How to Answer the Fool (Christian Perspective)

Three Parts:Examining the TextWhen Not to Answer the FoolWhen to Answer the Fool

Proverbs 26:4-5 explains, "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes" (NKJV).[1] These verses may seem confusing at first, but they describe the way that Christians should respond to spiritually foolish arguments and attacks.

Part 1
Examining the Text

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    Understand who "fool" refers to. In this context, a "fool" does not refer to someone who lacks common sense or academic wisdom. The term is used here to describe someone who lacks spiritual sense.
    • The sort of wisdom mentioned in the Proverbs is almost never the intellectual kind. Most of the book is concerned with the knowledge of living morally. As such, a fool in Proverbs is someone who rejects spiritual and moral truth.[2]
    • Elsewhere in Proverbs, the fool is described as someone who finds pleasure in misconduct (10:23), lacks integrity (19:1), is dangerous (17:12), and is unreliable (26:6), among other things.
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    Consider the paradox. One statement says not to answer the fool, yet the one immediately following it says to answer the fool. The two instructions seem to contradict each other at first glance, but when examined on a deeper level, they actually do work together.
    • The fact that these statements are found side-by-side reflects a type of parallel language used throughout the Old Testament. In essence, the second statement is meant to build upon the first.
    • This set of verses simply means that there are times when you should answer the fool and those when you should not.
    • The statement, "do not answer the fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him," suggests that you should not answer when doing so would make you as foolish as your opponent.
    • The second statement in the pair, "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes," explains that you should answer when doing so would correct your opponent and show the inaccuracy of his or her argument.
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    Allow God to guide you. Knowing when to answer the fool and when to remain silent can be difficult, even for the most practiced apologists. Prayerfully consider the circumstances of each instance before making a move to help you determine the best way to respond.
    • It is worth noting that this passage refers specifically to the practice of answering, not approaching. In other words, the principles here should be applied to situations in which the fool makes a challenge or inquiry with the intention of forcing your reply.

Part 2
When Not to Answer the Fool

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    Be wary of antagonistic attacks. There are times when someone may launch an attack full of malice for the sake of humiliating or infuriating you. These individuals usually have no intention of listening to any counterarguments, no matter how sound they might be, and answering them would be a futile effort.
    • Luke 23:7-12 illustrates an example of such an attack. When Jesus was on trial before Herod, Herod "questioned [Jesus] with many words, but [Jesus] answered him nothing" (23:9, NKJV).[3] Herod intended to make a spectacle of Jesus and had no real interest in the truth. Answering Herod under these conditions would have been futile and degrading, so Jesus remained silent.[4]
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    Consider the significance. On some instances, the matter being brought up might be too important to ignore, regardless of the opponent's attitude. Oftentimes, though, the topic at hand might be relatively inconsequential and not important enough to address.
    • One major issue would be the existence of God. Someone who tries to tell you that there is no God will need to be answered, even if the conversation is brief. Once you've stated the truth and have determined that the conversation is going nowhere good, however, stop before being dragged down to your opponent's level.
    • On the other hand, a minor issue might include some controversial point of denominational doctrine not specifically addressed by the Bible. A fool who attempts to make a mountain out of a molehill can often be neglected from the start.
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    Let the opponent rant. When you determine that the best course of action is to remain silent, you may still have no option but to listen to the opponent's rants and attacks. It can be infuriating, but letting him or her ramble on will often be a better option than attempting to silence your opponent.
    • Don't be surprised if the fool attempts to abuse or agitate you into a response.
    • In such circumstances, your attacker is usually more interested in antagonizing you than in discovering or sharing any genuine truth. This vitriol can be caused by many different underlying reasons, but regardless of the cause, the result is the same.
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    Keep calm. The fool might try goading you into losing your temper. If you join your opponent at his or her level, though, you will become just as foolish. That won't do anyone any good.
    • Responding to the fool using his or her tactics will drag you down to the same level. Using abusive language will invite hatred and disrespect into your heart. Once you become a hateful person, you become just as morally deprived, or foolish, as your opponent.
    • Additionally, refusing to respond to the fool deprives him or her of the fuel needed to spread the attack. Someone who only wants to anger you will usually stop once he or she realizes that the attack isn't accomplishing its goal.[5]
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    Remain cautious yet open. God can change hearts and minds, and someone who is an unanswerable fool today may not be one tomorrow. Don't write someone off completely after one negative incident.
    • Approach future confrontations with this sort of individual cautiously, but with an understanding that your opponent's attitude may one day change for the better. Recall the changes that God has made in your heart and mind throughout your own life. That alone should be proof that God can soften hearts and open minds.

Part 3
When to Answer the Fool

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    Identify sincere inquiries. Sometimes, the fool is unknowingly misinformed instead of being willfully ignorant. He or she may confront you with frustration, but not with hatred. These are usually the people you need to respond to.
    • It is possible that the person speaking to you has never heard the truth. The opportunities may have been there if he or she had sought them out, but if no one has tried to engage your opponent on such matters in the past, it's very possible that he or she never saw the purpose in looking for the answers without external prompting.
    • Pay attention to the way the argument is presented. Polite language and statements that seem thought-out are usually promising signs that the person you're speaking with is making a sincere effort to converse with you. On the other hand, personal attacks, rude language, and arguments that seem like nothing more than rehearsed lines are generally signs of a closed-minded fool who isn't worth answering.
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    Speak up for the sake of truth. If keeping silence can be misinterpreted as agreement with a foolish argument, you need to speak up. This is true regardless of your opponent's attitude.
    • For instance, when you're amidst a group of people and your opponent follows a morally deprived declaration with a statement like, “I'm sure you all get what I mean,” that would be a time to voice your objections.
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    Respond with intelligence and love. When you choose to answer the fool, you will need to do so with the intention of correcting misunderstandings and misinformation. Your own attitude can be just as important as your opponent's attitude, and responding out of a desire to humiliate or infuriate is the wrong way to go about things.
    • This doesn't mean that your words will always be sweet, though. Conviction and correction can be harsh. Hard words spoken in tough love can be beneficial, though, while hard words spoken in anger and hatred can only destroy.
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    Consider the crowd. When others are reading or listening to your debate, you need to consider how the things you say will affect them, too. There are times when your opponent may no longer accept arguments based in reason, but if your words are reaching an onlooker, continuing to speak might still be worthwhile.[6]
    • Those who don't have an emotional investment in the argument are more likely to perceive truth and foolishness correctly, even if they don't have a solid understanding of moral truth yet. If you behave with dignity and speak with reason while your opponent speaks irrationally and displays appalling behavior, you will leave a better impression with unbiased onlookers, and your argument will appear more sound than your opponent's.
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    Persist where truth prevails. If you are making any progress in correcting your opponent's foolishness—even if it is only a frustratingly small amount of progress—continuing the discussion is often in everyone's best interest.
    • For example, if you've been having a civil conversation via e-mail over the past month and your opponent has acknowledged, once or twice, that you've made a point he or she cannot argue against, it could be a sign that you're gradually getting through to that person. As long as the conversation doesn't take a turn for the worse, it might be worthwhile to continue it, even though it appears to drag on endlessly.
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    Know when to walk away. Even a discussion that started in an appropriate manner can sour and take a turn for the worse. Once it becomes clear that further conversation will be useless, you will probably need to walk away from it.
    • Walking away from a specific person or specific conversation once doesn't mean that you can never return to it. If the matter comes up again under better, calmer circumstances, both of you may wish to continue where you left off, and doing so may not be a bad idea.



  • Fools may provoke you. You must avoid letting pessimistic people get you down.

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Categories: Christianity