“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.”
In these two verses we face what appears to be a contradiction. Any well-meaning Christian who studies these verses could struggle with its implications. Do we answer a fool or not? Tomorrow I will write about how to recognize a fool, but first I wanted to deal with these two verses that appear to be contradictory. Just what is the protocol for answering a fool? Is it ever acceptable? Is it acceptable sometimes, but not others?
Let’s look at this first verse. “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” In this verse we are given a warning. We are told not to answer a fool according to his folly. We need to grasp the why though in order to deal with this apparent contradiction. We are told not to answer a fool by looking just like him. Acknowledging a foolish argument with a foolish point will not help anyone. All it will do is put you on the same level of foolishness as the individual you are arguing with.
This is a warning about how not to interact with a fool. Don’t let the foolish man bring you down to his level. Don’t let your judgment be clouded by his insulting methods of arguing. Don’t let his name calling bring you down a notch. Don’t let your anger get the best of you. I have heard the arguments of fools against me with every name under the book. Elitist, legalist, liberal, etc. The foolish thing to do would be to let my anger get the best of me in those moments and respond foolishly rather than pointing out the apparent foolishness of the individual. A wise man sheds light on foolishness rather than adds to it.
That is where the second verse comes in. “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Scripture tells us there is a right way and a wrong way to deal with the foolish person. Answering with folly is obviously the wrong way. However, we can respond in a positive way by pointing out the folly of the foolish person. Not only is this a god thing to do, but it is also necessary. If the fools folly is never pointed out then he will go through life believing he is a wise man who wins everyone argument. He will believe his foolishness is so full of wisdom that no one would dare even try to respond to it.
Sometimes calling out a fool can feel harsh though. People do not like it when it becomes apparent they have done or said something stupid. They don’t like being proven wrong. Answering a fool wisely is going to get ugly. They are going to want to drag you down with them. They want your response to be foolish because a foolish response does not have the impact needed to make a difference.
We are confronted with a choice when interacting with a fool. We can respond with anger. We can become quick tempered. We can become more focused on humiliating the individual rather than seeing truth come to light. That choice won’t get you very far though. A Godly response to the fool requires proper motivations. Our goal should not be to humiliate the fool. Will he feel humiliated? Yes, but that should not be our purpose. Our purpose should be to help the fool grasp his folly, and develop wisdom for the future.
This is honestly difficult for me when. I have little tolerance for the fool. It is easy for me to desire humiliation towards the fool. The “easiest” way to do that is to respond foolishly. Even if my response may not appear foolish to the outside world, my heart’s desire brings me to the king of fools easily enough. This is something I have had to work on, and continue to work on. It’s easy to mock the fool. I’m ready for change. I still want to respond to the fool, but I want to do so in a way that is going to being about true change and keep me from being the bigger fool.