It was a typical night waiting tables in the fine dining room of the country club. Napkins were creased, flowers centered, and tables angled just right. Then my manager came to me with a warning I’ll never forget.
“Ok, Eric. Mr. So-and-so has a reservation tonight at 6pm.” Since I was newer, I did not know Mr. So-and-so. “You need to be warned about a few things. He doesn’t handle it well if things are not done his way.” The dining room manager proceeded to list a myriad of aesthetic and culinary requirements for Mr. So-and-so’s dining experience. The napkin had to be this way. The waiter had to approach him and his table a certain way. The water had to be poured in a particular manner. He had to be addressed in a certain way and tone. The food had to be set with a particular method. From start to finish, Mr. So-and-so’s dining experience came with several fiery hoops through which the dining staff must flawlessly leap. I was amazed. Working for a bit in fine dining, I was familiar with customer preferences and particularities. But this exceeded them all. “And if you do it wrong,” my manager warned, “you will anger him.”
As bad as all that is, I see too much of Mr. So-and-so in myself in various ways.
“Love…is not easily provoked” (1 Cor. 13:4,5).
Often we think of love in terms of a feeling or emotion. But here, God describes it as a demeanor in which we are not easily provoked towards potentially irritating people and circumstances. This is tough. Life is never lived in the sterile confines of a sinless, utopian laboratory well-removed from the Curse’s numerous provocations. This side of heaven, we are either about to be provoked, being provoked, just having been provoked, or some combination of the three. Everything inside and outside of us has the potential to provoke in one way or another.
The inspired word, translated “provoked,” means “to stir to anger,” “to be irritated,” or “incensed” (TDNT, 5:857). It carries the idea of a tendency towards irritability, petulance, or annoyance. This is the individual whose external, or internal, demeanor tends towards exasperation, irritation, impatience, or resentment in response to people and circumstances. This could include something as seemingly small as internal annoyance known only to the individual, or as large as external expressions of violence.
Today, being easily provoked is often labeled with things like Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Intermittent Explosive Disorder. But there is more going on than a disorder. Whether small annoyance or large, to be easily provoked is that response of irritation which is fueled by a worship of oneself and lack of worship of God. The individual lives with self at life’s epicenter. That high view of self and low view of God consequently fuels spoken and unspoken demands that life’s circumstances operate according to one’s own way, while simultaneously demanding that God exist in submission to the individual’s demands and orchestrate circumstances accordingly. Those inner demands are often not verbalized, but, the existence of irritation speaks clear enough. Whether or not the individual is worshiping God, when circumstances align with their lusts, they maintain a pleasant, or neutral, demeanor because their lusts have been met. When they do not, they exhibit forms of irritation. At the root of being easily provoked is, whether momentarily or continuously, the insatiable worship of self.
When we are easily provoked, we are like a wild, untamed horse. A little spur or saddle and we are provoked; spurred in a bad way. In that sense, those easily irritated often operate in react mode: we get spurred by normal life happenings, and off we go bucking and bouncing our way, blowing up dust in our wake. And as Christians, being easily provoked, whether towards one another or the world, is a poor witness of our long-suffering Savior.
Being easily provoked means that we are quick to anger and short-suffering. We are quick to anger because we have assumed that we are the sovereign lord of the universe who declares the end from the beginning. We are more concerned with our supposed rights and desires than others and the sovereign plan of the only God.
Egg Shells & Sleeping Babies
Those easily provoked often have a sinful amount of preferences. We are selfishly keeping a long catalogue of how life and people must run. We sometimes downplay it by naming it “picky.” To be irritable or picky is the opposite of being loving. Often we are picky because we are wrapped up in our numerous preferences and we will respond with irritation if anything threatens our lifestyle. In that sense, we are a spiritual Goldilocks.
Being irritable is like the guy around whom you have to walk on eggshells. If one step veers contrary to his myriad of demands, he cracks. In those moments, we are like a sleeping baby who finally was willing to nap. At that point, everyone in the house has to tip-toe and do a zero-decibel ninja walk so as to not awaken that little slumbering monster. The slightest sound, and that decadent beast protests at the top of its lungs. Don’t turn a doorknob too fast or too slow; don’t turn the faucet on too high or too low; don’t move too quick, or, you will provoke that thing into a tumultuous tantrum. But, love is not easily provoked.
When we are easily irritated, we are like spiritual infants. We can’t handle anything. Everyone has to proverbially tip-toe around us and it’s exhausting for them and repulsive to them. A little lack of food, sleep, sex, praise, fawning, exercise, recreation, ease, or whatever, and no one can be around us. It’s a tumultuous tantrum. Take cover because Mr. Loose Cannon is firing away.
If you’ve sinned in this area like I have, we often will play the same excuse for our irritation: “I’m tired. It’s been a hard day. So-and-so did this or that. I’m hangry.” Those things can be hard, no doubt. But sometimes what we are doing is using those excuses as a red-carpet to roll for our irritability. “Get ready everyone. My irritation is making its grand entrance, again. My eggshell syndrome is flaring up again and you’re just going to have to deal with it.” And it’s often the same old “exempt-me-from-having-to-love” permission slip.
But what’s ironic at times, is, some of us claim to be fairly strong. We accomplished something significant in our job, recreation, exercise, and the like. “I’m pretty strong,” we say to ourselves. But those things do not exemplify the epitome of strong. What’s strong is being difficult to irritate; those who are not easily provoked.
This is not say to say that the provocations of life are easy situations necessarily. The curse is constantly bombarding us with potential provocation. But, God’s word teaches that provocations are not exemption slips from loving him and others.
Too Many Buttons
Sometimes it’s said, “Oh, I just have certain buttons that need not be pushed. Don’t push my buttons.” But, the fact that we have buttons that can be pushed means something may be wrong. Why do we have buttons that can be pushed? Who gives us the right to have buttons? Our loving God does not command us to have buttons, but to love others. It’s possible that behind our buttons are sinful, selfish desires of entitlement. Perhaps we need to repent of our buttons.
“But that person is so irritating.” Perhaps. Even so, 17th century Puritan Thomas Watson wrote:
“A saint in this life is like gold in the ore, much dross of infirmity cleaves to him, yet we love him for the grace that is in him. A saint is like a fair face with a scar: we love the beautiful face of holiness, though there be a scar in it. The best emerald has its blemishes, the brightest stars their twinklings, and the best of the saints have their failings. You that cannot love another because of his infirmities, how would you have God love you?”
Some of us like having buttons. We wouldn’t say that. But there’s a gross conceit that secretly cherishes buttons. And, it’s easier to wallow in our narcissism of “I just have these buttons,” rather than repenting.
People like me who have buttons need the Person, grace, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He had no unholy buttons. Jesus Christ is the not-easily-provoked individual par excellence.
When we are tired, have had a tough day, been sinned against by people, and are tempted to be provoked, we can look to him for grace. If the seven billion people on the earth today sin an average of three times per day, then Jesus endures about 243,000 sins per second. Even so, he never is sinfully irritated or easily provoked.
And talk about being provoked; consider that day when Jesus went to the cross for our sins. He didn’t have an eight-hour night of sleep, a full belly of food, and compliments from his friends. He was up all night, with no sleep. His friends abandoned him. He was whipped and mocked for a few hours, though he is the Creator and Sustainer of all things and people. Then, he went to serve the world by hanging on some spikes, enduring humiliation, and absorbing the righteous anger of God for our sins; all without being sinfully provoked. Through his substitutionary death, our self-worship; our buttons; our sinful amount of preferences are forgiven. As we live by faith in him, and humbly identify the root of being easily provoked, we are transformed by his grace.