Answering a Fool

Some people are just so ignorant. No, I don’t mean that they are uninformed, so perhaps “ignorant” is not the correct word for me to use. What I mean is that they don’t a very good job of processing the information they do possess. The result is that their conclusions and/or reactions to the available information are woefully inadequate. In other words, they have the hard drive, but their processor is corrupted.

Some of the things I hear and read sadden me because it is difficult to believe that people can be so “out to lunch” (There, I like that better. . .) leaving me at a loss to know how to respond. For the most part, I try to stay silent, largely because I am unsure that any response will result in any good (and secondly, because there is a part of me that thinks, “What if I am the one who is really ‘out to lunch’?”).

Biblically speaking, being called a “fool” is just about the worst thing anyone can call you. It is the opposite of being “wise.” The wise person not only has good information, but knows what to do with it. The wise person consistently acts in accordance with truth. The wise person realizes the importance of respectfully using “people skills.”

The truth is that we all act foolishly from time to time. . .and we need to be corrected.

Proverbs 26:4 speaks decisively about how to deal with a fool:

“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.”

There you have it. Do not answer a fool. Keep your mouth shut and let him hang himself. Foolish people can’t keep their mouth shut and getting into an argument with them just brings you to their level. The wise person does not answer a fool. Right?

Not exactly.

The very next verse, Proverbs 26:5, has more to say:

“Answer a fool as his folly deserves, Lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

So which is it? Do we answer the fool according to his folly or not?

The seemingly contradictory nature of these verses has caused some people problems in the past. On the surface, this seems to be a clear case of the Bible contradicting itself. However, when one looks more deeply into the verses’ meaning, there is no reason to believe that these two verses contradict each other. Both verses are drawn from the Biblical genre called “Wisdom literature,” where the author assumed that his readers are “smarter than that.” It is not as if the writer was recording a thought, only to subsequently forget it or change his mind on the issue.

So which is true? Do we answer a fool according to his folly or not? Yes. Actually, both commands are correct, depending on the circumstance. Let me explain and illustrate.

To answer a fool according to his folly is to stoop to his level. It is to be like him.

However, sometimes when we are silent, the fool thinks our silence reveals his wisdom. Therefore, he thinks he is the smart one.

Today I received an email from a friend who read some post on Facebook about a particular political issue (you know this is never good!). The post was full of misinformation, caricatures, and personal attacks on those who disagreed with the writer. There was no balance or thoughtfulness. Rather, it was obvious the writer felt any truly thinking person would agree with him. The presumption was that those who disagree merely do so because they have not studied the subject as well as he has. The situation was worsened by the fact that any shred of respect or positive tone was simply not present.

My friend sent me a well-constructed response that more or less met the writer on his own ground, demonstrating that it was actually the writer who was uninformed. Now, my friend did not resort to using accusations (as the writer had), but it was definitely an answer which recognized the folly of the other fellow’s argument, pushing his less than thoughtful assertions to their logical conclusions.

He asked me how it sounded. I told him it depended on what kind of fool he was dealing with. Who knows whether my friend’s answer was a case of unnecessarily (and ineffectively) stooping to his level, or if the response would be exactly what the guy needed.

I think it is important to see the difference here, but it is often very difficult to know which way we are to answer fools.

Again, we all say and do foolish things. This is especially true on the Internet, as our foolishness is so often put on public display. When I say something foolish and put it out there for all to see, and there is no response, I am liable to conclude that I was “right.” Why? Because if I had been wrong, someone would answer me. Since no one has, it can only mean one thing: I am wise . . . at least in my own understanding. But when someone meets me where I am, takes apart my argument, and/or demonstrates that others disagree, I may not like it so much, but it should give me pause to rethink my position.

Yet this is not always the case. Sometimes when people disagree with me, meeting my arguments with counter-arguments, I react very foolishly and just get defensive (it often depends on what kind of mood I am in). My position may have been proven weak, but I take it more personally and see the rebuttal as a personal affront. No matter how weak my arguments are, I react by attempting to strengthen my defense of my wrong position. Any continual engagement with me, at this point, is likely a worthless endeavor and a waste of everyone’s time. The entire situation becomes mired in tactlessness. The one who is engaging me, no matter how right they may be, has now become a fool just like me.

