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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 (Proverbs 26:4-5).
In Proverbs 26:4-5, we are told to answer a fool and not to answer a fool. On the surface, the two verses seem to contradict themselves. But as you reflect on them more deeply, you begin to see the practical wisdom of Solomon. The first verse says you should not answer a fool because you may become like him—a foolish person. The next verse says you should answer a fool to help him so that he won’t be wise in his eyes.
Like so much teaching of the Bible, wisdom is what you need to interact well with others. Without God’s guiding and illuminating insight, you could become lost in the narrative of others, which will keep those conversations and relationships nonredemptive. The good news is that God does provide His wisdom to anyone who wants it. You can learn how to answer or answer not a fool.
There are two neat things about Solomon not telling you precisely “what to do” in a tense, relational situation. The first thing is your need for dependent wisdom because there are nearly always more than one answer from which to choose. The second thing is that you’re not a robot but a person who lives in a dynamic relationship with your Creator. He wants you to think for yourself as you participate with Him.
Though the word “fool” is too harsh for most postmodern sensibilities, it’s an excellent word to describe how we can be. Indeed, we all have played the fool on occasion, which should not be a problem if you’re actively living out repentance. What you don’t want to become is that person that you would characterize as a fool. There is a difference between an “event of foolishness,” which we all do, and the lifestyle of the fool.
If you’re not sure if you’re a habitualized fool, it would be good to reacquaint yourself with the many uses of the word fool, folly, foolish, and foolishness in Proverbs. There are many instances of these words, all of which point to the heart of a fool. Here is a small sampling that describes the community of fools.
One of the ways you can tell if you’re not a fool is whether you recognize yourself in any of these verses. Perhaps, you need to gather a few more passages from the Proverbs, but my point is that if you don’t see yourself as foolish on occasion, you could be a fool.
One of the critical indicators of a non-foolish person is their humility. They will be quick to see and assess themselves before speaking out about others or against them. The foolish person does not have this kind of self-awareness. There love for themselves motivates them to defend themselves, no matter how wrong they are.
The humble heart is the antithesis of the foolish heart. If you’re not willing to “take your soul to task” on occasion, be warned: you will attract the kind of people you prefer. If you’re not careful, you will collect a community of fools—an echo chamber of ignorance. This possibility is why you must know who a fool is and how to respond to him. Mercifully, Solomon provides sound advice to help us to steer away from becoming fools or congregating amongst them.
On the surface, it appears that Proverbs 26:4-5 contradict each other. These two verses are like many of the Proverbs in that they give us a Hebrew parallel. Writing in parallelism is one way Solomon likes to provoke us to think, which is a prerequisite to wisdom. For example, Proverbs 29:25 is traditional teaching on the fear of man, written in Hebrew parallelism.
The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe (Proverbs 29:25).
The first part of the verse tells us that if you crave approval from someone, you could step into a snare. Solomon does not leave you hanging with this negative tidbit but gives you a corresponding opposite—parallel, so you know a better way to live. Rather than choosing to be under the control of another human, you can learn to trust God, which will bring you safety.
He’s doing a similar thing in Proverbs 26:4-5. Initially, he says that if you step down to the fool’s level, you may become like him. Then Solomon swings around and gives another option for you. He says that if you confront a fool according to his folly, you may help him to cease from his foolishness.
There are so many things to love about the Bible, and, most certainly, one at the top of my list is the multiple choices the Lord gives us to work through problems. In most decision-making opportunities, you have more than one option. It is as though the Lord is saying, “I want you to use your noodle.” Isn’t this one of the most effective ways you can instruct a child?
Rather than answering the question for your son, you let him “noodle on it” for a while, and then he makes a decision. Perhaps he makes a different decision than what you would have, but as long as it is not a sinful one, it’s a beautiful thing. You don’t want robotic children, and neither does God.
Let’s say you’re talking to a fool, which is a person who is quick to speak and slow to listen (James 1:19). They are more interested in telling you what they believe than in hearing another opinion. It’s the person who nods in the affirmative at what you’re saying but doesn’t act on your advice, no matter how solid and right you are. You’ll find these fools in every context of life. How do you help one? Or, perhaps the better question is, should you help him?
