I have spent the majority of this month traveling all across the United States. I drove from Virginia to Arizona for my younger sister’s wedding and to visit my older sister and her family. Driving that long stretch of I-40 alone in the car provided plenty of time to contemplate life in general, my life in particular, and to talk with the Lord. You see, in addition to my sister’s wedding, my grandfather had passed away just days before I left on my trip. At the same time our family was celebrating the joys of a marriage union, we were also experiencing the sadness of the loss of a loved one. Though I was unable to attend my grandfather’s funeral, I wanted to visit my grandmother in Florida. After a little over a week in Arizona, I was once more on the road, but this time I was joined by my mother, older sister and her nine-month-old. Driving that long stretch of I-10 provided plenty of opportunities to also contemplate the irritations and annoyances that pop up when I least expected it and my reactions, whether good or bad.
After a few weeks of the mental exhaustion caused by long-distance driving, living out of a small suitcase in various hotels, and jumping through hoops to find ways to prepare food that will not trigger an allergic reaction, little things that do not usually bother me were now frustrating. Patience began to wear thin and, in spite of myself, I felt grumpy and irritable. The gas pump locking up because I typed in the wrong zip code or a thoughtless comment I would normally shrug off suddenly upset me.
We are surrounded by events, circumstances, and even people that frustrate, irritate, disturb, and anger us. In an article on the American Psychological Association’s website, anger is defined as “an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage” by Charles Spielberger, PhD, a psychologist who studies anger. Our natural instinct is to lash out aggressively at the cause of our irritation and anger, though the laws and social norms of today do not allow us to physically lash out without repercussions. Therefore, we have developed other ways to deal with these feelings, not all of which are easy to do nor healthy to ourselves or our relationships with others over the long term. We have probably all heard some of these suggestions: stop thinking about whatever it was that initiated those feelings, count to ten, take deep breaths, walk away, etc. Sometimes these methods work and other times, they do not.
As followers of Christ, we are called to respond to the irritations of life in a way that is unnatural: with patience, calm, and compassion. In Galatians 5:22-23, we are told: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” This is not something that we are able to do ourselves through will power. It is a gift we receive as we grow in our relationship with the Lord, allowing His Spirit to change us from the inside out.
We are all works-in-progress, and sometimes our old nature tries to take back the reins. Let’s face it: we are emotional beings. There are times when, due to stress, fatigue, family or work related problems, passionate zeal for a cause, and many other contributing factors, we do not always present a positive representation of Christ to our family, friends, co-workers, fellow church members, and so on. We are prone to shifting the blame completely on to another person and venting our irritations and anger through various methods: complaining and griping, giving the “guilty” person the cold shoulder, holding a grudge for months or even years, and more.
This creates cognitive dissonance: a discomfort generated by holding conflicting ideas, beliefs, or emotional reactions. Some of us may struggle with trying to harmonize the range of emotions we feel, from mild irritation to rage, with the fruit of the Spirit we should be displaying as a follower of Christ. Lashing out towards the source, or perceived source, of our irritation and anger often provides an immediate sense of satisfaction, even if it does not satisfy in the long term. Yet we know this is not how we are supposed to react as a Christian. This internal conflict is described well by the apostle Paul in Romans 7:15, “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.”
Before we complain about others, before we lash out verbally or physically, we should reflect on ourselves. How are we responding to the irritations around us? Is our reaction a reflection of the love of Christ? Are we asking the Lord to change us? Our hearts, our attitudes, our feelings? By asking for the Lord to work on us first, we draw closer to Him and allow Him to transform us so that, through His power and guidance, we can face the difficulties of life—big and small, when we are at our best and at our worst—in a completely revolutionary manner: with kindness, forgiveness, self-control, peace, and love. In Ephesians 4:32 we are encouraged to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” Colossians 3:15, 17 continue, “And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. […] And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”
We may stumble in our walk with the Lord, but do not fall for the devil’s lie that it is impossible for you to change. I am reminded of the great changes that Jesus’ disciples and apostle Paul experienced when they allowed the Lord to work in their lives. Let’s take a quick look at John. John and his brother James were called the “sons of thunder” for a reason (Mark 3:17). After a certain Samaritan village did not respond positively to their evangelistic campaign and witnessing efforts, James and John asked Christ if they could call fire down from heaven (Luke 9:51-56). Yet this same man, through the transforming power of Christ, was refined and would later write so extensively on the subject of love, particularly the unconditional love of God that he has come to be called the apostle of love. If Jesus can transform John, then He can and will change us if we allow Him.
My long trip all over the country has given me many opportunities for reflection. Through the churches I have visited on the Sabbath, the people I have meet and kept company with, the long stretches of highway that provided quiet time with the Lord, and yes, even the little annoyances, have all been a blessing. I realize more than ever before how important it is to not impulsively react, especially when I am not my usual self due to circumstances like stress, fatigue, loss, etc. When something disturbs or upsets, I need to pause and discover the real reason for my feelings. Now, instead of sending up rash, ego-centric prayers for the Lord to fix the situation the way I think it should be or to change the other person (Matthew 7:2-4), my plea is an echo of David’s after he recognized his sinfulness. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)
I ask the Lord to work on my stubborn heart and guide my words and actions that I may respond with kindness and patience. “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (Colossians 4:6). Not by my will power, because I, like the apostle Paul, do not always do what I know I should do and instead do what I do not want to do, but through the almighty power of our Lord working on me and through me.