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Soft Words, Big Stick

Wisdom in turning away wrath

Proverbs 15:1

1 A soft answer turns away wrath,
But a harsh word stirs up anger.



Many U.S. Presidents are known for their proverbs and pithy sayings. Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously stated in one of his radio “Fireside Chats,” that “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” 

George Washington, a multi-talented businessman, victorious military leader, and first president of the new United States, is quoted as saying “Ninety-nine percent of failures come from people who make excuses.” 

Abraham Lincoln once quipped, “You can fool all people some of the time and some people all the time. But you can never fool all people all the time.”

Ronald Reagan remarked after signing the INF Treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, “Trust, but verify.”

George W. Bush, in characteristic style, is noted for his fumbled “Bushism” of a proverb, “Fool me once, shame on... shame on you. Fool me—you can't get fooled again.”  

But it was Teddy Roosevelt who probably got the most mileage out of a proverb that he used in a stump speech. Speaking at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights Minnesota on Sept 2, 1901, the then Vice President remarked on his recent defeat of a political opponent, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick." 

The “big stick” stuck, and it was soon on everyone’s lips. Roosevelt used the expression to define his political style, foreign policy, and establish his legacy as builder of the Panama Canal, and projection of the United States as a world power.  

What does this phrase mean to you? Chances are, you do not have a canal to build, nor are you sending the U.S. Navy around the world to impress Egypt and bother Japan. In your ordinary life, soft speaking and big stick carrying sounds like it would be more useful at home plate in a baseball game, than in your day-to-day routines. 

Solomon employs a similar phrase in the first verses of Proverbs, chapter 15. With his characteristic insight, the wise king reveals the inner workings of the heart, and the wisdom of God:

A soft answer turns away wrath,
But a harsh word stirs up anger.–Proverbs 15:1

In this proverb, Solomon focuses on a theme as old as humanity: anger begets anger. This is seen over and over throughout history, from the rise and fall of kingdoms, to world wars, and the “dirty politics” of the modern age.

When someone does you wrong, controlling your tongue–and your temper–can be one of the most difficult things to do. On one hand, you may not like confrontation or at least seek to avoid it when you can. On the other, you feel you must stand up for yourself, or at least say something to strike back. 

And so you do. In an argument with your spouse, you return a critical comment from her, with one of your own–with an insult that cuts her to the quick. Soon both of you are re-enacting the “Battle of Little Bighorn” in front of the kids, the neighbors, and a guy walking his dog. 

A church member remarks that your committee completely ignored one of his suggestions and he states that he will be looking for another church–and not one run by idiots who pretend to love Jesus. 

You are frustrated and embarrassed by his mocking words, and shoot back that you will happily recommend area churches where his obvious brilliance will be appreciated. Soon he and his wife, along with two friends, are transferring their membership across town.

If you have experienced either of these situations, or a million other similar episodes, then you are not alone. It is perfectly normal for you to impulsively respond to the anger or insults of another with a little fire of your own. Soon, you have made a bad situation worse: your spouse is hurt, a friend is lost, and even a stranger counts you as “just another jerk” in a world filled with them. 

Is this wise to do? Does readily employing a “big stick” of vindictive against another help or hurt relationships? Better yet, is this the example that Christ has given you to live in Him?  Of course not. 

Proverbs 15:1 speaks of a formula that will keep you from making bad situations worse–and give you a new perspective on dealing with others. 

The bible is filled with examples of people who use intemperate speech or choose a harsh response and bring misery and judgement on themselves. Sadly, Solomon’s own son, Rehoboam, is one of these. 

The young king is provided an opportunity to strengthen relationships among factions in his new kingdom. When presented with a request for peaceful reconciliation, he chooses instead to use threats and harsh words to assert his authority. The result becomes rebellion and a divided kingdom (I Kings 12:1-6).

Instead of seeking wise counsel, Rehoboam conferred with his “bros,” the young men who were his group of friends, and with their advice, he made a bad situation worse. How often have you succumbed to poor suggestions from foolish friends to “show him you don’t need him anyway,” or to “be a man, and stand up for yourself?”

In contrast, calm, quiet words can avoid certain destruction. Gideon’s calm demeanor and reasoned thought mollified the anger of the men of Ephraim against him:

So he said to them, “What have I done now in comparison with you? Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer? God has delivered into your hands the princes of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb. And what was I able to do in comparison with you?” Then their anger toward him subsided when he said that.–Judges 8:2-3 

Likewise, when the once-and-future-king David encounters Nabal, and receives an insults instead of hospitality, he prepares for war. Nabal’s wife Abagail seeks to ward off the threat and approaches David in her husbands place, to plead her case before him. She is a remarkable woman, who glorifies God in response to her need and pleas with David for mercy. David is touched:

32 Then David said to Abigail: “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! 33 And blessed is your advice and blessed are you, because you have kept me this day from coming to bloodshed and from avenging myself with my own hand.–I Samuel 25:32-33

Could you do this? In the face of a destroyer, come to punish you and your family, would you humbly seek mercy–or would you seek revenge? David is likening Abagail’s wisdom and soft speech as coming from God. 

Likewise, if you are seeking to represent Christ in your community, and among your relationships, then your speech should come from God–reflecting your union with His Son, Jesus Christ. Paul exhorts you to this:

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.–Romans 12:14 

This is part of the paradox of the Christian life: you bless those who hate you. You give of yourself, in order to receive blessings untold. You lose your life in order to save it. 

Your Lord and Savior suffered greatly in this life, even suffering death on the cross. And yet, He did not return insult for insult, or seek to hurt those who were hurting Him. On the contrary:

23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.–I Peter 2:23-24 

Is your desire for revenge, or to defend yourself against all-comers at all-costs, reflective of Christ? Jesus knew His mission on this earth, and He sought to return love for hatred, healing for pain. If you are seeking to do this for Him, how can you justify launching salvos of insults in your defense, or refusing to forgive those who do the same to you?

To live as Christ is to live in meekness, as He is meek. Contrary to that small, whiny voice in your head telling you to stand up for yourself, meekness is the opposite. It is standing up for the Christ that is in you. “Meekness” is not “weakness.” It is described wonderfully here by Welsh pastor Martyn Lloyd–Jones: 

Meekness is essentially a true view of oneself, expressing itself in attitude and conduct with respect to others. It is therefore two things. It is my attitude towards myself, and it is an expression of that in my relationship to others.–D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones 

Can you adopt an attitude of meekness? If so, you can be equipped to deal with those in your life who threaten or insult you. When you see yourself as a sinner such as they, and 100% in need of the grace of God in Christ, then you can learn to ignore the insults directed at you–or at best, win them for Christ by your humble response. Lloyd-Jones continues: 

The man who is meek is not even sensitive about himself. He is not always watching himself and his own interests. He is not always on the defensive… To be truly meek means we no longer protect ourselves, because we see there is nothing worth defending… The man who is truly meek never pities himself, he is never sorry for himself. He never talks to himself and says, “You are having a hard time, how unkind these people are not to understand you.”–D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones 

Do you know this inner dialogue of which he speaks? More to the point, can you learn to refocus your life on Jesus in order to show His meekness to others–even your worst enemy? Your ultimate end as a believer is to present Christ to others in order to win their souls for your savior, then perhaps instead of an angry response, you can show His love instead.  Meekness is a mind and heart submitted to God, and by it the wrath of others can be mollified, and your own speech sweetened to His flavor. 

And that, is a mighty big stick to carry. 



The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

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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. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

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