Series: Love Is
1 Corinthians 13 is a beautiful picture of love, but there’s also some ugly in it: A description of what love is not, and in this section of the passage we focus on how love is not irritable.
Loving the Way Jesus Loves, Phil Ryken
We’re continuing our series this morning in 1 Corinthians 13, a chapter of the Bible all about love. In it we get this beautiful, almost poetic picture of love, however if you’ve been with us the last few weeks or you read the passage closely, there is a lot of ugly in there too. That’s because one of the main ways Paul describes love is by describing what it isn’t, and we are in the thick of that right now and for a couple more weeks after this. Today we come to one the uglier things love is not, when we read that love is not irritable. We’re talking about anger today, and in our world today anger would be among the negative emotions for which many would encourage some form of therapy. Anger, anxiety, and depression are the big three negative emotions, but have you noticed we tend to have a different attitude toward them when we see them in others? Thankfully many in our world today sympathize with those who are depressed or anxious. I’d say it’s fairly common for me to see someone on Facebook or another social platform talking openly about their struggles with anxiety and depression, and many caring heart emojis follow; praise God. But I honestly can’t think of a single time I’ve seen someone post about a struggle with anger. I’ve seen plenty of people get angry on social media; no problem there, but never someone saying, “I’ve been learning lately that I’m just a really angry person.” Well, I have good news today: If you’re one of those angry, irritable people, God’s Word addresses you. We are going to have to talk about the ugliness of anger, but we’re also going to look at how love can transform and redeem anger. So let’s talk about how love is not irritable, or as I’m going to put, Love is not vainly provoked. We’ll talk about this idea of vain provocation, and then contrast it with what I’ll call glorious provocation.
The word on which we’re focusing today is translated in the ESV as irritable, which also gives us good insight into the meaning of the word. It’s not irritated; it’s irritable, or in other words, ready to be irritated at the lightest thing, what I’ve called “vainly provoked”. Other words translators and commentators have used include easily angered, cantankerous, exasperated. It is not referring to righteous anger, the kind of anger I might feel if someone were to hurt my son, or the kind of anger you might feel when witnessing or becoming aware of injustice. To not be provoked in such situations actually reveals a lack of love. Those are heavy situations at which love will be provoked, but love is not lightly, or vainly provoked. To be vainly provoked is to have a kind of provokable, irritable disposition. It’s like a really sensitive mouse trap: The slightest touch, and it snaps.
Vain provocation begins, then, when we are set off by the wrong things, things unworthy of anger. If a mouse trap always catches your finger but never catches a mouse, we might say it’s a defective trap. So also, anger is defective when it is not provoked at the right things and is provoked at the wrong things. What goes wrong in such a situation? Well, anger is linked to what you love. It snaps whenever something or someone you love is threatened or opposed. It’s always a perfectly functioning machine in that regard, and in fact anger can be frustrating for that reason. Even when you don’t want to be mad at something, even when you know you shouldn’t be mad at something, sometimes you are provoked nonetheless, because anger will snap when what you love is threatened or opposed. If anger is defective, it can only be because what we love is defective, and hence our passage says that true love, love that is not defective, will also therefore not be vainly provoked. We are vainly provoked because we love vain things.
A common experience in my house is my wife and I end up on different floors of the house, but I want to ask her a question. So I go to the stairs and I ask my question down the stairs. Typically, the response is something like, “What did you say?” And what’s my response? “Oh, you didn’t hear me? Well, I can make sure that won’t happen again,” and at the top of my lungs, the question comes back in the form of an angry drill sergeant. What’s happening there? A simple, honest admission on my wife’s part, that she couldn’t hear me, made me angry. I love myself, and I expect my words to be heeded, so her inability to do so opposed what I love, and as a result, I snapped. I was lightly provoked. It is typically this love of self, expressed in a love of our private interests, or arrogance, things that precede these words in 1 Corinthians 13 and that we’ve talked about the last couple weeks, that leads to our being vainly provoked.
