4 Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Reading these two Proverbs back-to-back can feel a little contradictory. Either one, by itself, makes perfect sense. If we answer a fool according to his folly, if we go along with the fool in his ways, we end up acting like a fool. That is not good. But if we refuse to answer a fool, the fool will think he is wise. That is not good either.
In a nutshell, I believe that the writer of Proverbs put these two verses together to let us know that, when dealing with a fool, there is no perfect answer. Fools make civil and productive discussion impossible. At the same time, we sometimes have to get in there and deal with objections fools raise.
What might we need to learn from thinking about these proverbs in the light of the rest of Scripture? You do not have to be nasty to tell the truth. There is no requirement to make fun of people or be intentionally provocative. You can say that someone is in sin, and you can do so with a tone of superiority, arrogance, and disdain. You can also say that somebody is in sin and do so with a tone of sorrow and love and with an offer of hope in Jesus. Don’t be nasty. Do tell the truth.
Christians must remember that one of the fruits of the Spirit is kindness (Gal. 5:22). Thus, we are not to be a people marked by sharpness, anger, and cruelty. Being nasty, getting sinful with the person you are talking with, is answering a fool according to his folly in such a way that you become like him yourself.
But not all of the faith includes being nonconfrontational. Sometimes there is a true wisdom in saying, not out of meanness but out of honesty, that the argument someone is making is foolish. Sometimes we need to look at the ridiculous in the world’s actions, standards, or behavior and speak in such a way as to show it and not let the fool remain wise in his own eyes.
26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”
In John 9, Jesus had healed a blind man. The Pharisees badgered the healed man, because they were trying to find something to hold against Jesus. Eventually, when the healed man realized that the conversation was not going anywhere, he got a little cheeky with the religious leaders. With a bit of sarcasm, he asked them if they were asking so many questions because they wanted to become Jesus’ disciples. I do not think he was sinfully mean here. But the formerly blind man showed the ridiculousness of what was going on.
In the Old Testament, when Elijah openly challenged the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel, the prophet ridiculed the evil prophets. Those prophets had spent the day dancing around, shouting, cutting themselves, and being foolish.
1 Kings 18:26-27
26 And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. 27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”
Elijah mocked the evil practices of the evil prophets. And he was not wrong.
What then? Are we to be polite or mocking? There is a wisdom required here. Examine your own personality and your own purposes. Be an honest person before God, especially about your motivation. Are you someone who is already given to meanness with your words? If so, you probably need to be pulled back and reminded of the kindness of Christ. You probably need to remember that you do not gain anything by scoring points WITH cutting remarks. Are you given to fear, to compromise, to words that barely point out the truth? You may need a little more of Elijah or the formerly blind man in your personality. You should not be afraid to speak the truth, even hard truth, to a lost world. You should not fear to say of evil that it is evil and of folly that it is foolish.
Do not neglect the body of Christ here. The local church should be made up of people who are different than you in temperament. Be honest enough to listen if fellow believers challenge you to be more direct. Take it seriously if fellow believers call on you to show more kindness. And be grateful that God has given us folks in the church who are wired quite differently. Be concerned if nobody in your life is wired differently than you in this area.
Honestly ask the Spirit of God to lead you. Ask God to reveal to you if you, when you want to say something sharp, are feeding your ego. Ask if you are putting yourself forward and finding joy in causing pain. Ask if you are trying to make yourself look big by putting somebody down in a conversation in person or on-line. If so, you are in sin.
But also ask the Spirit of God to help you to see if you are a coward. Ask the Spirit to help you see if you are given to compromise. Ask God to let you know when you need to be bold and call out evil with strong, even sharp words. You do not honor God if you allow people around you to think that they are smart, sophisticated, and beyond the reproof of the Bible.
We need a little of both sides in our lives and in the church. We need kindness and sweetness. We need strength and clarity. The same Jesus who had dinner with tax collectors and sinners called them sinners and told them they needed to repent. The same Jesus who wept over Jerusalem called the Pharisees a brood of vipers, a batch of little snake babies, and asked how in the world they could ever escape hell.
We need the wisdom of God in our speech both inside and outside the church setting to answer and to not answer fools according to their folly.