The Folly of the Fool (1)
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest you also be like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest he be wise in his own eyes. Proverbs 26.4, 5
Two lines of instruction
Asserting the truth of God into a culture of lies requires some finesse at times. A world of finesse is embedded in these two seemingly contradictory verses from the book of Proverbs, surely two of the most enigmatic verses in all of Scripture.
At first glance, as I mentioned, they seem to contradict one another. How can you both answer and not answer a fool according to his folly?
But a closer examination of Proverbs 26.4, 5 reveals two clear lines of instruction which are complementary, rather than contradictory.
First, we must be prepared to “answer” the fool. The word, “answer,” implies a conversation in which we are responding to the claims, questions, and challenges of someone familiar to us, giving testimony from our own perspective and convictions and offering explanations for why we believe our Christian worldview is true and more reliable than any other.
We can’t answer the fools of this world unless we engage them in conversation, pointing out the errors in their reasoning and giving sound reasons for what we believe.
Second, we must be careful how we “answer” people, how we conduct such conversations. Our goal must be to help them see the error of their thinking, their false premises, misguided reasoning, and faulty conclusions – what our text refers to as their “folly”. At the same time, we must be careful that we do not stumble into that folly by reasoning in such a way as to reinforce rather than refute their wrong reasoning and false ideas.
Thus, two commands – one implied, the other explicit – are in view here. We must engage the fools of this age in conversation about their beliefs, and we must do so in ways that enable them by reason to, if not see their folly, at least glimpse it, whether or not they choose to admit and abandon it.
Two further implications
But this instruction carries two further implications – first, that we know who the “fools” are, and second, that we take up the challenge of engaging them in conversation.
Who do we think we are calling someone a fool?
Let’s be clear about this much: The wording is that of Scripture, not our own selection. If we have a problem thinking this way, our problem is with God. When God teaches us to think of others as liars and fools, do we presume to tell Him that such language is not appropriate? We must accept His wording and make the best use of it, rather than take offense and avoid His wording because we think we know better.
So, to whom do the Scriptures refer when they use this term?
In Biblical parlance anyone is a fool who denies the existence or relevance of God and who thus becomes a law unto himself in trying to make his way in life (cf. Ps. 14.1; Eph. 5.15-17). The fool, as opposed to the wise, is the one who has no use for God (cf. Prov. 3.5, 6). The Hebrew word for “fool” appears to mean something like living within one’s own little world –naïve, silly, or idiotic – or those who make decisions and choices from the gut rather than from careful consideration of all the facts and consequences.
The fool thus does not use sound reason, because his thinking is anchored in himself rather than in God and His Word; and he inhabits a world of his own creation, one that has no place for God or His Word. He lives “under the sun” rather than “under the heavens,” and thus his reasoning is trapped beneath the closed ceiling of his false worldview.
Part of the believer’s calling is so to love such people that we seek them out – as Jesus did the lost of His day (Lk. 19.11) – and to engage them in ongoing conversations about their views. Our purpose in this must be, as Paul explains (2 Tim. 2.24-26), to correct those who are living self-contradictory, unworkable worldviews, with patience and gentleness, so that they might come to their senses and escape the clutches of the father of lies, who is fueling their self-deception.
This sounds like a tall order, a task best left to the specialists. But the Scriptures address this work to us, each of us whom God has called to His Kingdom and glory and appointed as witnesses for Jesus Christ and ambassadors of His Kingdom. So we do well to understand the requirements of this aspect of our calling and to prepare ourselves to make good use of it.
What this requires
This will require that we become more active in reaching out to lost people, getting to know our neighbors, and living in such a way as to demonstrate the hope we have in Jesus Christ. At the same time, it means engaging in ongoing conversations in which we will have abundant opportunities to answer from the perspective of our Christian worldview.
But if this is going to be the case, if we’re going to rise to this challenge, we shall have to sanctify Jesus Christ as Lord in our lives (1 Pet. 3.15), so that we love and obey Him in all things, fear and serve Him at all times, and take up His calling to be witnesses and make disciples for His Kingdom (Acts 1.8; Matt. 28.18-20).
Sanctifying Jesus Christ as Lord in your heart will engender in you the kind of hope that others see, will provoke them to ask a reason for what you believe, and will give you the opportunity to answer a lost, loved fool according to his folly.
We don’t go around calling people fools; however, they’re easy enough to spot.
1. Why do we say that answering a fool according to his folly and not according to his folly is a task appointed to every believer?
2. “Fool” seems like a harsh term, and we must be careful in how we use it. But why is it an appropriate term for those who have embraced a life of wrong-belief – the life of the lie?
3. How confident are you in your ability to start and maintain conversations that revolve around matters of faith? What could you do to increase in confidence?
Next steps – Preparation: Any fools in your sphere of influence? Of course, you won’t address them as such, but it’s important you understand how God sees them. What would you look for as evidence that someone was a fool rather than a wise person?
T. M. Moore
You can download this and all the studies in this series, “Let God Be True,” by clicking here. For a series of discussions on improving your conversational skills, begin here in our Personal Mission Field Workshop to begin learning the art of Christian conversation.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.