Vain provocation often shows itself in things like this: Things that are not genuine faults in others, or things that may be faults, but are unintentional. Many of us have been socialized and psychologized out of the more overt forms of anger: physical violence or verbally berating others, though of course those are gross failures to love. But have you ever felt angry at someone for something like how they chew their food, the way they talk, the way they walk, how they drive, the things they post? That’s light provocation, coming from a kind of arrogance that I’m not like that and I expect others to conform to my preferences. I love my preferences, and the way they do ____ threatens them. What about when someone is “in your way”? Have you ever considered why the space ought to be considered yours? Isn’t it just as likely that you are in their way? Or what about when you’re on the phone with the bank, Comcast, or an airline? It’s amazing how tough you can feel on the other end of a phone, and how indignant we can get at the failures of others. Our attitude is like Mark Wahlberg’s character in The Departed, when he says, “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy,” and so as our arrogance grows, our sense that we get it right, so does our anger at all those who we perceive do not. Disagreements will bring that out too; we really need to think of ourselves as right or we really want to take some course of action, and any disagreement threatens that, so we are provoked by a light disagreement.
We can snap even at inanimate objects like our computer or phone when they aren’t working, or a door when we hit our head on it. We can write that off as “having high standards,” but it’s really just light provocation. It’s petty and small. Sometimes we’ll even get mad at people for doing the right thing when it makes us feel inferior. “Oh aren’t you a good two shoe? I guess you’re doing the Christian thing, huh?” Or how about when someone confronts us about sin in our lives, something that the Bible would actually encourage us to receive as a kindness, and we snap at it? Even when we may appear to be righteously angry, much of our righteous anger has more to do with threats to ourselves than threats to justice. If you only get angry about injustice you perceive to threaten you, you probably aren’t really concerned for justice. So there are various origins of our anger that are not weighty, that provoke us lightly, because they threaten something we love more than we love God and people: Ourselves.
Light provocation will then show itself also in where the anger leads. Since light provocation is primarily concerned with the self, so is its response. It will tend toward revenge, rather than restoration of justice, and that revenge can be the more overt I am violent toward you or say hurtful things to you, or the more passive forms of isolation, avoidance, and gossip. Or perhaps we do nothing about it, but we still let it stew, and perhaps even enjoy playing out in our minds various ways we get back at the person or prove them wrong. The self is something of a bottomless pit, too, so anger arising from selfishness or pride will tend toward extremes: Even in the case of genuine faults, we’ll tend to get angrier about them than is warranted or hold on to the anger for a long time beyond anything productive.
So don’t take your anger for granted. Look at it. And don’t pretend it’s not there by dressing it up as, “Well I’m not angry; I’m just frustrated.” Ok; whatever, but love is not lightly frustrated, provoked, irritated etc. That still matters. Don’t ignore it. Use it like a check engine light. An older man who used to mentor me said, aside from physiological components, that depression is when there’s something you love more than God that you feel like you can’t attain, anxiety is when there’s something you love more than God that you can’t figure out how to attain, and anger is when there’s something you love more than God, and something is blocking your attaining of it. It’s when what we love is threatened. So when you feel anger or frustration or whatever you choose to call it popping up, pop the hood. Examine it: What love am I protecting here? What feels threatened? And is it really worth being angry over? Is it a violation of God’s law, or a violation of my law? Is my love for God and people really causing this, or my love for myself? If it’s love for self, do not feed it. Your selfishness and pride do not need any more ammo. This is where so much of our world’s approach to “anger management” falls short. The world will give you techniques: Acknowledge it, admit it, take deep breaths, find healthy outlets, and some of that stuff can help, but it doesn’t address what you love. It doesn’t address why such light things provoke you in the first place. How do you deal with that? If we are vainly provoked because we love vain things, our only hope is to change what we love, to love what is glorious, rather than what is vain. Let’s talk about that next by talking about glorious provocation.
What do I mean by glorious provocation? The word “glory” in the Bible comes from a word for heavy, or weighty. It’s a contrast with light, or vain. Glorious provocation means the glorious things, the weighty things, the things that really matter, begin to be what you love, and therefore what provokes you, and the things that don’t matter, that aren’t actually glorious, therefore don’t. The mouse trap snaps because there is real weight on it, and doesn’t when there isn’t. This word used here in 1 Corinthians 13 that the ESV translates “irritable” is only used one other place in the New Testament, in Acts 17:16, hopefully familiar to those of you who were with us when we preached through Acts recently: “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” That’s glorious provocation. Paul’s spirit was provoked because he saw the glory that God deserved was being given to idols. He loved the God who is glorious, and therefore he was gloriously provoked when God’s glory was blocked by idols.
