How to Handle Fools - Proverbs 26:4-12
When you hear the term fool, a lot of things probably come to your mind. If you’re like me, you probably think of something like a court jester, whose job was to act silly in order to entertain others. If you’re the right age, the term fool might bring to your mind someone like Mr. T. Many of you may think of April Fool’s Day, and equate foolishness with being tricked. Still others might think of someone who is dumb or gullible, like Barney Fife.
The term fool has a lot of connotations in our society. So when we talk about how to handle fools, it’s important to make sure that we define a fool in the same way. The contrast between foolish people and wise people is one of the major themes of the book of Proverbs, so this morning we are going to look at what the Bible has to say about what makes someone a fool and how we should handle foolish people.
A Fool Defined
Though Proverbs talks a lot about fools, nowhere does it give a simple and concise definition of what makes a person a fool. However, we can begin to piece together a definition by looking at some of the different characteristics that Proverbs lists as the hallmarks of foolish people.
A fool does not seek wisdom. One of the hallmarks of the wise man is that he listens to correction and seeks understanding. By contrast, the fool spurns correction and makes no attempt to gain understanding.
Fools have no interest in understanding; they only want to air their own opinions. (Proverbs 18:2, NLT)
Anyone who rebukes a mocker will get an insult in return. Anyone who corrects the wicked will get hurt. So don’t bother correcting mockers; they will only hate you. But correct the wise, and they will love you. Instruct the wise, and they will be even wiser. Teach the righteous, and they will learn even more. (Proverbs 9:7-9, NLT)
As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness. (Proverbs 26:11, NLT)
One of the defining characteristics of a fool is sinful pride. Fools are convinced of their own righteousness and their own understanding. They are less concerned with learning from others and more concerned with showing how much they know. They often don’t even learn from their own mistakes—blaming others when things go badly. The wise person, on the other hand is wise because they know what they don’t know. The wise person has learned to recognize that there is much they can still learn.
I had a conversation one day with a young man who was explaining to me how he wanted to be a doctor. Naturally, I thought I might be able to give him some guidance, having walked some of that path myself. As I talked to him, it became apparent that he didn’t know nearly as much as he thought he did. I tried to gently help him have realistic expectations, but he had no interest in hearing them. He was convinced he had it all figured out. This attitude is the epitome of foolishness.
A fool is uncontrolled. The foolish person does not keep a check on their desires, but instead they give full vent to them. The foolish person is characterized by their anger, by their lusts, and by their greed. They show no control over these things.
Fools vent their anger, but the wise quietly hold it back. (Proverbs 29:11, NLT)
The wise have wealth and luxury, but fools spend whatever they get. (Proverbs 21:20, NLT)
Foolish people do not keep a tight rein on their desires. They have no interest in restraining themselves because that would mean going without something they want. This is why the proverb says fools don’t become rich; they don’t save or invest because they are too eager to spend everything they have. The wise person knows that by denying their desires now, they will be better in the long run.
The same is true with the foolish person in regards to their anger. The fool quickly gives vent to their anger rather than trying to restrain it. This is, in part, why fools tend to be people who quickly fly off the handle—they only see what is right in front of them. They have learned that by giving vent to their anger, they get what they want (at least in the moment). They don’t think about how expressing that anger might affect their relationships and their situation in the long term. A fool is uncontrolled, not seeing much beyond their immediate situation.
A fool does not submit to God. This is at the core of foolishness. One of the most famous passages in this regard is Psalm 14:1.
Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good! (Psalm 14:1, NLT)
This is not merely saying that the person who claims not to believe in God is a fool (though it certainly is saying that), it is actually going deeper. Even a person who claims to believe in God can say in their hearts that there is no God. Such a person does not submit their lives to God’s plan, they continue to go their own way. They may outwardly claim that God exists, but inwardly they live as though He doesn’t. This attitude is at the root of foolishness—a desire to trust our own judgment rather than God’s.
Notice that the characteristics of a fool have to do with their character as a person and not with their intelligence, wealth, or position in life. There are people who are very smart who are also very foolish. Similarly, it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, both can be fools, and both can also be wise. The person who is educated can be a fool just as easily as the person who is not. And the lowest man in the company can be just as foolish or just as wise as the person sitting in the corner office. We must not judge a person to be a fool on the basis of these external characteristics—a fool is a fool because of who they are on the inside.