Those who do the work of evangelism, discipleship, and other types of intentional engagement run into these opportunities more than most believers. Similar to the Lord telling the disciples not to worry about what to say when they were in these moments, we, too, have to trust the Spirit that He will illuminate our minds each time (Matthew 10:19). He will but again you have to use your brain.
If the Spirit of God “turns the light on” in your head and there is nothing there, it’s on you. Wisdom comes from above, and you must ask for it (James 1:5) while you’re working out your salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). Don’t expect the Lord to pull you out of the ditch without any effort on your part (James 2:14). Thus, the question is what do you do when you’re talking to a person who could be a fool?
Here are a few things that I try to do to know if I should walk away (Proverbs 26:4) or confront the fool (Proverbs 26:5). This list is not exhaustive. Hopefully, it will provoke you to think about your relationships.
Drowning – Do I know when I’m sinking to his level and have the courage to stop? Some Christians do not know the difference between empathy and sympathy. The former is the “over-caring person” who jumps “in the swamp” with the person, and they both drown. The sympathetic person has the sense and courage not to jump in but stands on the edge to help the struggler. If you find yourself drowning too many times with the fool, you need to find out why. Maybe you’re not an over-caring person. It could be that you’re not empathetic at all, but you love to argue. If so, you’ll become like the fool.
Confront – What are the reasons to confront someone? If you do speak to the fool, to confront him, why would you do it? It does not have to be wrong, but you must have valid reasons. Perhaps you sense the person is teachable (see below), which is a great reason to confront. Maybe, the fool is influencing others, and you have to rebuke him in front of them. Several times, my children have heard foolish things from someone, and I’ve had to speak clarity into what they heard. In most cases, I was not publicly confronting the fool but talking to my children privately about why we don’t [do that].
Teachable – Do they want to learn or argue? The biggest key you’re looking for in a person is their desire to learn, grow, and change. You should be able to tell if a person is teachable, though it’s possible to interact with the “humble person” who is working against you, as you learn later. I’ve had many people lie to me, so I wrote an article about counseling as a lying profession. If a person appears to be teachable, I will “believe all things” with them until they prove otherwise. What you don’t want to be is that cynical, suspicious person, a “form of foolishness.”
Hostile – Are they hostile toward me or the gospel? The opposite of the teachable person is a hostile one. In many cases, this person will always be ready with a counterpoint. Sometimes you can hardly get your point out before they are coming back at you with theirs. Perhaps it is how a person processes, which you must discern. I met regularly with a pastor who processed out loud, and if you were a fly on the wall, you’d think he was hostile. In one sense, he was, but it was also apparent that he was teachable. All teachable people won’t be without hostility, and all hostile people are not unteachable.
Time – Does this person encroach on my more vital relationships? When you find yourself engaging a potential fool, do not lose track of time or your priorities. Fools fit on the outer ring of my responsibilities. God and I are in the center with my wife in the next circle and then my children. After them, come job, friends, and church. Those who want to argue or are potentially unteachable do not get my best time. My ministry begins with God, me, wife, and children. The rest have to get in line, and depending on the person and situation will determine if they get my time.
Context – Is this the best place to discuss? I do not argue with anyone on social media. It is befuddling to me to see so much of it on those platforms. Statistically speaking, it’s one of the worst ways to help a person change. Too many of those interactions are fools talking to fools. I’m aware that I’m speaking about some of my friends. They’re about point-making or growing an audience or clickbait or venting through grumbling and complaining. I’m only singling out social media platforms under this section, but the more significant point is that if you honestly want to help a fool, put yourself in the best possible position to do so. If you engage fools on social media, you’ll feed their narcissism because they love grandstanding.
Savior – What is my responsibility for this person? Another way the over-caring Christian will err with a fool is they will forget that they are not the Messiah. Too often, they don their capes and become a mini-messiah, thinking that if they keep pressing the argument, they can get them to change their minds. Perhaps the person needs that kind of perseverance. Like all my points here, it’s a wisdom issue. The vital key is for you to know when to let up and walk away. Repentance is a gift from the Lord (2 Timothy 2:24-25). You can argue until the cows come home, but if the Lord is not granting repentance, your fool won’t change. Know your limits. Learn the value of saying, no.
Input – Should I borrow brains to make sure I understand correctly? Ensure you have friends who are competent in the Scriptures, dare to speak the truth to you, and have a proven history of providing insight that you did not think about until you shared with them. Sometimes it’s wise to talk out these matters with a close friend.