed when others fail to measure up. And it shows in how we treat people, especially those closest to us. Oddly enough, it’s only the irritability of others that bothers us. We never see it in ourselves.
Over 100 years ago Henry Drummond wrote a wonderful, short treatment of I Corinthians 13 called The Greatest Thing in the World. Regarding this phrase he noted that “the peculiarity of ill temper is that it is the vice of the virtuous. It is often the one blot on an otherwise noble character. You know men who are all but perfect, and women who would be entirely perfect, but for an easily ruffled, quick-tempered, or ‘touchy’ disposition.” Some people excuse their bad temper by saying, “Sure, I lose my temper a lot, but it’s all over in a few minutes.” So is a nuclear bomb. A great deal of damage can be done in a very short time. Even small temper “bombs” can leave behind a lot of hurt, especially when they explode on a regular basis. Your temper reveals what is in your heart. A bad temper signals a terrible disease within the soul. It is an escaping bubble that reveals a fetid pit within.
An irritable spirit tends to show up when we’re under pressure. Most of us treat people pretty well when we’re relaxed. But as deadlines loom and work piles up, we turn from Mary Poppins into Cruella De Vil and from Andy Griffith into Mike Tyson, except that we don’t bite off someone’s ear. We go for the whole head.
Our only hope for deliverance is to call irritability what it is–a moral sin. I woke up today thinking about that, and I prayed that when I am under pressure today (as I surely will be) and when I am tired or busy or bothered or suddenly interrupted (it’s part of life) that the gentleness of Christ might flow down from heaven into my soul.
A little child was overhead praying, “Dear Lord, please make all the bad people good, and all the good people nice. Amen.”
Love is not irritable. We will do better in this area when we stop making excuses, confess our sin, and cry out to Jesus for mercy and grace. The world will be a better place when all the good people become nice.