A Gentle Answer


As the unknown author of 1 Kings summarized Solomon’s great wisdom, he said that it surpassed that of all the sons of the east (1 Kgs. 4:30).  Then in 1 Kgs. 4:32 he said, “He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005.”  The book that we call Proverbs very likely contains most, if not all, of his wise sayings.  Most of Solomon’s proverbs are short statements that compare the benefits of wisdom with the consequences of foolishness.  The primary theme of this collection is to seek and to retain wisdom.  Those who are not willing to do so are characterized as fools and are warned of the danger of such folly.

Some of the proverbs are difficult for us to comprehend because they are steeped in the culture and the practices of the ancient Hebrews.  Others, however, are easily understood in any generation and in any place.  One of these timeless proverbs is found in Prov. 15:1.  Solomon said, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up strife.”  This is a theme that resonates with us because most of us have actually witnessed the truth of this statement.

How often has a simple misunderstanding or a minor disagreement escalated into a raging argument because the individuals involved spoke harshly to one another?  Such things have happened often enough in most people’s experience that we are not surprised when they do.  Too many times we allow our hurt feelings or our pride to spark angry words that just make the situation worse.  A Cold War-era cartoon perfectly captures what so often happens.  It showed a figure in a fireman’s suit spraying liquid on flames.  The caption said, “Again the Russian fireman rushes to the scene.  In his eyes, determination.  In his hose, pure gasoline!”

We generally expect that most people are going to respond in kind to any slight committed against them.  Although we expect it, we all know that it isn’t the best way.  We even have an adage to the effect that one can draw more flies with honey than with vinegar.  Even so, many people are unwilling to let such things go.  We think we must get our licks in, as it were, in our own defense, if nothing more.  The wise man Solomon would shake his head in wonder at our foolishness.

The counsel of the wise man is that we should respond in gentleness in order to avoid further unpleasantness.  This, too, is something most of us have experienced.  We have watched in awe as an angry situation is diffused by a calm and gentle response.  We have gone away from such incidents impressed with the wisdom and humility which kept things from getting out of control.

While all people can appreciate this principle at work, those of us who are Christians have an obligation to practice it.  We must do so, not only because it is the wise way of handling conflict, but also because of the example of our Lord.  Many times during the course of His ministry His enemies made scathing accusations against Him.  In none of these cases did the Lord lower Himself to the kind of slanderous words that were spoken against Him.  Instead, He always remained in control, and responded with words that made His opponents, and the people who witnessed these confrontations, think about what they had said and done.

The Lord could have called twelve legions of angels to His defense as He hung on the cross.  Instead, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34).  If the Lord could give a gentle answer as He was being crucified, surely we can give a gentle answer in all our petty conflicts.

The Golden Rule


The largest single collection of the Lord’s teachings is found in the gospel of Matthew.  In chapters 5-7 Matthew recorded what we call the Sermon on the Mount.  In chapter 5 the Lord contrasted the standards which He expected His disciples to live up to with what they had heard from their teachers.  In every case His disciples were called to a higher standard than the common practices of first century Judaism.  In chapter 6 the Lord called upon His disciples to practice their faith sincerely, and to not be consumed with worry about their daily needs.  In chapter 7 the Lord exhorted His disciples to correct their own sins before correcting others.  He urged them to enter the narrow gate that leads to life, rather than following the crowds traveling down the broad way that leads to destruction.  He also taught them how to recognize false teachers, and warned them that only those who do the Father’s will are going to enter heaven.

In the midst of chapter 7 is one of the most basic principles of the Christian faith.  In Mt. 7:12 the Lord said, “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (NASB)  In this simple command the Lord revealed the core of what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  In Mt. 22:35-40 the Lord said that the greatest commandment was to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind.  The second most important, He said, was to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

We call Mt. 7:12 the Golden Rule, a term that apparently was coined by Anglican theologians in the 17th century.  Skeptics sometimes point out that Jesus was not the first to express such a philosophy, but in so doing they ignore the fact that all other expressions of this principle come from a negative perspective.  For example, Confucius said, “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”  In the first century B.C. Rabbi Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”  The Greek philosopher Sextus said, “What you do not want to happen to you, do not do it yourself either.”

Although all of these statements predate the Lord’s ministry on the earth, they all fall far short of the standard to which the Lord called His disciples.  Followers of Christ are commanded to be proactive in a positive way toward others.  We are to do to them, and for them, what we would like done for ourselves.  By treating others with the love, kindness, courtesy, respect, and goodness that we desire for ourselves, we follow the Lord’s own example and honor Him by our obedience.  At the same time, our actions may draw the lost to salvation in Christ, which is the best thing we can do for anyone.

Nearly everyone is aware of the Golden Rule.  Very few, it seems, actually live by it.  We should not be surprised that unbelievers do not live by it.  After all, they are still in their sins, and have no concept of the kind of sacrificial living to which Christians have been called.  Even so, the Lord requires His disciples to follow this principle in their dealings with everyone, whether they are believers or not.

This being the case, how much more so ought Christians to live by the Golden Rule when dealing with each other?  In Gal. 6:10 Paul said, “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.”  We cannot be acceptable to our Lord if we do not treat others in the way that we would have them treat us.  We can be doctrinally correct in every detail, but if we do not live by the Golden Rule, it means nothing.  Therefore, let us be “golden” in all our relationships.