“Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.”
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
We have all been there. Someone says something so outlandish and wrong that it must be answered. As you get ready to speak you realize they may not respond well to what you have to say. You think you have to speak up though, because this error must be answered. You feel the confusion and rage welling up within you. Any person who looked at you would know you are in the process of deciding whether you should continue to bite your tongue or not. What do you do? Do you speak or do you keep your mouth closed? And how do you decide which one is appropriate in this situation?
Sometimes the Bible presents truths which on the surface seem contradictory but upon further examination we see how they harmonize. The two verses above provide a great example of this. Solomon’s proverbs present us with general wisdom, not promises or a guidebook for how to respond to every situation. We must take the wisdom offered to us by God in Proverbs and develop the skill to know how to apply them in everyday situations.
Proverbs 26:4 and 26:5 provide a great opportunity for us to learn how to respond to people depending on the situation. Thankfully, we don’t have to shoot in the dark when it comes to making this decision. God’s Spirit gives us wisdom and help in our time of need and we can bring other passages of Scripture to bear in our thought process. Scripture interprets Scripture, and when we apply other Proverbs and similar passages we gain greater clarity as we seek to respond with grace and wisdom.
When Should I Choose Proverbs 26:4?
Sometimes we need to keep our mouths closed and not respond because we will risk becoming fools ourselves. We can drag ourselves into heated and futile arguments or needlessly alienate the people around us. Also we run the risk of responding when we aren’t in the right frame of mind and heart to do so, thereby saying the right thing the wrong way and detracting from the truth in our statement.
Here are some times you should stay silent instead of speaking.
If You are Angry
Solomon has a lot to say to his son about the foolishness of having a hot temper. When we are angry both the content of our words and the manner in which we say them will be rude and harsh. Those who hear what we say will not be blessed or challenged by them, but will be provoked to further anger or bullied into silence. This is why Solomon reminded his son in Proverbs 15:18 that, “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.” If what a person says to you makes you angry, either wait until you have calmed down to speak or remain completely silent. Speaking harsh words in a heated moment is not an option.
On Social Media
Social media encourages us to form strong opinions based on incomplete information. We hear something on TV or read an article and fire off our immediate thoughts without thinking them through and caring about how people are going to perceive them. Add to this the fact that no one can hear the tone of voice in which you would have spoken this and many people’s capacity for reading things into statements you didn’t intend and you have a recipe for disaster. The potential for quarreling and misunderstanding only escalates because often we state strong opinions and then feel the need to defend them instead of hearing legitimate pushback from people. If someone says something foolish and wrongheaded on social media and you feel that you must respond to them, find a time to meet in person or talk on the phone so you can hear each other’s voices.
In An Email
Email shares many of the same drawbacks as social media. I cannot think of a time I have seen a rebuke via email be received in the spirit in which it was intended. Instead we often project the most sinister of motives and rudeness of tone into these interactions and respond in kind. If you need to say something difficult to someone, say it in person or if you must, on the phone. If someone says something that needs to be corrected in an email, find a way to handle it in the most personal way possible.
If You Don’t Have Your Facts Straight
“The fool does not delight in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” These words from Proverbs 18:2 and 18:13 remind us to stop, listen, and think before we speak. It’s possible you misunderstood what the person was saying, or you are pretty sure they are wrong but you don’t know why. In these cases it is best to keep silent. Speaking when you didn’t understand the other person or speaking when you don’t have accurate facts to correct them will cause you to play the fool.
If You Aren’t Genuinely Concerned about the Person
Why do you want to respond to what this person said? Do you merely want to correct facts or do you want to lead them to better understanding for the good of their soul. While we can never have perfect motives, we should examine the attitude of our hearts when we speak. Our communication is not just about the content of what we are saying, and a lack of care or personal disdain for a person will speak louder than your words.
When Should I Choose Proverbs 26:5?
Sometimes we need to speak up when a person is wrong because we cannot allow them to continue in their error. They need to hear the truth, and if we know the truth we need to say something for the good of the other person’s soul. Assuming we are not speaking from anger or personal malice, our speaking up will be a blessing to them if they will listen.
Here are some times you should speak instead of staying silent.
If You are Under Control
Previously we spoke about the foolishness of addressing someone when you are angry. Angry words will lead nowhere, but a word fitly spoken can make a great difference. If “death and life are in the power of the tongue,” then our words of life accompanied by a cool and gentle spirit can bring great grace to those who hear. The difference between our words bringing life or death often has to do with the way in which we speak them. When we have a cool spirit, we think straight and communicate more clearly. When we have calmed ourselves, those who hear us can sense compassion and empathy. This opens the ears of our hearers instead of cutting them off.
If You are in an Appropriate Context
Knowing where and when to speak words of correction can be one of the most difficult choices we face. In addition to answering someone in person whenever possible, we need to consider who else may be around. Are they likely to be persuaded by what they are hearing? Also, will the presence of other people cause the foolish person to be so embarrassed they don’t hear us or will the presence of a crowd cause them to double down on their argument? Or, do you have the kind of relationship with the people who are present that they will be willing to listen to give and take? These questions are important to answer, and if the moment is not right for correcting someone, find an opportunity to talk to them later.
If The Issue is Worth the Possible Disagreement
Disagreements should not be avoided at all costs because sometimes they are absolutely necessary. In the Bible we see calls to correct others when needed and the example of the apostles who rebuked each other when one was out of line. If the issue about which the foolish person is wrong is a serious one, then you should take the opportunity to correct in kindness even if it means they may not receive what you have to say. Issues that touch on central doctrines and personal sin need to be addressed. Check your motives, check your heart, and open your mouth to speak.
This list is probably not exhaustive, but serves as a good starting place. Let us learn by God’s grace to speak words of grace with the intention to bring grace to those who hear.
“Why We Need a Strong Dose of Proverbs in 2016“
For Further Reading”
How to Read Proverbs by Tremper Longman III