We all have those verses in the Bible that have long baffled us. Amongst those, for me, one that persisted for a good number of years is found in Proverbs 26.
4Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. 5Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. (Proverbs 26:4-5)
For a long time these verses seemed to me to present two options, or two ways of handling a fool, depending on the situation. In other words, in some cases you need to follow verse four and not answer the fool according to his folly, while in other cases you need to answer the fool according to his folly. But frankly, that wasn't very helpful, because it didn't offer much to help me discern which time was which.
However, it dawned on me one day as I was reading these for more than the 100th time, that they were much more helpful than I originally perceived. These verses indeed present us with two options: not two ways of handling a fool depending on the situation; rather, two ways of handling a fool depending on the outcome you desire. And of course the outcome that the writer of Proverbs is calling for is obvious.
One way of handling a fool who comes at you in his folly will result in you being like him yourself. Another way of answering a fool in his folly is that he remains wise in his own eyes. Now that presents me with a choice: Which is worse: For me to become the fool also, or for the fool to remain wise in His own eyes?
My flesh screams when assailed by a fool, “I can't let them get away with that.” And so, unless the Lord restrains my folly, I enter into the same folly as the fool himself, becoming like him myself. But, I go home in my own pride thinking, “I told him! Showed him what a fool he is.” He is no longer wise in his own eyes—or so I think within myself. In all reality, the fool leaves thinking he is just as right as he thought when he came. But my flesh is satisfied because it had its day, and I too have become the fool.
Another way of handling the fool who comes at me in his folly results in him being wise in his own eyes. This way involves my flesh being put to death, not being allowed to assert itself defending me. It is the way Jesus responded to his accusers: “Jesus remained silent.” (Matthew 26:63) In the next scene of trial before Pilate we read,
“When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, "Don't you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?" But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.” (Matthew 27:12-14)
Indeed His accusers remained wise in their own eyes...for the moment. But Jesus wasn't concerned to win the moment. He was concerned to please the Father and win in His Father's eyes. Peter explains that to us in 1 Peter 2:23.
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
Jesus did not become like the fools! Rather he remained wise and entrusted Himself to the Father. He followed the advice of this riddle in Proverbs becoming our wisdom and not succumbing to our folly in order that He might save us. And we are called to follow His example (1 Peter 2:21).
When confronted by the folly of a fool we have a choice: 1) become like Him by responding in like manner, or 2) allowing him to remain wise in his own eyes, for the moment, by trusting in the Father and remaining kind, gracious and loving. When he slaps us on one cheek, verbally, we are to turn to him the other also.
Of course Jesus gives us a clue as to how to do this. On the cross he prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." The only way we can successfully walk through this is to realize that we too once did not understand, that we too once were fools in our folly pursuing folly, when God, in His great mercy, opened our eyes to the Gospel and we saw our foolishness and turned to Christ. That person berating you is not your real enemy. You can pray for them and forgive them.
Honestly, I can't do this on my own. I must, must, must spend time with the Savior in prayer prior to any such encounter in order to have kept my flesh in check and for it to no longer be the fool who lives, but Christ living in me. Otherwise I will fall into this temptation to become the fool.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,