It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or even an extended period of life on this Earth to figure out our world is full of fools. It’s inevitable that sooner or later we will confront one and we should hope to God that the fool we confront will not be who we see in the mirror. Fools come in all shapes, sizes, skin pigments, and philosophies. The Bible gives us the basic definition of what a fool is. They are the ones who despise and reject wisdom and instruction that please God and that ultimately aim for results that please God (Proverbs 1:7).
When we come across a fool, should we run away from them? Should we just let them say whatever it is they have to say and avoid responding? Or should we address their bad behavior with constructive criticism? Our response may have to come down to what we think is best given a particular situation. However, God has given us some basic guidelines on handling them throughout scripture and Proverbs 26 lists two of them.
4 Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit. Prov. 26
At first glance, these statements appear contradictory by first telling us not to answer a fool’s foolishness, then telling us we should answer a fool in their foolishness. But the explanation is rather simple. Verse 4 is telling us not to stoop down to the fool’s level if we choose to address their foolish ways. In other words, if a fool gets all up in your face to cuss at you, don’t respond in the same manner because you will be proving yourself to be as foolish as they are. If a fool gossips about you, don’t gossip about them in retaliation. If they steal from you, don’t turn around and steal from them.
Verse 5 tells us how we should handle them. To ‘answer a fool according to his folly’ means that you acknowledge they’ve done something foolish yet you choose to confront them in a way that wisely points out to them that you are aware of their foolish action and bring to their attention how wrong you believe their foolishness is.
For instance, if someone tells you they need to borrow some money to get some food and you lend them money, but they buy drugs instead, the next time they ask to borrow something you can say something like “I would love to help you out, but the last time I let you borrow something, you told me it was for one thing when you actually used it for something else that I don’t approve of. So I’m sure you can understand that I no longer think it’s a good idea to let you borrow my things since you may tell me one thing, but do something totally different.” In many cases, a person will be shocked that you have them figured out and they may just back off because you’ve given them something to think about, especially since you called them a liar without calling them a liar. Some may admit you’re right and apologize. Others may be so far gone in their foolishness they may try to change your response, but holding firm will be a testimony that you won’t let yourself be a fool for them.
Ultimately, the fool will be forced to see that he/she is not as wise in their own conceits as they thought. Diplomacy may work sometimes, then at other times being blunt will have to do the trick. For example, when James called church people ‘adulterers and adulteresses’ for being like the world (James 4), or when Paul called Elymas the sorcerer a ‘child of the devil’ for trying to dissuade Sergius Paulus from believing the gospel (Acts 13). We as believers have the Holy Spirit inside to tell us how to handle a fool in each situation where we encounter them. All we have to do is listen, then move as he directs.
Harry A. Gaylord