A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.Proverbs 15:1–2 (NIV)
The first half of verse one is a very well-known phrase “a gentle answer turns away wrath.” I have heard it used by family members and friends who I know are not Bible readers. It sounds like something one would read on an inspirational fortune cookie.
On the surface, this phrase makes sense, especially when we remember the rest of the verse. A gentle answer is more likely to turn away wrath, and a harsh word is more likely to stir up anger. However, it really depends on the content of the gentle answer. This is where verse 2 comes into play: “the tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.”
Now I understand that when scripture talks about the fool it is referring to ungodly people. “Fool” refers to people who intentionally choose to go against the wisdom of God. The early chapters of Proverbs makes is sound as if we sit comfortably in one OR the other camp. We are either wise and following God, or a fool and not following God. But as imperfect beings, I think even wise people flip into the way of the fool every now and then! Let me give an example.
A Case Study in Getting / Giving Support
I was disappointed and angry about something that recently happened in my life and I was sharing this with a friend who I would consider a God-fearing, wise woman. However, her “gentle answer” felt more like “gushing folly.” Her answer actually stirred up more anger for me, and I was left having to deal with the “what is wrong with me” guilt that the extra anger brought up in me. It took me a day to realize that in her attempt to give a gentle answer, she invalidated how I was feeling. She immediately tried to fix the problem by assuming the best in the person whose original behavior had made me disappointed and angry in the first place. I realized that my friend was uncomfortable sitting in the discomfort of my disappointment and anger and rushed in to make everything better. But in her rush to sugarcoat the situation, she did not ask questions, she did not gain more knowledge about the situation, and she inadvertently made the situation worse. I had every intention of talking to the person whose original behavior had made me disappointed and angry, but I wanted to talk about the situation with a friend in order to gain understanding, validation, and wisdom. Sadly, I was left with self-recrimination, and guilt, along with feeling misunderstood and not supported. This second experience left me having to work through the new emotions, before I felt ready to approach the person whose original behavior had caused disappointment and anger.
All of this is to say that a “gentle answer” does not mean sugarcoat the situation.
It is does not mean sweep everything under the rug.
I have found it really effective when talking to someone who is angry to say, “You sound angry about this,” or “I can hear that this is making you feel angry.” This gives the other person permission to be angry; an emotion that so many of us shy away from as if it is contagious. Being allowed to be angry about something, and feeling validated in your anger is a powerful antidote to the anger. Ephesian 4:26–26 says, “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” Psalm 4:4 says, “Tremble and do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent.” [The Septuagint has “in your anger” for “tremble”.] There are many verses in the scriptures about God’s anger. There is nothing inherently wrong with being angry; our sin comes in the actions we take when angry. Anger is a protective emotion. It tells us that either we, or something/someone we love, is being threatened.
We all have our own way with managing our anger. Personally, I find it helpful talking about the situation with a friend so that I can:
- Work out exactly what it is that is being threatened,
- Gain a calmer perspective, and
- Be ready to address what caused my anger in the first place.
My experience this week taught me that some friends are uncomfortable with anger and want to quickly and instinctively sugarcoat the experience. My experience this week taught me that when a friend reaches out to me with their anger my gentle answer can be:
- To listen,
- To validate,
- To support,
- To help my friend figure out the next step in reconciling the situation.