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How to Handle a Fool (According to Scripture)

How to Handle a Fool (According to Scripture)

One very practical skill in leading a life of wisdom is to know what to do with those going in the opposite direction. How do you handle a fool?

This ability is increasingly needed, is it not? For foolishness abounds in our society. Remember its origin. The Lord told us bad fruit comes from bad trees (Matt. 7:17). We truly have whole forests of fools growing these days and, with social media, they have been given bullhorns.

To know how to deal with a fool, you first have to recognize him (being sure to check the mirror in the process!). The Bible gives us a ready description, especially in the book of wisdom known as the Proverbs. A fool does not fear the Lord or receive counsel, but delights in following his own ways and resisting correction (Prov. 1:7, 22; 12:15; 14:3). He is prone to angry outbursts (12:16; 14:17; 29:11). Such persons cannot control their mouths, babbling and arguing to their own ruin (10:10, 14; 18:7). This trait caused Solomon to muse like he was starting a bad joke, “A fool’s lips walk into a fight” (18:6). A fool is as unproductive as paralyzed legs (26:7), as hurtful as a drunken archer (26:10), and as grossly predicable as a dog going back to its own vomit (26:11).

As names and faces start coming to your mind now, remember that it is that last characteristic of predictability that gives us a fighting chance when interacting with fools. For they do follow patterns. So we need to learn to apply wisdom in dealing with fools in personal relationships, social media interactions, theological debates, politics, etc. Though you cannot engage a fool for any length of time without paying for it, following the three principles below will at least minimize the damage and encourage others in the wisdom needed.

Avoid fools whenever possible. We are clearly told to “leave the presence of a fool” in the Scriptures (14:7). For “a companion of fools will suffer harm” (13:20). Through the years I have instructed my children to steer clear of foolish young people. That counsel is not “unchristian.” It is just applied wisdom.

Since “every fool will quarrel” (their mom used to say that often when she heard the kids bickering), better to “keep aloof from strife” which the Bible says is an honorable trait (20:3). Would you not run if you knew your path was leading you right toward a grizzly who thinks you might harm her cubs? Well, “let a man meet a she-bear robbed of her cubs rather than a fool in his folly” (17:12). If it seems mean to you to avoid certain people, think of it as spiritual social distancing.

Meet them with silence…usually. One cannot get much more direct than saying, “Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the good sense of your words” (23:9). How many talk shows would be canceled if that proverb was universally applied? Since fools are prone to argue, why give them the satisfaction (see 29:11)?

And like COVID-19, their ways are contagious so don’t communicate with them (like wearing a mask). “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself” (26:4). Yet every now and then we are forced to engage with a fool for his own sake, as the next verse makes clear. “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (26:5).

Let them bear their due punishment. Though fools despise correction, that does not mean they should be spared it. “Condemnation is ready for scoffers, and beating for the backs of fools” (19:29). Punishment just comes with the fool’s territory. “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools” (26:3).

However, in our modern society with relativized ethics, too often overprotective parents, overly compassionate teachers, overzealous judges, and overly tolerant officials allow those under them to escape the due consequences of their actions. When this happens, fools won’t learn. For if “a rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool” (17:10), it often takes them facing their punishment many times over if there is to be any hope of recovery. Whether it’s disobedient children, difficult employees, stubborn congregants, straying shepherds, or corrupt politicians, better they hear wisdom’s call of “O fools, learn sense” (8:5) through acts of discipline than not to hear it at all.

These Biblical admonitions are as satisfying as they are simple.

Long ago, I preached a sermon on folly. After the service, a man with a track record approached me and angrily asked me, “Were you directing that message at me?” I smiled and answered, “I was directing that message at everyone, but first and foremost to me.” Then I just walked away, thanking the Lord for helping me to apply what I had just preached and for letting me see His Spirit beginning to apply it to one of my hearers.

This article originally appeared here.

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Barry York was a church planter, academy administrator, and pastor for over two decades before recently assuming the role as Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Barry and his wife, Miriam, were married in 1985. They have six children and one grandchild.