“Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are. Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools, or they will become wise in their own estimation.”
Proverbs 26:4-5 (NLT)
When I first read Proverbs 26:4-5, I thought that verses four and five contradicted one another. But after pondering them and reading commentaries on them, I realized that they actually do go together. We are never to answer a fool in the same foolish way that he or she behaves, and only then in matters of consequence. And, when we do answer them, we must do so by rebuking them so that they will not continue in their foolishness. So, what does this look like?
I’ve worked with many people over the years, and occasionally have come across a few difficult people. There was a woman I volunteered with who never had anything positive to say about the work I was doing. In fact, every time she approached me, it was to criticize the way that my co-leaders and I ran the program that she and I were both involved in. She always had a better way to do things. While input is fine, and I thought she had some good ideas, her approach was bullyish and she was always so critical. When she approached me, I could not remain calm, and honestly, would answer her “folly” the same way she approached me – harshly. My reply was never pleasant. In this sense, I was, unfortunately, acting like Proverbs 26:4, and emulating her critical ways.
What I should have done is to answer her kindly, while firmly pointing out her negativity, and told her that if she would like to remain on the team, she would need to be more positive and enjoy the current way the program was run, and if she couldn’t do that, then she would need to leave. In this sense, I would have answered her in such a way that she realized her folly, but not responded in the harsh way in which she had approached me.
There is a fine line when answering a “fool” and we must be choosy in the foolishness we address. Any time we address someone for the sake of correction, it must always be to point the person back to Christ rather than to punish the person for his or her behavior. And, first and foremost, we must pray before we ever approach someone. Pray for the right words to say, and for the other person’s heart to be ready to accept the correction. When you do these things, you will answer folly in a godly way.