I was walking along Canal Street in New Orleans with Bob, a friend, colleague, and a good Catholic man. He described his continuing challenge to be the man he wants to be. Often he falls short in one area or another. He told me that God occasionally taps him on the forehead with a twig—inviting him to overcome a fault. If he doesn’t respond, God starts tapping him with a stick. When that doesn’t stir him to repentance, God uses a railroad tie. Then he described a specific kind of challenge that often gets to him. “When people are overbearing, it gets me every time.”
I’m not sure if God uses railroad ties as one of His teaching methods. I’m not sure He even uses sticks. But I think that Bob was right about the central idea. When there is a flaw in our characters, God patiently provides opportunities for us to trade in the faults for a little more divine nature. The irritation we feel is an invitation to change the way we think and feel. Unfortunately, human nature commonly prefers our faults to His mighty change.
This provides an expansive opportunity for Satan. The prince of darkness tries to convince us that our faults are actually virtues. He laughs when we sin and feel noble about it.
You make me so mad!
Being angry is a prime example. We regularly get indignant when someone does something rude and thoughtless. Each of us has different triggers. But almost all of us have some predictable trigger that ignites our irritation. If we dwell on it, our irritation grows into anger and wrath. Someone is being wicked and we see our wrath as the instinctive (and righteous) response to badness. We put on the prophetic mantle and call them to repentance.
We only rarely sense that we add our own sin to the offender’s sin when we respond to badness with judgment and anger. Then the offender gets upset and defensive. He and I work furiously to justify ourselves and nobody repents. Satan laughs. We have been sucked into the vortex of judgment by our stubborn self-righteousness.
The call to repentance
Let me express the idea more baldly. When I am irritated, it is my fault. The irritation I feel is an invitation for me to repent.
Let me give examples. I try hard to be a positive guy. Sure, I have all the natural man scripts running like Muzak in the background of my mind. But I try to choose to see the good and dwell on it.
I have had amazing friends, teachers, and bosses who are wonderfully positive. Phil Ellis is one of those. His encouragement years ago still blesses my life. But I have also had bosses who are negative, critical, and seem to never see any good in my work.
My instinctive response to such bosses is to be defensive. I look for faults in the boss. I brood. Then my brooding spills into discussions with others. Pretty soon I have created a battleground on which truth and goodness are the inevitable casualties. I have responded to negativity with negativity. I am guilty of the very sin that offended me.
If confronted with my misdeeds, I might protest: “What was I to do in the face of such corrosive negativity?” Eternity whispers the reply: “You might have been a Christian.”
Ouch. That hurts.
“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” (Matt. 5:44).
In every experience of irritation, Jesus invites me to become more like Him. I can see the offender with compassion and I can act with charity. To be specific, I can see a boss who is stressed and overwhelmed. I can see jibes as an attempt to connect and communicate. And, if I call on the Fount of goodness, I can respond redemptively.
A parenting example
We have a grandson whose boundless energy regularly gets him crosswise with the world. The doctor says he has ADHD. His teacher says he is careless. His parents are overwhelmed with the unique challenges provided by him and his three siblings. One day, playing ball with me and his sister, he knocked her down in his drive for the ball. I am tempted to be angry with a boy who seems to always be hurting people around him. The natural man is inclined to lecture and punish him. But, if I apply compassion and charity—as God is inviting me to do, I respond differently.
Compassion calls me to realize how often this goodhearted little boy gets in trouble. I realize that he doesn’t get much kindness and appreciation to soothe his soul. Such compassionate thoughts soften me. With compassion in my heart, my mind is energized to think redemptively.
I put my arm around the boy. “Oops. You knocked your sister down. Let’s sit and think for a moment.” The boy sits while his sister and I continue to play. He knows that his job is to take a few deep breaths and prepare to do some repenting. After he has a few minutes to self-soothe, I sit by him. “Can you tell me what went wrong?” He starts to tell me what his sister did wrong. But I figure that each of us should repent only ourselves. “Take a couple more minutes and see if you can figure out where you went wrong.”
His sister and I play a couple more minutes and I sit with him again. I put my arm around him. “Can you tell me where you went wrong?” He is softer now. “I pushed my sister in order to get the ball.” “Yeah,” I reply. It hurt her, didn’t it?” He nods. “What do you think you could do differently?” He sighs. “I could play gentler.” “I think that would make you a better ball player and a better brother.” I squeeze him. “Are you ready to try again?”
If we play very long, there is a good chance that his energy will again bump into some else’s well-being. We will have another chat. It takes a long time to learn to manage all these human impulses–especially when we have so much energy. But we who love these little people must be prepared to provide healing love and patient teaching for a lifetime.
A marital example
In parenting, irritation comes and goes. Marriage is the perfect arena for steady irritation. In fact, if we practice our irritation faithfully, we can learn to think of our partner as “a teeming flaw colony,” as Dave Barry described the attitude.
At the beginning of most relationships, things were different. We dwelt on the good and minimized the bad. Over time some of the shine wore off. We became less willing to focus on the good. We let the irritations bother us more. Eventually irritation can become the theme of the relationship. We’ve all seen it, couples who have been together forever but argue about everything. They live what the song title describes: “I’m So Miserable Without You, It’s Almost Like Having You Here.”
Let me give you an example of a newlywed couple we love dearly. The husband is an easy-going and funny guy from a small town. The wife comes from the city, works in the fashion industry, and is wound tighter than her husband. You can see the battle coming, can’t you! He is heedless of appearance and says things she considers goofy. She appreciates his kindness but gets irritated by some of his actions.
Being in the early years of marriage, they are laying a foundation for what is to come. She can pester him about his shortcomings. He will become more distant and sullen. Or maybe he will deliberately annoy her. The years will pass and the bad feelings will accumulate. They will be one of those couples that can’t stand to be together and can’t stand to be apart.
Or there is another choice. Each partner can see his or her own irritation as an invitation to repent. Irritation is not so much about what my partner is doing wrong but how I am thinking wrong. I can repent. I can choose to see the good. I can see the differences as a blessing. I can allow my partner to be different from me. I can choose to learn from my partner and to feel blessed by my partner.
Fixing people is really God’s prerogative. Only as we become more godly should we presume to change another person. And here’s the great irony: As we become more godly, we enjoy people more and more just as they are. I don’t care if they change.
Let’s all repent.