The important point we should realize here is that this particular Proverb is not about who is right, but about how to wisely engage people.

All fools need to be answered in some way. However, that is not really the question. The key issue is whether or not we are to answer a fool “according to his folly.” Frankly, I don’t have a pat answer to this dilemma. It takes time, engagement, and thoughtfulness to know the proper course to take. Continually allowing foolish people to have a megaphone to the world without answering them head on can bring about the detriment of the fool and the community (and what a large one it is these days) that is watching. However, to continue to meet them where they are, according to their folly, quickly becomes a thoughtless and worthless endeavor, placing “being right” above “productivity in conversation”. Do you know the fool you are answering? Are you willing to take the time to learn enough about them to see what response, if any, is best. Or, do you just meet them on their own ground without second thought. I saw a cartoon the other day which illustrates this so well to me. A fellow is at work on his phone and at the computer. As he looks intently at the computer screen, he says, “Cancel all my meetings. Someone on the internet is wrong.” Similarly, we are confronted with the case of answering a fool according to his folly. In the end, as Obi-wan-Kenobi once said, “Who is the more foolish: the fool or the one who follows him?”

I don’t know if my friend will end up answering this fool according to his folly. I hope he does. But, then we have to be wise, knowing that we are only one step away from become a fool just as he is (no matter whether we are right or wrong).

23 Responses to “Answering a Fool”

  1. No comment. Hehe.

  2. Questions and statements come loaded with presuppositions—it’s just the nature of things. We validate those presuppositions if we don’t attack them—whether directly, or via some reductio ad absurdum.

  3. Perhaps you might comment about a situation I find myself in.

    I have a Christian brother who makes statements that do not square with scripture. He makes these remarks in a public setting (others in the room listening) and I have been hesitant to correct or challenge his opinion in that setting not wanting to correct him in public. So, who of us has the bigger problem? His lack of scripture or my reluctance to address his misunderstanding?

  4. William,

    Tough call. Maybe a good talk in private might help, a little.

    Send him to my site. We have almost as many correct answers as does Parchment and Pen…no foolin’. :D

  5. William,

    1 Corinthians 14 gives guidance on this issue. There ought to be nothing wrong with people espousing their ideas of what scripture says—otherwise we deny the New Covenant with the Holy Spirit indwelling each of us. But we must also keep in mind that we have sin that sometimes produces perverted output—perhaps even mixing dross in with communiques from the Spirit. There is a process for dealing with this that isn’t supposed to be particularly dramatic. See also Acts 17:10-11; the Bereans were lauded for taking what Paul said and “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” So when your Christian brother says something that seems wrong, request that everyone present follow the Bereans’ example.

  6. Truth Unites... and Divides October 2, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    C. Michael Patton: “He asked me how it sounded. I responded that it depended on what kind of fool we were dealing with.

    LOL baby! LOL!!

    “We’re agreed that we’re dealing with a fool. Now let’s move on to the more pertinent and pressing question of the moment: ‘What kind of fool is this fool?'”

    Hilarious!! :-)

  7. “In other words, they have the hard drive, but their processor is corrupt.”

    LOL. Best sentence in the whole piece!

    And as our culture dumbs down, I seem to bump into more and more corrupt “processors” and find it increasingly difficult to carry on an intelligent , meaningful conversation. I think it’s a case of the culture corrupting the processor. :-)

  8. I just had a three day conversation with an atheist on my cousin’s Facebook wall. I tried to be gracious and present solid answers to him, as well as the essence of the gospel. no matter what I said his returns were hostile and belligerent. I finally started posting a number of quotes about the fool, from proverbs, with no commentary from me. The verses were very fitting. I finally had to come to the realization that I was talking with a fool who would spurn anything I said, any evidence I presented, because he was so deeply hateful of Christians. I had to sum it up as a big waste of my time….yet I learned at the end that a number of people had been silently observing the conversation. One person told me she was encouraged by my use of scripture and a few people clicked “like” on her comment (surprise to me). So, I responded to the fool with wisdom, which may have been lost on him, but perhaps it will encourage others in some way. And, the Spirit follows our witness…..

