Thursday, September 29, 2005

Proper Use of Proverbs

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you will be like him yourself.

Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.

Proverbs 26:4-5

There it is right there: clearly, a contradiction in the Bible. One sentence says we must not answer a fool; the very next sentence says we should answer a fool. What's up with that?

Most people who believe the Bible will tell you these verses prove that there's no winning with a fool. Answer him or don't answer him. He's a fool.

That's a very convenient way of looking at things. It allows me to say, "Thank you, God, that I am not like any of those fools out there."

One of the frustrating things that we don't like about the Book of Proverbs is that sometimes it seems to contradict itself. But we have proverbs in the English language that do the same thing. For instance, we'll say, "Look before you leap", and then we'll say, "He who hesitates is lost." Which is it?

Opposites attract, but birds birds of a feather flock together. Huh?

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but out of sight, out of mind.

If you're going to benefit from proverbs, they require some measure of self-awareness. The Book of Proverbs was written to help us avoid folly, and we tend to fall into folly in opposite extremes.

For example, some of us tend to leap too quickly. We spring into action without thinking everything through, and it gets us into trouble. We need to look before we leap. But there are others reading this (and you know who you are) who wait too long and the window of opportunity closes before we get going. We need to remember that he who hesitates is lost.

Which is it? It depends on your personality.

So, back to our original example. There are those of us who are too quick to speak, too quick to answer a fool and end up looking like fools ourselves. Then, there are those of us who are too slow to speak, we don't want to rock the boat and allow a fool to go uncorrected.

Like a thorn bush in a drunkard's hand is a proverb in the mouth of a fool (Proverbs 26:9).

A proverb can do incredible good in the life of those who will learn the lesson. But a proverb in the mouth of a fool can do incredible damage. Proper use of proverbs requires self-awareness and discernment. As a general rule, I find that people who read a proverb and think, "This applies so well to someone else -- in fact, I think I'll share the wisdom of this proverb with them right now" -- that tends to be a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

The best way to read the Proverbs -- heck, the best way to read the whole Bible -- is probably the one where you say, "God, I'm not concerned right now with what you want to say to anyone but me."