If you’re like me, as you look at these descriptions, you realize that these characteristics are sometimes descriptive of us. Every one of us acts foolishly at times. Hopefully, foolishness is not the pattern of your life, but rather, a temporary condition. I hope you are the kind of person who listens to those who try to correct you, and you seek to make the changes that are necessary. If you are that person, you are wise, even though you sometimes don’t act like it. The truly foolish person isn’t like that though. They are convinced that those who offer correction are mean, dumb, or wrong. They have no desire to change, because they have decided that how they live works for them, and so they should continue what they perceive is “best” for them, regardless of what anyone else says.
As we look at how to deal with fools, we must keep in mind the two different types. The person who is occasionally foolish responds to correction and we can help them. But our response must be different with those who would prefer to wallow in their foolishness.
How to Handle Fools
I suspect as we’ve been talking about foolish people, some people you know have come to mind. Dealing with foolish people is a part of life. So what should we do when we encounter foolish people? How should we treat them in order to avoid being dragged into the consequences of their foolishness? Proverbs actually gives quite a bit of instruction for how the wise person should deal with the foolish person.
The first instruction in dealing with fools is not to sink to their level. One of the strangest couple of verses in the Bible gives us this instruction.
Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are. Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools, or they will become wise in their own estimation. (Proverbs 26:4-5, NLT)
This is a strange passage because it sure seems like the two verses contradict each other. But the Bible doesn’t contradict itself, and the author wouldn’t have put these two verses together if he thought they were contradictory. So what do they mean?
I think these verses point out the difficulty in dealing with foolish people. On the one hand, we know that what they are doing and saying is wrong, and we want to help them. On the other hand, we know that fools tend not to listen to what other people have to say. So I think what the writer of these proverbs is saying is that we need to show discernment in how and when (or if) we respond to fools.
The temptation when dealing with a person making a foolish argument is to argue back. With a person of understanding, this works—we exchange rational arguments to try and arrive at the right answer. The problem with arguing with a foolish person is that they aren’t interested in hearing what you have to say. They are going to keep arguing with you no matter what you say. If we continue arguing with a foolish person, we run the danger of becoming like them, resorting to foolish tactics in order to “win”. There is no winning when arguing with a fool.
There is an old saying that says never wrestle with a pig, because you both get dirty, and the pig likes it! The same thing is true when we find ourselves trying to answer the argument of a fool. Our strategy needs to be to do our best to show them the truth, but when it becomes apparent that are unwilling to listen, to walk away. Many people simply love arguing. But when you argue with someone who won’t listen, you’re simply wasting your breath.
You’ve surely seen this on social media before. Someone makes a statement in order to provoke an argument and many other people take the bait. Nothing is accomplished by this other than people getting frustrated. We need to discern when a person is willing to listen and when they are not. If a person isn’t willing to listen, we shouldn’t waste our time—our words will have no effect.
The second principle in dealing with fools is that we should not give them responsibility. Look at what Proverbs tells us:
Trusting a fool to convey a message is like cutting off one’s feet or drinking poison! (Proverbs 26:6, NLT)
An employer who hires a fool or a bystander is like an archer who shoots at random. (Proverbs 26:10, NLT)
The testimony of Proverbs is that hiring a fool to do a job, or entrusting them with responsibility is a foolish act in itself! The reason is pretty clear, there is a good chance that putting a fool in a position of responsibility will actually come back to hurt us.
It doesn’t seem like it would be hard to not put a fool in a leadership position. The problem is that sometimes a fool seems like they are the most qualified person for the job! A foolish person will often trumpet their own accomplishments in order to make everyone think they are special. They might even be very talented and can get results. The problem is that a foolish person thinks highly of themselves and has a low view of everyone else. A person who is unwilling to listen and learn will ultimately be a bad leader or employee. We can save ourselves a lot of trouble if we avoid putting fools in positions of power.
Third, is that we should not reward foolish behavior.
