4When arguing with fools, don’t answer their foolish arguments, or you will become as foolish as they are.
5When arguing with fools, be sure to answer their foolish arguments, or they will become wise in their own estimation.
(Proverbs 26:4-5, NLT)
The Daily DAVEotional
Not long ago, as I was reading through Proverbs, I encountered these two verses, right next to each other, which seemingly contradict each other.
Verse 4 states that we SHOULDN’T respond to a fool’s arguments while the very next verse says that we SHOULD respond. Which is it? Should we respond or shouldn’t we? How are we to reconcile these two statements?
When evaluating these two statements, you’ll notice that the first half of each statement is essentially the same, “when arguing with fools….”
The difference is in the back half of each statement, with each verse giving a different intended outcome. So, when arguing with fools, there are two desired outcomes. First, we don’t want to become as foolish as they are. Secondly, we want to ensure that the fool doesn’t become wise in their own estimation.
So while these two verses seem contradictory at first glance, you can see that the two intended outcomes are not mutually exclusive. Therefore, as long as you are satisfying the two different intended outcomes, the two statements are not contradictory.
Exactly how can we approach our engagements with others so that these two outcomes are achieved?
First of all, we should realize that it’s not necessary to respond to every foolish argument. In internet circles (forums, threads, tweets, posts, etc.) it is very common to encounter people who are engaged in what’s known as “trolling”.
An internet troll is someone who purposefully makes inflammatory or rude comments in order to evoke an emotional response or in order to hijack a conversation. Most people who engage in this type of behavior do so for their own personal amusement.
When we encounter this kind of foolish behavior, it’s tempting to respond in kind. But that would violate the outcome of verse 4. We don’t want to engage with a person in such a way that we “become as foolish as they are.”
Furthermore, when we engage people like this, we’re simply feeding their own amusement. Though it might feel good initially to respond with a zinger or some kind of disparaging remark, it actually serves as fuel and encouragement for the other person to continue their foolish behavior. Hence the phrase “don’t feed the trolls.”
So if you’re too emotionally involved in the conversation, or you’ve been triggered by something that the person said or the way in which they said it, then the advice of Proverbs is to NOT engage with the fool. In this case, it’s better to simply not respond.
However, if you’re able to respond in a respectful way and not act as foolishly as the other person, it may be prudent to expose the person’s immature behavior or the foolishness of their argument so that they don’t walk away thinking how wise they are.
Recently, I’ve encountered some examples of these principles in action as I manage an online forum where just about anyone can post.
In a recent thread, people were posting on the topic of evil. An article had been posted on the subject of why do bad things happen and many folks were posting their comments on the content of the article.
Whenever you are talking about a theological topic like the existence of God or the problem of evil, it is not uncommon for people who consider themselves atheists to engage in the discussion. While some are interested in genuine dialog, a number of people like to engage in trolling kinds of behavior with posts that are agitating, mocking and generally rude to people of faith.
One person posted on the thread a lot of inflammatory remarks aimed at God along with some incendiary language mocking Christians and people of faith.
After some deliberation I decided to respond to this person who, quite frankly, was coming off as arrogant and condescending. I shared how ironic it was that we were discussing the existence of evil and he was the only one, through his disrespectful language and mocking tone, who was engaged in behavior that most people would consider to be evil. I pointed out that while he was ridiculing those who believed in God and rolling his eyes at the biblical understanding of evil, he had not made an alternate case for why evil exists or how to deal with it.
I invited him to continue to engage but in a civil, adult way and I gave him some specific questions to answer if he wanted to show the superiority of his position.
To his credit, he did respond with a much less combative tone, though he never did answer the questions that were posed.
I think this was an example of responding to a fool so they don’t “become wise in their own estimation.”
So the bottom line is that these two verses are not contradictory but represent two different approaches to dealing with someone’s foolish arguments and behavior.
Our approach will be dictated by the outcome we are trying to achieve. If we’re trying to avoid the trap of engaging in the same kind of foolish tactics the other person is engaging in, then our approach will be to NOT engage. However, if our goal is for the other person’s foolishness to be exposed so they don’t become so full of themselves, then our strategy will be to respond.
Knowing the difference of when to pursue which outcome requires wisdom, which is why we need the Lord’s perspective, even in our personal and online interactions!
When have you been tempted or even succumbed to foolish behavior in your in-person or online interactions? What do you think is the reason so many people engage in these uncivil and unproductive arguments?
What are some ways you can respectfully engage with people are who are fools to point out the folly of their position or tactics?
How would you rate your current in-person and online interactions? How well are you applying and abiding by these two proverbs?
Of the two approaches, which one would you say you need to grow in or develop more – do you need to practice NOT engaging because you’re too triggered or emotionally involved? Or do you need to develop in the art of engaging the fool to expose their tactics and behavior?