Answering a Fool

by C Michael Patton

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?

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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…

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