Love Is Not Easily Provoked
March 24, 2019 / No. 3977
In this message, we consider the phrase in I Corinthians 13:5, “is not easily provoked. “In some ways, this phrase is the negative counterpart to the main statement with which these verses begin. Verse 4: “Charity suffereth long,” that is, charity is patient.
Now, the negative of that: “Charity is not easily provoked,” it is not irritated easily. Each of the characteristics of love here puts a question to each of us as we hear them and as we read them. Are you longsuffering; are you kind; are you not envious; are you one who is not boastful; are you one who is not self-seeking? That is the way that the Holy Spirit intends us to read this chapter on love. So, the question in this message is: Are you easily provoked? Is there someone, a person, or is there something that irritates you? Is there someone who gets on your nerves? Is there something that you find annoying, that produces a reaction in you? Then the Holy Spirit is telling you here, the problem is not that person and that thing, but the problem is you. You do not love as you should. Charity is not easily provoked.
Asking that question of ourselves, Am I easily provoked? helps us to see that the main subject here is anger. We could put it this way: Charity is not soon angry. As we look at Scripture, we see that the subject of anger is a prominent subject in the Word of God. The Bible has a lot to say about it. And we ask the question: Why does the Bible have so much to say about anger? Think, for example, of the book of Proverbs. The Bible has so much to say about anger because it is a much bigger issue than we ourselves are willing to admit in our own lives. The reality is this: Each of us is provoked far too easily by the smallest things in others. That is the reality. And the problem is, then, that we do not understand love and we are not practicing love as we should.
Now, to understand this phrase, it is good for us at the outset to make a couple of distinctions. First, with regard to the word “provoke.” That word in the original Greek has the idea of sharpening something or becoming sharp. If you are provoked, the idea is that you are worked on to the point of being dangerous. You sharpen a knife—you work on it to the point where it is dangerous. That is the idea of provoking here. So, you think of an explosive personality—someone is easily provoked.
Now, it is not always bad to provoke. The Bible uses this idea positively. For example, in Hebrews 10:24 we are told to consider one another, that is, to put ourselves in the shoes of one another, that is, to love another so that we provoke one another to love and good works. So, there is a good kind of provoking of one another. The idea of the text is to be provoked, to be sharpened, to the point of anger.
In the second place, we should make a distinction between two kinds of anger in the Scriptures. Anger is what the passage is talking about. But that does not mean that it is always wrong for us to be provoked or to be irritated and become angry. There is a righteous anger. Think of all the times in the Scriptures, particularly in the Old Testament as God dealt with His people Israel in their wanderings, in the time of the judges, and when the kingdom was divided, and Israel went after idolatry. The Scriptures over and over tell us that God is provoked by the sins of His people. Or, you can think of the Savior Himself who, during His earthly ministry, came into the temple. There they were, buying and selling, and, provoked to anger, Jesus made a whip and He drove the buyers and sellers from the temple in righteous indignation. So there is a righteous indignation—being provoked. But, it is important for us to understand the two kinds of anger that there are then. In the instances just cited, the provocation has to do with the name and the honor of God. God is jealous for His own name and honor. Jesus is provoked by the abuse of holy things—the temple of God, the house of prayer, as He calls it. And Paul is annoyed and provoked by heresy, by immorality, and by carnal and divisive behavior in the churches. That explains Paul’s anger sometimes in his epistles. But then this: Paul never becomes angry with those who beat him, jail him, or lie about him. You do not find him in his letters bellyaching and complaining because he is persecuted for the name of Jesus Christ.
When we look at ourselves, the reality is this, that most often we are provoked by things not truly wicked, but things that are done against us personally. That is what this passage is talking about—things that disturb our peace, things that do not go our way, things that we personally find offensive (habits that others have). It can be a thing, or it can be a person. Then the tendency is to blame our anger on that thing or that person. “If you did not exist, if you did not come to work today, if you were not in my life, then I would not be angry. It’s your fault that I am angry. If you did not do that, I would not be irritated. If the car in front of me was not driving so slowly or did not sit through a green light, I would not be so angry. If these ads did not pop up on my phone or the Internet while I was trying to work, I would not be so angry.” You see, the real issue is a heart issue, it is ourselves, it is our claim to what we think our rights are. I have my time, I have my property, I have my schedule, I have my way of doing things, and when I feel that somebody has violated my rights, has disturbed my night of sleep, has interrupted my lunch hour, has interrupted my vacation—then I have a right to be annoyed and provoked.
