Proverbs 15:1 ESV
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Proverbs is known as a book of practical advice, and today’s verse is one of the reasons why. This verse admonishes us to consider the impact of our words and actions. Harshness encourages anger, and gentleness discourages it. These paths are not foolproof, of course; sometimes people will just get angrier when they don’t get the response- fear, anger, etc.- that they wanted. They are strong tendencies, though, and more effective the sooner they are applied. A soft answer works much better to divert wrath if it isn’t preceded by a number of harsh words.
The application of this verse still requires discernment. When is the diversion of wrath insufficient reason to use a soft answer? Never? In other words, we must consider when keeping the peace is a lower priority, when keeping the peace conflicts with higher goods. We must also consider when our plea of conflicting priorities is just an excuse for our all-too-ready tempers to let loose.
Anger hurts relationships, and so we generally want to minimize it. If you have the choice between your family being happy with you and angry, all things being even, you’re going to choose them being happy, because harmony is better than conflict in relationships. It’s not the most important thing, however, and our relationships with other people aren’t our most important relationship. Our most important relationship is our relationship to God. It is the Greatest Commandment’s charge that we love God with all we have and are (Matt. 22:36-40), and thus this relationship must outshine all others on our list of priorities.
Sometimes our relationship with God conflicts with the (apparent) harmony of our relationships with man. For the Protestants in Paris on St. Bartholemew’s Day in 1572, for instance, to choose to remain right with God was to sacrifice all peace with their neighbors, and over the next few weeks, the death toll passed 3000. This example is dramatic and stark, but it’s a good start. These men and women chose to place their relationships with other men below their relationship with God, and they endured the anger of the wicked for that choice.
In daily life, thankfully, our choices aren’t usually so dramatic; they also aren’t so clear-cut, usually. Sometimes we have to ask the question of whether we should use hard words (and risk anger) or soft words (and risk something else). If I’m dealing with a friend who has mired himself in a habit of sin- drugs, pornography, laziness, dishonesty, callousness, irresponsibility, fractiousness, what have you-, one that has ignored all my gentle reproof and kind counsel, who has disregarded the remonstrance of all his counsellors, I must consider if by speaking softly I am doing him harm. In such a situation, wisdom may demand harsh words be spoken. Wisdom may demand that harsh words be spoken despite the anger which they bring.
This situation isn’t pleasant, and none of us want to face it. The reasoning, though, can be attractive. If my temper flares at somebody else, it might be easy to say they’re being stubborn, to argue to myself that harsh words are needed because nothing else will work. Besides, I might think, won’t it feel so good to just let loose? It’s an easy thing to do. Unfortunately, like many easy thoughts, it’s dangerous, because it leads to sin. Choosing to use harsh words must be a carefully considered choice, not one built off of the speaker’s emotions. Why?
The reason we can justify using harsh words is to do good to the recipient and your relationship with them (sometimes that means disrupting and even ending the relationship) and to preserve your relationship with God by following the path of virtue. Therefore, we cannot justify harsh words any way except for a clear-headed evaluation which determines that the situation fits those qualifications. Wisdom, not anger, must be our motive.
Since anger is an unworthy motive, it is fitting that it just makes things worse. Let’s say I have made sure that harsh words are right for the situation. If I then deliver those harsh words with anger in my tone and heart, not only will I sin against God and thereby hurt myself, I will hurt my effort, degrade it, because instead of bringing painful but good advice, I’m bringing my own ranting, at least in the eyes of the recipient. Harsh words must be delivered calmly, or they will be mere temptation into sin for both the giver and the receiver.
Soft words don’t mean false words. Remember the truth; remember that sometimes harsh words are the right choice. The final standard is the standard God gave us in 1 Peter 2:20, saying, “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” We are to be hated for God, not yourself. If I have done something worthy of anger, if I have provoked anger without need, I must bear the guilt of that course. In God’s grace, however, we may choose to stand when our relationship with God, our resultant love for His law, requires that we stand, even if it stirs up the anger of those we love, those we fear, and the whole world besides.
Written by Colson Potter
Sanctuary Functional Medicine, under the direction of Dr Eric Potter, IFMCP MD, provides functional medicine services to Nashville, Middle Tennessee and beyond. We frequently treat patients from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and more... offering the hope of healthier more abundant lives to those with chronic illness.