Responding to foolishness
- Created: Saturday, 22 May 2010 17:00
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You receive a harassing email. Or perhaps a disturbing phone call left on voicemail. Maybe at your congregation someone is constantly trying to get you into a theological debate. Or maybe you have a co-worker who is so opinionated it is painful to even say “hello” without a battle.
Do you know people like this? How should you respond to a person such as those described above?
One of the “joys” of being in ministry at the local congregational level is that all of the above scenarios apply on any given day. Every once in a while I will get that threatening email or phone call about this and that. Note by harassing/disturbing etc, I don’t mean heart-felt legitimate criticism or suggestion. Rather, I mean illogical, inflammatory, delusional, infantile, pointless and/or vile comments. I never want to put myself above criticism or foster an environment where pointing out a mistake I made is tantamount to “attacking the Lord’s anointed.” I sincerely want to hear your opinion.
But sometimes a complaint is anything but constructive. I’ve learned that no matter how vile, it is good to at least listen for some element of truth (however small). I heard it best preached by others as, “Turn your critics into coaches.” Perhaps God has a message for me, but the person delivering it let their emotion distort it.
But humor me for a moment and assume you have already gone through the process and realized that there really is no point in debate with someone. For example, the accuser is a heretic who just wants to drag you through the mud with “myths” or “endless genealogies” or “empty speculation (i.e., 1 Timothy 1:3-5). Or maybe it is someone who has nothing positive to say – ever (i.e., a scoffer). Or what they say is blatantly opposed to Scripture, and you have already pointed it out to them (e.g., ‘I know the date of Messiah’s return’, or ‘every believer, Jew or Gentile, must be circumcised’.) What then?
God, speaking through the Proverbs, has the answer:
“Don’t answer a fool according to his foolishness,
Or you’ll be like him yourself” (Proverbs 26:4)
So Proverbs seems to say here that if someone is trying to engage you in babble, you had better not engage them because you may just find yourself stooping to their level. You might be drawn into a battle that serves no useful purpose. In your zeal, you might just become the very thing you are trying to refute. Thus we should ignore them.
But wait a second. The very next verse tells a different story:
“Answer a fool according to his foolishness,
Or he’ll become wise in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:5)
Now God tells us through Proverbs says you should engage them because if you ignore them they will assume you “can’t refute them.” What is the difference with the previous verse?
Wisdom. That is the difference.
You see, you need wisdom and discernment to know which case is in play. These verses in Proverbs are not contradictory, as some have suggested. Rather, they are God’s way of reminding us that there is a time and place to ignore and there is a time and place to engage. The lesson God is bringing through Proverbs is to think carefully before doing either. Some of us by default will ignore (why get involved?). Some of us by default will confront (I must fix them!). Proverbs reminds us that it requires wisdom to know when to do which. I addressed something like this by offering some criteria to guide when engaging wolves - please check my sermon: "Wolves Need Not Apply”.
Might I make suggestion? Before you return flame for flame and start a cycle where you start to regret what you say/type, or before you ignore someone to the point of seeming cold and callous here is what you should do: Pray for them. Ask the Lord to touch them, and to help you align your will with the plan that Yeshua has for that person. Ask yourself in prayer questions like: Do you love this person? Is there any merit to their point? Will it be a waste of time to engage because the person to too spiritually deaf? Is this person lashing out because they are hurt and they need a kind word? Note I am not suggesting we ignore heresy or that we just say nice things to people to quiet them; rather I am saying check your motives for doing so, and determine what fruitfulness will come forth from your choice. How will the gospel go forth by your choice?
A kind prayer before you engage just might save you a whirlwind of trouble after.