“The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence. The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor.”
I dreaded critiques but they were unavoidable. In upper level painting class a project wasn’t finished until it had been raked over the coals of public scrutiny. We often think of critique as being negative but to critique something simply means to evaluate it. The goal of critique is to point out the good, the bad, and, in the case of many of my paintings, the ugly, so as to improve upon it. But it always seemed like a raw deal to me.
After spending forty-plus hours on a painting we were forced to endure an entire class period of round robin nit-picking, pretentious displays of knowledge, and worse, vague and unthoughtful comments such as “I like the color,” “It makes me feel sad,” “I wish it was bigger.” Oh, and don’t get me started on the endless search for subtext! “What is the significance of the green dress?” Significance? The model just happened to be wearing a green dress when she showed up that day!
These are the thoughts of College Jerome: impatient, puffed-up, and generally not interested in what you have to say. Even if there was a worthwhile critique, I wasn’t apt to hear it let alone allow it to shape me as a painter. Why, you ask? Because I was young and foolish. Now, all young people are not fools in the same way that all old people are not wise, but I certainly was a young fool.
Surely then, you think, Christian Jerome does better with criticism. Well, on a good day when I’m focused on the right things, yes. But old habits die hard. That’s no excuse but it’s the truth. At the very least, I’ve learned the value of critique. When it comes from a place of love, (hey, even if it doesn’t!) reproof is “life-giving” and makes wise the simple. We ignore it to our peril and we die as fools without it.
Of course, this is not just about critiquing the art of painting but, rather, the art of living which counts a great deal more. Receiving criticism requires humility. You would be hard pressed to find a quality emphasized more in the Bible than humility. Only the poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:3). If you’re full of yourself, there’s no room for anything else. If you’re self-righteous, you’ll never grow (Mt. 5:6). If humility is the precursor to grace, and it is (1 Pet. 5:5), how can we respond humbly to criticism? Here are some things I try to keep in mind when being criticized:
- Be slow to speak & quick to hear (Jas. 1:19)
- Be slow to anger (Jas. 1:19-20)
- Do not retaliate (1 Pet. 2:23; Prov. 24:29)
- Resist the urge to defend yourself
- Evaluate yourself in light of the critique (2 Cor. 13:5)
- Respond gently (Prov. 15:1)
- Consider the source
Don’t rush to that last one. We need to weigh the critique before we weigh the one giving it. Even if the critique is designed to injure or is given tactlessly, there may be some truth to it. We know that people, even (especially?) religious people, can judge others hypocritically (Mt. 7:1-5). Just remember, life follows repentance, repentance follows conviction, conviction follows knowledge of sin, and we don’t always see our own faults.
A true friend tells you when your fly is down, when your hair is sticking up, or when you have mustard on your chin. A true friend pulls you aside and tells you “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). A true friend calls you out when you’re out of line (Gal. 2:11; 2 Sam. 12:7). Humble critique is an act of sacrificial love that limits the reach of evil (1 Pet. 4:8). Receiving criticism is an important part of our Christian walk. We must have both the grace to take it and the love to give it.
“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
How should a person answer foolish arguments? When is it appropriate? These two statements, which at first glance appear contradictory, give a balanced approach for dealing with foolishness in a godly way.
Who is the “Fool”?
The “fool” in Hebrew poetry and wisdom literature has less to do with a person’s mental faculty and more to do with his unwillingness to hear the voice of divine wisdom (Prov. 1:20-33). The road to knowledge, wisdom, and living well in general begins with “the fear of the LORD” (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; Psa. 111:10). A person may have a very high IQ and still have a foolish outlook on life (Psa. 14:1). So, foolishness is not a result of a lack of education, intellectual training or natural mental acuity. Rather, one becomes a fool and remains a fool by choice.
The Apparent Contradiction
The above two proverbs say, “Answer not a fool according to his folly…” and, “Answer a fool according to his folly…” What is going on here? The Rabbis solved the issue by saying that v.4 referred to secular things while v.5 referred to sacred or religious controversies. While this does not resolve the issue, it does give a sound application for the two verses together – in negligible issues, one should just ignore the foolish person, but in issues that matter, the fool must be dealt with, lest credence be given to what he says (W. G. Plaut, Proverbs, 266).
I believe each verse gives separate instructions. Taken together, they give us a balanced, more comprehensive approach to dealing with foolishness. Verse 4 gives us the rule while verse 5 gives us the exception. So each verse has a different purpose depending on the situation.
Most of the time, to answer “a fool according to his folly,” or by his own mode of reasoning, will only perpetuate folly. The interchange will never end and you will end up looking like a fool in the process. But to answer him not at all may create a new problem. If a foolish remark is never answered others may think the fool is actually wise and cannot be answered. “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Prov. 26:12) So how do we know when to keep our mouths shut and when to speak up?