  9. Susan,

    Not all such anger is the sign of a fool. If we think of anger as a signal that our conception of what the world ought to be differs greatly with how we perceive it to be, then what that anger indicates will probably be mixed with falsehood and truth. Falsehood comes from wrong conceptions of what the world ought to look like and wrong perception of what the world is like.

    The Christian is supposed to have an increasingly better and better conception of what is good and what is evil, and is likewise supposed to be gaining an increased ability to judge by the heart/spirit of things, vs. appearance. This means that you can probably help correct this atheist’s conception of what is good vs. evil, as well as help correct this atheist’s perception of reality. It may be wise to start by affirming the wrongness that the atheist is correctly perceiving, and the right bits in his conception of what is good.

    Chances are that this atheist perceives true evil in Christianity and has intuited that God is truly better than their conception of it.

  10. Luke, thanks for your response. I did do what you have suggested. It was a LONG conversation, and I did affirm any comments he made that had truth in them. You would have to read the entire conversation to see why I said what I did. For the most part he was fully bent on opposing anything and everything I said, preferred to be argumentative, often defaulting to ad homonym attacks. His reasoning was often self-refuting which I would try to show him by gently leading him to follow his own trail to it’s conclusions. To no avail. No matter what approach I took, he was vicious and 100% resistant. When I would take the time to respond thoughtfully to his questions he would just throw it back in my face. I think he was enjoying the game of keeping me working….just to waste my time and try to make a mockery of me. Mocking was his primary tone of engagement.

  11. Susan,

    :-( Perhaps this person has reverted (or never left?) the idea that one’s worth depends on how many people one can put below oneself. It sounds like all that is left to do is pray.

  12. I appreciate all of you and your comments and thoughts.

    John, I was captured by your line of reasoning…our accept-all culture today is precisely the point and was or is what I need to address with my Christian brother. His line of reasoning blends well with the millennial folks who see nothing wrong with hanging out with alternative lifestyle folks in bars or wherever as a way of supposedly exposing them to his Christian life of faith.
    According to Psalm 125:3 we are told that “The rod /scepter of the wicked shall not rest on the land / lot of the righteous; lest the righteous put forth their hands (reach out) unto iniquity.
    So our responsibility is to be a witness for Christ and to shun evil. I’m afraid that some folks give themselves far to much credit for being able to resist sin while supposedly reaching out to the lost.

  13. Hi William, I think the justification for witnessing in bars etc. is that Christ himself did just that. In the OT wickedness was more of an outward kind of thing, your observance of the rituals, keeping free from impurity..But in the NT the wickedness seems to be defined as an inward matter, your thoughts, motives etc. Not that there is no blending between the OT and NT on these matters..Christ was called by his enemies as a glutton, a party goer, etc. because his way of reaching people was unique and down-to-earth. I think we should not flatten scripture, meaning treat the psalms (which are prayers) and proverbs (which are wise sayings) as literal commands, not that these are uninspired but that they “hit” you in a different way as the Pentateuch or the Epistles do..anyway these are just some thoughts.

  14. Those who think their fundamentalist theologies are biblical just don’t “get it.” Sure, their theology may line up with SOME of what the Bible teaches, but I have never encountered a fundamentalist who squares her beliefs with ALL or even MOST of what the Bible teaches. Modern American fundamentalism–the brand I grew up in–is a distillation of generations of theologizing that takes into account bits and pieces of the Bible it prefers and explains away the rest, without realizing the extent of its selectivity.Those who conceive of God in the OT as an all-knowing, all-good disembodied Spirit don’t get it. Those who fancy that the Bible merely tolerated slavery but did not support it don’t get it. Those who maintain that the kind of slavery God advocated was gentle don’t get it. Those who disavow that God commanded child sacrifice in the Law don’t get it. Those who insist God merely allowed the Israelites to commit genocide (killing all the men, women, and children but keeping the virgins for themselves) don’t get the fact that God commanded it. Those who don’t find a prosperity gospel in the OT don’t get it. Those who have the impression that most of the OT authors believed in heaven and hell, Satan, and demons don’t get it. Those who think the OT condemns prostitution don’t get it. Those who maintain that God merely permitted but did not condone polygamy in the OT don’t get it (see 2 Sam. 12:8). Those