If you expand to the rest of the Bible, we find that God Himself is sometimes provoked, but He too is not lightly provoked. In Zechariah 10:3 He says, “My anger is hot against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders; for the LORD of hosts cares for his flock, the house of Judah, and will make them like his majestic steed in battle.” He’s provoked precisely because He is love; He loves His people, so His anger is hot against their leaders who were oppressing and abusing them. What kind of love would not be angry at such a thing? That’s a glorious provocation: Because God’s people matter, when they are attacked, it provokes Him. Not only sin against His people provokes God; sin against Himself provokes Him. In Deuteronomy Moses describes how he prayed for the people, “because of all the sin that you had committed, in doing what was evil in the sight of the LORD to provoke him to anger” – Deut 9:18. There isn’t some abstract set of laws out there called justice; there is God who is just, and when one sins against God, He is right and just to be angry at that. He matters, He is infinite in glory, and so He is gloriously provoked when His glory is attacked, as it is every time we sin against Him. Since God loves only the glorious things, God has never been, nor will ever be, vainly provoked.
And all of our vain provocation is sin against Him. It shows we love something else more than Him. It shows we don’t love people; instead, we love something else, and when people get in our way, we get angry with them. Ultimately, in fact, we get angry with God. Think about what anger is saying: Anger is saying, “It shouldn’t be this way!” and in the case of righteous anger or glorious provocation, that’s exactly right: People shouldn’t be oppressed, idols shouldn’t be worshipped, God shouldn’t be sinned against. But in the case of vain provocation, where we’re angry because our wife didn’t hear us, someone was in our way, or our computer isn’t working, who are we accusing of wrong? We’re never ultimately mad at the computer or at a person; we’re mad at God. And as long as we are provoked at Him, provoked for all the wrong reasons, He is gloriously provoked at us, provoked for the right reason: His glory.
And yet, we come now to more ways God’s anger is different from ours: He is slow to act on it. God patiently bears with the sins of His people throughout the Bible, though their sins are far more offensive to Him than any sin could possibly be to us, and if you are here today, it is only because God has already been slow to anger toward your sin. Not only is He slow to it while we snap quickly, He is also entirely in control of it, and directs it to a good end. Vain provocation has a vain end: Our goal is to make others fear us or protect our private interests, but God’s is far more glorious. He is angry toward the restoration of justice. He will punish evildoing and remove it from the earth entirely, so that there might be a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Without that, what hope is there for our world?
But with that, what hope is there for you and me, when we’ve sinned against Him? Though all of God’s provocation is glorious, it is here perhaps that its glory is most clearly revealed. God was so in control of His provocation that instead of pouring it out on us, He loved us so much that God the Father sent God the Son to bear His glorious provocation in our place. On the cross our sins were credited to Christ, and upon seeing them, God was gloriously provoked and poured out His just and holy wrath on Christ. His love meant both that He was provoked with His people and provoked for His people. He was mad at us, but also mad at our misery, because He loved us. So He gave Himself, sacrificed Himself, in order to both punish our sins and save us. And then Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, to a fully reconciled relationship with God, a relationship now available to whoever will turn from their vain provocation and trust in Him.
So lay down your anger with God. He’s already poured His out. Come to Him weak, and He will embrace you. He is the love that is not vainly provoked, and He will reorder your loves, so that you snap a bit slower, on only the glorious things, and toward a glorious end. If you’re a Christian today, God is no longer provoked with you. The circumstances in your life aren’t Him punishing you, they are Him loving you! Even when they are painful, even when they are His discipline for some sin, He will not work them against your good, but for your good, and will only give them in the measure and for the duration they are necessary to accomplish that good. What if next time I had to repeat myself to my wife I received it as God’s love to me, His loving work to make me less selfish, more patient, more like Him? What if that’s how you saw the next rude comment, the next traffic jam, the next social media post? You wouldn’t be vainly provoked, and instead you could see the people around you as glorious images of God, in some cases even fellow members of the body of Christ, people who themselves are worthy of love, rather than objects blocking what you really love. I could gently repeat myself to my wife, you could celebrate someone’s differences rather than being irritated by them, gladly get out of another’s way instead of always demanding they get out of yours, be patient and kind to the customer service rep, and engage disagreement with gentleness and respect. Then you could channel all your anger to fighting real injustice, to vigorous prayer, worship, and evangelism, so God is rightly glorified. Do you really like being mad, frustrated, irritated so often? You don’t have to be. Let your spirit be stirred in God’s cause, not your own. His is the glory worthy of your ultimate love.