That is what the text is talking about when it says that love is not easily provoked. Love does not get angry quickly at others when they invade my rights, when they violate my space. Love allows my name to be maligned without reaction. Love lets things go a different way than how I would want to see them go. Love puts up with the quirks and the habits of others. Love is not irritated by a person or a behavior that is different than myself. You see here the important connection in the passage to the previous phrase: “Charity seeketh not her own, charity is not easily provoked.” It is the one who seeks his own who is so easily provoked. The one who is intent on having his way is easily angered. Perhaps that is the main reason for our irritations, that we want things our way. That is the reality. Too often we are irritated by little things that have to do with our perceived rights rather than by what is right.
There is another thing, though, that helps us to recognize this reality. It is this, that what Paul is talking about here does not just have to do with temper or obvious outbursts of anger. People are different. Think of the differences between us from the point of view of time—how long it takes for anger to be provoked or how long one’s anger and bitterness will last. Some will hold on to a quiet grudge for years, others will blow up in an instant and it will pass quickly. Both are destructive. I have seen relationships damaged for decades, families torn apart over trivial things, like a few dollars. And the anger there is like a slow burn, a smoldering. We look at that and say, “They should get over it.” But that does not justify a quick explosion. Someone may say, “Well, I get over it quickly. I blow up and then it is forgotten.” Is that any better? You know that a nuclear explosion lasts only a few minutes. Then look at the damage. Love is not easily provoked. So there are differences with regard to time.
Then there are differences with regard to immediate expression of anger. Think of that. Anger is a heart issue, but it produces different external expressions. For some, it comes out in those heated outbursts of emotion with sharp words and name-calling and even violence. But, on the other hand, there is the one who is angry in his heart but says nothing and possibly no one even knows about that simmering anger. It is internalized and the resentment builds and there is a planning and a plotting to get back at the other in another way. Sometimes this is called “passive-aggressive behavior.” It is a silent brooding. But it is not any better, is it? There are other issues: honesty, communication. So, it is a love issue again, is it not? That is the reality. Every one of us has to face these issues.
Then the reality is this as well. Sadly, this being provoked comes to expression most often in our closest relationships. I was reading a book this week about abusive men. Abusive men are often the nicest and the most charismatic, and everyone wonders, Why does she make him so angry? He’s not that way with anybody else. It must be her. And she begins to think that way, too. The people who surround us and the people who love us are the ones who usually catch the brunt of our angry behavior. When we see strangers, we put on a nice face. At church; when we are alone with family; when we are sitting in the office with the same people day after day; when we are living in a house, sharing a bathroom or a meal with the same people over and over—there come our irritations, especially in the family. And the Scriptures recognize this when they speak of provocative behavior in the home. Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” That provoking to wrath is an unreasonable demand, inconsistency in discipline, constant criticism, hypocrisy. And it drives the children to anger and to bitterness in the end, not just against you, but against the gospel and against God.
“Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath.” Why do the Scriptures say that? Because in the relationships in which we have the greatest responsibility to love, we fail the most. So Colossians 3:19 issues a specific warning to husbands concerning their wives: “Be not bitter against them.” That is not because a wife is not also prone to that sin of bitterness, but this: the husband is the head of the home. He sets the tone for the life of the family. And if there is a constant conflict in the home, then the husband has to look at himself and his bitterness and his anger as a head and a leader in the home. And the remedy begins with him and his repentance. Part of the bond of marriage—you read about this in the epistles of Peter—part of the bond of marriage is that a husband and a wife understand each other, that they dwell with each other according to knowledge. That is, they get to know one another and they get to know what is irritating in the behavior of the other. They get to know what can be irritating to the other, and what do they do in love? They avoid those things. They do not irritate and they are not easily provoked because they understand one another. Their prayers are not hindered. If you are always on those things that irritate, then there is no spiritual unity. The reality is this, that the closer we are to one another, the more we know one another, the more likely we are to be irritated. Love is not easily provoked. We have to work on this, then, in those closest relationships.
The apostle says here that love lets things that are not matters of truth and morality go. He lets those things that are just personal preferences go. He tolerates them. He learns to love the person and look past the irritations. That is not to say you can never talk about those things that might irritate and annoy you and the other person. But there are other ways to talk about them than in anger. And your love is not conditioned on whether the person will change that irritating behavior or not, because you love unconditionally. You do not stop loving your children when they fail to clean their room or put their underwear in the laundry shoot. You love them unconditionally. You can talk about those things, but there is a way to do it.
So, charity is not easily provoked. Why? What are the reasons?