When Not to Answer the Fool (v.4)
The general rule is to remain silent. Arguing with a fool hardly ever gets anywhere. Most foolish statements are too ridiculous to dignify with a response. “Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, so honor is not fitting for a fool.” (26:1) “Fine speech is not becoming to a fool…” (17:7a) Besides, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” (18:2)
To answer a fool according to his own reasoning is to allow one fool to make another. Foolishness is contagious; we need look no further than the news coverage of the upcoming election for proof! So silence is usually the most effective reply to foolishness. “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” (17:28) Therefore, before jumping into an argument, make sure you won’t be lowering yourself into the fool’s arena only to become one yourself.
When to Answer the Fool (v.5)
There are times, however, when suffering a fool to speak is too great an evil. If a fool is never answered he may gain confidence and be considered wise by others. Others may be duped into believing the fool’s arguments are true and that his positions are unassailable. To meet the fool on his own ground may puncture his inflated ego and stop his stupidity from spreading to others.
Examples of Answering the Fool
During the 19th century, the expression “poor as Job’s turkey” was used in popular literature. In one assembly with a question-answer format, a preacher unfolded a paper containing a submitted question and read it aloud: “When did Job’s turkey die?” The audience laughed. The preacher then replied, “From the looks of the scratching on this paper, he hasn’t died yet.” Even more laughter. The fool was answered according to his folly.
The apostle Paul answered the foolishness of the false teachers who questioned his legitimacy as an apostle with a little foolishness himself. And boy did he beat them at their own game! “I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me!” (2 Cor. 11:1) he said to the Corinthian Christians, who thought themselves a very wise bunch.
He wrote about things in which a fool would boast of. “I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would but as a fool. Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves!” (2 Cor. 11:16-19, 20ff)
Though Paul’s words were dripping with sarcasm, he hated to be lowered to this kind of reasoning (2 Cor. 12:11). But the circumstances called for it. These insufferable fools needed to be answered according to their own folly! There was no other way.
We need wisdom to know how to answer foolishness. Most cases call for silence; but some situations demand a bold response. With that being said, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:6) It’s easy to respond to folly with “obscene talk” (Col. 3:8), a kind of low, tit-for-tat, retaliatory speech. Rather, our words are to be designed to build up, fit the occasion, and give “grace to those who hear.” (Eph. 4:29)
In Matthew 8:23, Jesus got on a boat to escape the crowds and cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. After being interrupted on his way to the boat (vv.19-22) he took some much needed rest. It’s not hard to imagine why he was so exhausted. He had been going non-stop from his sermon on the hill (Mt. 5-7) straight to a stream of miracles (Mt. 8:1-17). And he must have been tired because he slept through a “storm” so savage that the boat was being “swamped by the waves” (v.24)!
During the storm, Jesus’ disciples woke him, saying, “Save us Lord; we are perishing!” (v.25), to which he replied, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” (v.26a) This probably didn’t seem like an appropriate time for a lecture on faith. After all, the boat was about to break apart. a perfectly good time to panic if there ever was one.
So why did Jesus scold them for their fear and lack of trust? First of all, he already told them they would go to the other side of the lake (v.18). And let’s not forget all of the previous miracles they had witnessed (vv.1-17). Jesus expected his word and his past displays of power to be enough for the disciples to trust him.
After rebuking the disciples, Jesus “rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm” (v.26). The disciples had seen the hand of God at work in Jesus before. After all, prophets like Elijah healed sick people in the Old Testament. But this miracle was of a different magnitude altogether because there was only one being who could control the weather with the sound of his voice and he wasn’t a human. He was the Creator God of Israel.
So the stunned response of the disciples is understandable. The question is one of identity, “What sort of human is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (v.27) The psalms exclusively attributed this power to the Lord, setting him high above every created thing and far apart from every so-called “god.”
One poem speaks about sailors caught in a terrible storm, rising and falling on towering waves, desperately crying out to the Lord for rescue. “…He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.” (Psa. 104:28-30) “O Lord God of hosts,” says another, “who is mighty as you are…? You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.” (Psa. 89:8-9) “…at your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of your thunder they took to flight.” (Psa. 104:7)
Telling a storm what to do is a divine thing, an exclusive thing, a heavenly thing. And yet… Jesus had just done it. What sort of a human is he? This episode on the Sea of Galilee forced the disciples to see Jesus in the same light as they viewed the God of Israel. It broke every convention and challenged every notion about who God is and what was possible. Who is this Jesus?
Merciful Jesus, who shows kindness to social zeros. Compassionate Jesus, who heals the suffering. But here, Jesus, who commands the winds and the waves? Jesus, the God of Israel? The God of the Exodus? The God of Creation? Yes.
