I’m writing this at a time when our baby’s sleep has regressed. I won’t dwell on it – it’s a topic that’s easy to obsess over, but is only really of interest to the deprived. Suffice to say, I’m feeling irritable. I’m also not sure this is my area of expertise – I’ve recently been informed that I’m not always so hot at holding my tongue.
But I’m writing about it because I care. I might be less than perfect on this point, but I do think it matters and I aspire to do better. Here are the ‘whys’ and the ‘how’ of my attempts.
Take it seriously
Being irritable is so normal – so human – that to take issue with it feels a little unnecessary. Surely, it’s just one of those things? The problem is that it’s caustic, corroding the safe space that our relationships need to flourish. Perhaps not right away, but keep it up and the sense of respect, good will and mutuality that oils our interactions will run dry. Irritable people are given a wide berth. That’s why it’s so pernicious – irritability is quietly destructive.
The solution isn’t as simple as suppressing all negative emotion and just ‘being nice’. After all, Jesus got angry enough to ransack an illegitimate marketplace thriving in the Temple courts. He didn’t exactly hold back when expressing exasperation at his disciples’ lack of faith. The Jesus in the book of Revelations is such a straight-talker, he’s described as having a double-edged sword coming out of his mouth. I believe it’s fine – good, in fact – to occasionally speak hard words from a place of love and self-control.
But that’s not what I’m doing if I snap at others – when my tone is aggressive or belittling; when the subtext of my words says: “I don’t care how I make you feel.” And that is serious, whether or not it’s comfortable to admit. “The tongue has the power of life and death,” (Proverbs 18:21 NIV) and “anyone who says: [to a brother or sister] ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:22 NIV).
So, if I’m committed to obeying Jesus and growing in Christ-likeness, I need to “make every effort to add to [my] faith… self-control” (2 Peter 1:5-6 NIV). We’re told: “Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others… not put them down [or] cut them out.” (Colossians 4:6 MSG). It’s an effort. It involves repeatedly reaching for a higher goal than I would willingly set myself – the King James Version of the Bible says: “Let your speech be always with grace.” Always.
How do we even begin to do that?
Deal with underlying issues
A game-changer for me has been realising that irritability is often a symptom of something else being off-kilter. Maybe a long queue when we’re in a rush, getting caught in a sudden downpour or an arduous commute are annoying because it underscores our lack of control – the futility of trying to play God and our struggle to trust that He’s working all things together for our good. Maybe the habits and idiosyncrasies of others drive us mad because we see our own imperfection reflected back at us and haven’t learnt to rest in God’s acceptance.
At the root of my irritability is fear. I’m afraid that unless I raise the red flag of a harsh word and let the world know just how fed up I have a right to be, no one will see my struggle. No one will pause to consider me and my needs. I’m afraid that I will be overlooked and uncared for. This is a lie I can defeat with two truths. God sees. And God cares. I know my life is in the hands of the one who “daily bears our burdens” (Psalm 68:19 NIV) and who will “reward everyone according to what they have done” (Psalm 62:12 NIV).
When I work at countering the causes of my irritability, it’s transformative. Instead of trying to dam up a potential waterfall of harsh words, I’m finding that they evaporate altogether. It’s not a quick fix. There are public lapses and hidden victories – who (except God) congratulates us for not losing our temper? Mostly it’s taken for granted. But when we make the supreme effort to control our tongue, everyone wins. We help the nebulous concept of grace become concrete by giving our best to others without asking them to earn it. And we find a deeper wholeness for ourselves, one trying moment at a time.
 Matthew 21:12-14
 Luke 9:41
 Revelation 1:16
 Romans 8:28