The first is this. It belongs to the character of love itself to be provocative, but in a good way. If you love someone, you want him to be convinced by your love. You want him to be stirred up by your love. Stirred up to what? To love. And, if you are soon angry, well, that anger just gets in the way and it creates a barrier to the development of a relationship. That is Hebrews 10:24: “Consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works,” that is, put yourself in the shoes of the other, be considerate of them, love them, and in that way, you will provoke them, you will take them along with you in the way of love and obedience. You do that by love, not by anger. That is what Paul means when in II Corinthians 5 he says that he is constrained by the love of Christ. He means that in his living relationship to Jesus Christ, what moves him in his zeal for the gospel, what moves him in his life of godliness, what moves him in service to the church is this, that Christ has loved him, Christ has given Himself for him. He is constrained by the love of Jesus Christ. Then your and my duties as Christians are not a chore and a burden but a joy. Because we are loved, we love. Now we can go back to Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” That is a loving direction and instruction and correction.
So it belongs to the nature of love to provoke others to love. And anger is a barrier to that.
Then a second, a bigger, reason is this, God’s own love towards us as His people—His bride and His church. Yes, we read of God being provoked to wrath and to jealousy, and God is right and just in that, but think of how patient and longsuffering and how merciful God is. In the New Testament, that is put very clearly in II Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promises but is longsuffering to usward, not willing that any should perish.” In His longsuffering He determines to save and to bring to glory every one of His elect, every one for whom Christ has given His blood. This is the experience of every believing child of God. Yes, God is just, but to me He is slow to anger, to me He is plenteous in mercy. The justice that I deserved is measured out against His Son in my place on the cross, and what patience, what longsuffering, God shows to me despite all my sins and my constant failings! A God of mercy. That is the God we know—slow to anger. He has not dealt with us after our sins nor rewarded us according to our iniquity. Slow to anger.
Now, the Bible, using that same language (slow to anger), again and again exhorts us to be slow to anger, and it speaks of the value and the virtue of being slow to anger in the book of Proverbs especially. And the Bible calls us to forgive as we have been forgiven, to be gracious as we have experienced grace, to be patient as God has been patient with us, to bear injury as God also in His Son has borne our injuries. That is the logic. Charity is not easily provoked.
Then there is another reason, and that is the love of Jesus Christ. We have said before that we could replace the word charity here in I Corinthians 13 with the name Jesus Christ and it would not violate what the passage is saying at all. Because He is not easily provoked. He is the embodiment of perfect love, not only as an example and a model to us, but as the power who works in us by the Holy Spirit and constrains us to love as we have been loved. We have referenced already I Peter 2:23, 24. Here you have it again: “Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth. Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not, but he committed himself to him that judgeth righteously.” That is the love of Jesus Christ. When every right was taken from Him, when He had every reason to retaliate with the fire of fury from heaven and to call legions of angels, what did He do? He trusted Himself to Him who judges justly. He depended on the sovereignty, the providence of God. That is a response, is it not? This person irritates me. No, God has put this irritant in my life. Not, how do I react to this person; but, how do I respond to the God who has brought this on me? He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly.
Then, think of what He did when hanging on the cross. Around Him they mocked and they taunted. They divided His garments, and He heard among them the voices of those for whom He would soon lay down His life, and He prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Do you practice that kind of love—love your enemies, pray for them? Enemies. What are they? People who encroach on me, on my rights, on my liberties.
So, the remedy. It is not simple, is it? This is an area of sanctification in which we especially need to grow and change. So I want to close with some specific things, specific ways for us to be engaged in the warfare against the sin of easy anger.
First this. Let us pause before we respond. Then we must recognize that anger can short-circuit everything else here that is said about love. So, pause and practice what else is said here about love. In the place of anger, be kind, be longsuffering, put away your pride, do not seek your own things. Are they not the real causes of your anger? Not just cease from anger, but pray for patience, pray for kindness, and repent of your pride and self-seeking. Or as the apostle goes on to say: charity bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things. So, pause and practice the other aspects of biblical love.
Then second. Remember in the Scriptures how much attention is given to this subject of anger. Study the Scriptures, memorize the Scriptures, use them as a sword to fight against this evil and to cut it out of your own life, to work repentance in your own heart.
Then, in the third place, think hard and often and long about the destructive and sobering effects of anger—where it leads. There is so much damage that comes through anger in homes and in marriages. But think of the damage it does to the soul of a child, to the emotional makeup of a woman, the fear that it produces, the insecurity that results, the conflict that comes from it. If you tell your spouse how much you love her over and over, that means nothing when it is continually contradicted by angry behaviors.
Fourth. Think of what it is to be a disciple of Christ, to take up a cross and to follow Him, to be like Him, to walk in His steps, to be willing to suffer wrong. Think of how His love moved Him to silence and made Him willing to bear reproach and shame for us. If we love, we will not be petty but, like Christ, we will see the bigger picture. It is bigger than you, bigger than your interests, bigger than your happiness. Love is not easily provoked.
And, finally, the only remedy. Saturate yourself in the knowledge and the experience of God’s mercy and grace towards you as a sinner.