Sometimes when discussing a disagreement about what a Scripture teaches, we may hear the response, “Well, that’s just your interpretation.” This may be said in an attempt to backpedal a previous statement, devalue another’s point or even end the discussion. Though this is a difficult barrier to overcome in a Bible study, disciples must try to build a bridge of understanding as we work toward unity (Jn. 17; 1 Cor. 1:10; Eph. 4:1-6). Here are a few principles to keep in mind if you are ever met with the common response, “That’s just your interpretation.”
First, try asking, “What’s your interpretation of the passage?” This is what the Lord Himself did (Lk. 10:26). To interpret something is to explain its meaning. It’s only fair to honestly hear out another’s explanation. It could be that their interpretation was correct all along! Listening to someone else’s understanding of a passage demonstrates the virtues of integrity, fairness, humility and open-mindedness, all vital qualities of the honest truth-seeker (Prov. 18:12-13). A great example of this wisdom playing out in real life is found in Acts 18:24-28 when Priscilla and Aquilla gently and privately taught an honest preacher “the way of God more accurately.”
Then you might ask, “How did you come to that conclusion?” For an interpretation to be valid or at least believable, one must provide some evidence for its validity. In math class, the teacher called this ‘showing your work’. This is an important tool for Biblical exegesis and Christian apologetics (Acts 17:11; 1 Pet. 3:15). By providing evidence for your beliefs you are being reasonable (Phil. 2:5) and persuasive, practices common to Paul’s method of evangelism (Acts 18:4). For faith to take shape through studying God’s word one must be convicted of its truth (Heb. 11:1).
Finally, it is critical to note that “There is a correct interpretation,” otherwise every interpretation would be equally valid. The common belief that one view is just as good as another is called pluralism. Another extreme is to be so skeptical of every interpretation so as to believe that truth is unattainable. This belief is born out of postmodernism. But Jesus said all will be held accountable to the words that He spoke (Jn. 12:48). If His words cannot be understood then there is no hope for any of us!
The denial of the existence of absolute truth is becoming more commonplace but is no less philosophically inconsistent. The claim “there is no truth” is a self-defeating argument because the statement “there is no truth” is an absolute truth claim. If it is true that there is no truth then the statement “there is no truth” cannot be true! Thank God His word can be read and understood (Eph. 3:4; 4:12-13; 5:17). Working towards a correct interpretation of Scripture is an important part of developing our faith but is also an indispensable tool for explaining the gospel to unbelievers and working toward unity among disagreeing brethren.
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost,
For want of a horse, the rider was lost,
For want of a rider, the message was lost,
For want of a message, the battle was lost,
For want of a battle, the war was lost,
For want of a war, the kingdom was lost,
For want of a nail, the world was lost.
The poem illustrates an important truth. Something that seems insignificant at the start, like a blacksmith’s lack of a horseshoe nail, can set in motion a series of events that lead to an egregious outcome, like losing the world. This chain of causality always seems clear in retrospect but far less so in the moment. Historical events are complex and intertwined but in hindsight it seems that if X had not happened then Y would never have happened. And if Y had never happened this present reality wouldn’t be the same.
Suppose the British never decrypted the Enigma code during WWII. Would they have starved as the German U-Boats blockaded the British Isles? Would the Allies have even won the war? It’s enough to make your brain hurt!
Let’s approach this from a spiritual angle. Why did Jesus die? Peter meets this question on two levels. In his sermon in Jerusalem he points out certain historical events that took place and, as a consequence to those events, Jesus died. Yet at the same time, he does not give the impression that if those things had not taken place Jesus would not have died. Peter saw God’s hand working behind the scenes to bring all these things together to accomplish his eternal purpose.
In Acts 2:23 Peter says, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” In this statement we see the sovereignty of God working in concert with the freewill of man to bring about God’s eternal plan. God orchestrated events to bring about his purpose but he still held the Jews who condemned Jesus and the Romans who crucified him to account.
Luke also meets the same question on the same two levels. When Jesus took his last Passover meal with his apostles he said, “But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” (Lk. 22:21-22).
We see both the “hand” of man and the ‘hand’ of God at work to bring Jesus to the cross. So why did Jesus die? Because he was “betrayed” but also because God had “determined” it. Judas’ personal responsibility is not mitigated in any way by God’s providence. But we notice that it would not have been possible for Jesus to die if Judas had slept in that morning or got run over by a horse or was in any other way delayed. God’s control over all things is such that he can “determine” something to happen while allowing Judas freewill to make his choice.
How does the issue of God’s power and control shake out with us, his new covenant people? We have a special role to play in God’s work. He is no less in control of the world today as he was two thousand years ago. His will is to work in and through us but even if we drop the ball, our faithlessness in no way nullifies his faithfulness, “for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).
But God’s control does not absolve us of our responsibilities as his redeemed children. If his will is not brought to bear through us he will still accomplish his purposes, we just won’t be part of his purposes. His Kingdom will not be lost for want of a Christian but for want of a Christian a soul very well may be lost! On the positive side, just think to what effect the Lord could use us in his service if we showed him the loyalty and trust he deserves!