  15. Those who think that Daniel makes predictions about the end times (in our future) don’t get it. Those who insist that Jesus was foretold in the OT don’t get it. Those who don’t realize that God in the OT calls for the execution of rebellious children (not to mention unbelievers and Sabbath breakers) don’t get it, nor do those who overlook Jesus’ validation of this law in the NT.

    Those who think Jesus would have approved of retirement accounts or wealth don’t get it. Those who insist that Jesus would have advocated resisting an evil person like Saddam Hussein don’t get it. Those who believe the Trinity is clearly taught in scripture don’t get it. Those who think the Synoptic Gospels never deny the divinity of Jesus don’t get it. Those who consider that the Synoptic Gospels and James teach salvation by faith alone and not by works don’t get it. Those who believe that all the NT authors allowed for Jesus’ return in any generation other than than that of the NT authors don’t get it. Those who think the Bible supports only their own particular views on the end times, predestination, free will, eternal security, the role of women in the church, divorce, tongues, etc., don’t get it.

    In short, many fundamentalists don’t realize how diverse the Bible truly is, because they have developed clever techniques for explaining away or ignoring the inconvenient bits, and as a result they consider the Bible to be a unified whole that reflects their opinions and theology.

  16. Margaret,

    . . . And what is not fundalmentalistic about what you are saying? Seems to be you see you self as a pretty secure standard.

  17. Not sure what you are asking Michael!

  18. Margaret, what caused you to mention fundamentalism in this particular blog post? It didn’t mention fundamentalism and none of the comments did. It seems like you really wanted to talk about the topics you enumerated, but didn’t want to find a relevant blog entry to post them in, nor wanted to make your own blog post.

  19. Good question Luke guess my comment is relevant to critical thinking and asking who is the fool the one who doesn’t question what the bible teaches are the one who accepts all that is taught by the minister with out asking the questions about what the Bible really says. Have you Luke ever read the Bible from an unbelievers point of view? If you have you start to ask many questions.

  20. Hi Margaret, I think there is room for reading the Bible as literature simply because it is. But you cannot read it and deny the continuity in all the writings and the advancement of Gods plan from beginning to end. You can also see the seed of many of the church’s teachings in it even though these things are not fully fleshed out. I see it as a slow development of God’s dealings with mankind, it is fuzzy at first and becomes clearer at the culmination, in Christ is fulfillment and the complete unmasking of God. I also grew up in American fundamentalism and I was taught the Scriptures were Gods complete revelation, if I mastered it I knew exactly what God wants of me. I don’t hold to that anymore but I cannot deny the strong presence of Christ that I experienced when I first read it.

  21. Margaret,

    I’ve done quite a lot of discussing of the Bible with atheists, and yes, I have tried looking at it from their perspective in order to understand their statements better.

    I will say, in my thousands of hours talking to atheists online, I’ve never encountered a single one who would make a list like yours, who was truly interested in discussing those items in an honest way. For example: “What bits in the Bible make you believe in the truth of A and which bits make you believe in the falsehood of A?” This means considering both sides and trying really hard to make both sides make sense, before choosing a side. It sounds like you’ve soundly made up your mind. :-(


  1. Links I like | Blogging Theologically - October 2, 2013

    […] Answering a Fool […]

  2. View-Worthy: 10.14.13 | - October 14, 2013

    […] C Michael Patton. Answering a Fool (Parchment and Pen). ”Some of the things I hear and read sadden me because it is difficult to believe that people can be so “out to lunch” (There, I like that better. . .) leaving me at a loss to know how to respond. For the most part, I try to stay silent, largely because I am unsure that any response will result in any good (and secondly, because there is a part of me that thinks, “What if I am the one who is really ‘out to lunch’?”).” […]

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