During the summer of 1970, I worked for a road construction company that was rebuilding U.S. Highway 90 along the Mississippi Gulf Coast following the devastation of Hurricane Camille the previous summer. Our long work days began about daybreak. Without even the hint of a breeze at that hour, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico were as still as a sheet of glass. I would have enjoyed the fresh-ness of those mornings if it had not been for another phenomenon familiar to Gulf Coast dwellers: gnats. Down there, anyone foolish enough to come near the sandy beach that early on certain summer mornings is going to be attacked. So small you can hardly see them, these gnats bite with a torment that is out of all proportion to their size. By mid-morning they've disappeared, but for the first few hours of the day they are enough to make a grown man cry.
I remember working one morning with Joe Bridges, a grizzled old… man who watched out for me on the job and had become a dear friend. From Tylertown, Mississippi, he had been a common laborer for many long years and had followed construction jobs all over the South. I often marveled at the patient, rhythmic way he worked in difficult conditions, and this morning was no exception. As I furiously fought the gnats and said unappreciative things about the day I was born, Joe seemed to take only slight notice of the devilish little insects.
"Man, how in the world can you stand this?" I finally screamed. “Don’t these gnats bother you?”
"Well," Joe said, looking at me sideways as he adjusted his hard hat a little, "I guess they would —— if I let 'em."
It was some years later that I understood: folks who have known what real hardship is don't pay much attention to gnats.
One measure of a man is the size of what it takes to annoy him. Unfortunately, most of us are far too easily irritated. Since we have so little character, it doesn't take much to get the best of us. And consequently, our lives are dominated by relatively minor vexations, things that wisdom says we shouldn't take the time to be troubled about. We're the victim of every little unpleasantness that comes along. But rather than grow in character and rise above these petty annoyances, we spend our lives swatting "gnats." The real work we were sent here to do ends up being neglected because we spend most of our time and energy being annoyed.
The tendency to be easily annoyed is far more than a quirky little "personality" trait. I would suggest that many of the quite serious problems in life —— especially in our dealings with other people —— boil down to a failure of self-discipline with regard to the basic issue of irritability. If not repented of and removed from our character, annoyance is likely to cause more deadly destruction than we expect. As bad "habits" go, being grouchy is far from harmless.
When we find ourselves frequently upset over "gnats" and other annoyances, our hearts are wide open to all manner of evil things. The Bible warns about this. "Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls" (Proverbs 25:28). "He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city" (Proverbs 16:32). "The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, and his glory is to overlook a transgression" (Proverbs 19:11). "Have fervent love for one another, for love will cover a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). Love is not "easily provoked" (1 Corinthians 13:5 KJV).
Paul wrote, "Let your gentleness be known to all men" (Philippians 4:5). The word translated here as "gentleness" (moderation, meekness) has been defined as "strength under control." To avoid the destructive effects of annoyance in our lives, our strength must be under control. To do this, we must be not only self-disciplined, but wise with a wisdom that comes from God. Listen well to the words of James: "Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy" (James 3:13-17).
Most of us would like to have more "peace of mind." But we tend to see "worry" as the main hindrance to that peace. What we fail to recognize is that annoyance is just as much the enemy of peace of mind as anxiety. The peace of God hardly reigns in our hearts if we're in a constant state of vexation over the little irritations of life.
So what is it that really gets your goat? Whether it's a big thing or a little one, do yourself a favor and give this a try: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21).