Honoring a fool is as foolish as tying a stone to a slingshot. (Proverbs 26:8, NLT)
What happens if you try to tie a stone to a slingshot? Instead of the stone flying at your target, it’s going to fly back at you! We are told that when we honor a fool, it will backfire. The reason for this is that we are reinforcing foolish behavior, and telling the person that acting foolish is a way of getting what you want.
We understand this inherently with children, don’t we? What do you do when your child throws a tantrum? When they throw themselves on the floor and yell and scream do you give them what they want? I hope not! Parents understand that in the midst of that situation, they need to see the big picture. Even though they desperately want their child to stop making a scene, they know that if they give their child what they want, it will tell the child that they can always get what they want if they make a scene. It may stop the tantrum that’s going on right now, but it will lead to more tantrums in the future! That strategy will backfire!
The same is true when dealing with a fool. We must refuse to reward foolish behavior. Sometimes this means refusing to give in to a grown-up tantrum—ignoring the threats made by the foolish person in order to help them see that such behavior is not the way to effect change. Sometimes it means refusing to take the bait by not getting mad at the person who’s trying to get under your skin. As hard as it sounds, sometimes it means simply walking away from the person who is acting foolishly.
Dealing with fools is not only about what we should not do. There are also some things that we should do. First, we should listen to what they have to say. The danger in labeling a person a fool is that we think it gives us license to ignore anything they have to say. When we refuse to listen to others we are being foolish ourselves. The wise thing to do with any foolish person is listen to what they are saying and evaluate whether it is true or not. We may not like it when we feel that we are being attacked or criticized by a foolish person, but we need to be sure to ask ourselves whether what they are saying is true. If so, we should quietly change what needs to be changed. If not, we should dismiss them—but we must listen to what they have to say.
I can think of a time many years ago where I faced this on a church board. A board member jumped to all sorts of conclusions about the church and the pastor with no real evidence. They came into the meeting and began to systematically attack everyone there. After they had finished their attack they walked out. It would have been easy for the board to simply dismiss this person as a fool, but the first question they asked was this: is there any truth to the charges this person leveled? Even though the person’s response was foolish, it was wise to examine the validity of what they said.
Second, we should love them and try to point them to the gospel. At the core of foolish behavior is a failure to recognize God as the Lord of our lives. The remedy for foolish behavior is for people to see their need to submit to the Lord and their need for a savior in Jesus Christ. The fact of the matter is that at some point all of us act foolishly, and we should treat others the way that God treats us. God continues to love us even as we continue to sin against Him.
The temptation is for us to look down on fools, and to think of ourselves as superior to them. Of course, such an attitude is foolish! We should be respectful and loving, even if we are not shown that same love and respect in return.
Note, though, that loving a person is not the same thing as condoning their behavior. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is to help a fool see their foolishness. Often that means that we have to let them experience the consequences of their actions. We should do what we can to lead a person on the path they should go, understanding that they may not listen to us.
Listen to the advice we are given in Titus:
If people are causing divisions among you, give a first and second warning. After that, have nothing more to do with them. For people like that have turned away from the truth, and their own sins condemn them. (Titus 3:10-11, NLT)
There comes a point where we must stop arguing with a fool and leave them on their own. This should be our last resort, but sometimes it is necessary. But even when we have left a fool to their own consequences, we can still be praying for the person. Though we may not be able to change the heart of a fool, we know that God can.
We like to think of fools as loveable characters who make us laugh and entertain us, but the biblical truth is that foolishness isn’t a laughing matter. Fools are on a self-destructive path, and the sad part is they don’t even realize it. Fools can not only hurt themselves, but they can hurt those around them if we aren’t careful.
The book of Proverbs gives us some practical advice regarding fools. First, it tells us that we should be careful to avoid becoming fools ourselves. We should desire wisdom, we should pay attention to correction from those around us, and we should recognize our own limitations. But even if we avoid being foolish ourselves, we will still always have to interact with those who are foolish. We should deal lovingly with such people, seeking to guide them out of their folly, while being careful to avoid falling into the same traps they have.
Foolishness is no joking matter; foolish people can do a lot of damage to themselves, the church, their community, and those around them. The best way to keep from becoming a foolish person is to anchor your life to wisdom. In other words, it is best to listen to the instructions of Proverbs and put them into practice.