I. Annoyance and Anger
We all get annoyed. It’s part of the emotional toolbox with which human beings navigate the world. One notch down from anger, annoyance is bearable but it can be deeply corrosive. We all know that the Bible depicts God as angry – burning with holy rage against the evil and injustice that humanity wreaks upon each other and the earth. But does God get annoyed?
When I looked down a poll published in the Telegraph of what British people find to be the 100 most annoying things, I discovered an interesting trend. From rude shop assistants and bad customer service, to cold-calls, foreign call centres and spam email, people who queue-jump, annoyance often arises when we feel like we’re not being treated as whole persons. When we feel we’re being scammed, treated as if we don’t matter – but it’s not personal. If it was personal, and deliberate, we’d get angry. But then, that’s the problem, it’s not personal; it’s commercial. It’s not deliberate or malicious; it’s just inconsiderate.
Of course, there are other types of annoyance. Annoyance can feel like a stone in your shoe. It’s something small but ongoing and it leaves you exhausted by mid-afternoon. Annoyance can come in bursts, like if you’re being delayed (at the airport) or slowed down when you’re in a rush (by slow drivers or slow moving tourists), or having to pay for things (toilets, parking, MP expenses) that you feel shouldn’t be yours to pay for. We get annoyed when our finite resources are being wasted.
I used to think that annoyance was just anger, dialled down a few notches. Recently, I’ve come to think of it as an entirely different emotion. Anger is impossible to ignore. Or, at least, it takes hard work to stamp down, bottle up, or harden ourselves against anger. Anger demands attention. When I’m angry with someone or something, I can’t stop thinking about it. The situation runs over and over in my memory, and I imagine all the ways I could deal with the situation.
Not so with annoyance. Annoyance niggles away in the background. Annoyance doesn’t demand our attention. In fact, quite the opposite, annoyance makes us want to turn the other way. Ignore the problem or the person. That’s why I’m writing this blog post. I wanted to turn my attention to annoyance, that feeling I would rather brush under the carpet. Sometimes, I don’t even realise what it is that’s annoyed me, so quick does my brain seek to focus on something else. If we can put off dealing with annoyances, often times, we do and instead just hope they disappear on their own. Anger is energy. Anger ‘fires up’ and can be a powerful force to make the world a better (or worse) place. Annoyance, as I experience it, is more like a dripping tap – it erodes, it exhausts, and saps our resources.
II. Annoyance in the Bible
Introspection and newspaper polls can only get us so far. In order to understand the jumble of a human life, the Scriptures are probably the most helpful resource. The Bible has some fantastically vivid images for emotions, and annoyance is no exception: “like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes” (Proverbs 10:26). What else does the Bible say about annoyances?
A fairly well-known depiction of annoyance is “a thorn in your side” (Number 33:55; Judges 2:3; 2 Cor. 12:7). A thorn isn’t going to kill you (assuming there is no infection). Instead, the idea seems to be that this “thorn” is something that Israel or Paul has to live with, tolerate, but not let it wear them down. It is a reminder to trust God. It’s something which God has permitted, because through the emotion of annoyance, God is teaching or moulding his people. But that’s not the only way annoyance functions in the Bible.
One of the most memorable phrases comes from Proverbs: “An irritating [spouse] is like a constant dripping tap”. A good example of this is the story of Delilah and Samson. Delilah pesters Samson, asking again and again what the secret to his strength is. Samson knows – without a shadow of a doubt – that if he tells her, she will betray him. Three times he gives her false information, and she uses it to try and get him arrested and killed. And yet (!) he still tells her his secret because “she pressed him daily with her words and urged him, that his soul was annoyed to death.” (Judges 16:16). This was a man whose anger burned like fire so that he slaughtered hundreds of enemy soldiers single-handed. Anger was Samson’s MO. But annoyance wearied him in such a way that he had no strength in his soul, no will to live, no motivations any longer to defend his people and be the saviour of his nation. In the face of annoyance, the mighty Samson surrendered.
In the New Testament we hear a similar parable, but from the other perspective. In the parable there is a city judge “who did not fear God and did not respect man. There was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me legal protection from my opponent,’ For a while he was unwilling; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.” (Luke 8:1-5) The ESV translates verse 5, “… I will give her justice so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” This selfish and corrupt judge relents to give up time and money from his own pocket, for the sake of a stranger he finds endlessly annoying. If anything, from these stories we learn that annoyance can make us do things that are drastically out of character, for both better and worse.
It’s not only other people that can be annoying, God can be really annoying too. In the parable above, God is contrasted with the judge, but sometimes God can also be like the widow; and we can be like the unrighteous judge. Pope Francis writes this on annoyance: “The Holy Spirit annoys us. Because he moves us, he makes us journey, he pushes the Church to go forward. And we are like Peter at the Transfiguration: ‘Oh, how wonderful it is for us to be here, all together!’ But let it not inconvenience us. We would like the Holy Spirit to doze off. We want to subdue the Holy Spirit. And that just will not work. For he is God and he is that wind that comes and goes, and you do not know from where. He is the strength of God; it is he who gives us consolation and strength to continue forward. But to go forward! And this is bothersome. Convenience is nicer.” Pope Francis writes that the Holy Spirit can annoy us, because s/he can’t be controlled, dispelled or dismissed; the Holy Spirit is persistent and challenging.
III. Discerning Annoyance
It turns out that “annoyance” is a pretty complex emotion. It’s an emotion that most of the time we’d rather not think about. Instead, we tell ourselves to grin-and-bear-it. We interpret “bear with each other in love” as a mandate to ignore or dismiss one another or your feelings. But annoyance can grind us down until there’s no love remaining. And the object of our annoyance, might not even realize the effect they’re having, or know that the relationship is being worn away. Sometimes, annoyance is passive aggression. Sometimes, annoyance is cowardly. Because, sometimes, annoyance should really be anger (this is what I think of Samson’s story – I mean, his wife tried to kill him and his entire nation three times!). But anger is hard work, anger is change, and change is risky. Annoyance is easier. Annoyance feels safer. But at the end of Samson’s story, letting annoyance simmer was his downfall.
But there is another type of annoyance. Annoyance that comes from God. This type of annoyance normally arises when we are being asked to change. This is Pope Francis’ description of the Holy Spirit in the church; or the parable of the widow and the unrighteous judge (if God is the widow and we’re the judge). God doesn’t give up on us. God can be persistent. God wants the best for us, which is almost certainly better than what we’ve got now. God wants to erode away some of our sharp edges, and erosion is how I think annoyance works. Basically, God can be annoying too, and like all annoyances, we’d rather ignore it.
So, what annoys you? And what type of annoyance is it? What needs to change?