The Soft Answer: A Neglected Christian Tool
A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger ... Proverbs 15:1 (KJV)
I live in a town near Toronto, Canada and occasionally commute by bus to the big city. After a long day covering a story, I was ready to settle into my plush seat in a Greyhound-type and relax. I pushed the button under my armrest to a slightly reclining position. “Oh no, you don’t!” A voice shouted from behind me. Two hands grabbed the seat on either side from behind and pushed the seat back into an upright position.
I sat in shock for a while, and then I moved to another seat. I noticed that there were young girls behind me who appeared to be around sixteen years old. In my new seat, my head started to swirl with emotion. Should I say something? Should I let it go? I was tired and not up for a fight. I said nothing, but if looks could kill, the four boisterous, talkative girls would have been dead meat.
Scenes like this are becoming more common these days. We live in an increasingly selfish world where people focus on enforcing their rights, no matter who they have to step on to get what they want. We have gotten used to being yelled at if we do not drive fast enough or accidentally cut someone off. I have had impatient drivers honk at me because I am too slow while crossing the street. I am tempted to say, “So sorry that old age and cancer makes me so slow” to shut them up.
Our natural response to injustice or verbal abuse is to strike back. We rage, yell, say hurtful things, and may even get physical by shoving or hitting others. We may plot elaborate revenge. These methods make matters worse. All parties involved get more and more upset. The anger can escalate into all kinds of trouble, such as physical fighting.
When I watch young people on certain reality shows, they seem to take offense easily and can quickly become defensive and verbally abusive with each other. So, how should I as a Christian respond when people say or do things that upset or hurt me?
A Christian’s Responsibility
According to the book by Tony Evans, we have the "power to bring blessing or a curse upon each other and upon ourselves simply through our mouths." Our words can heal or hurt others. Watch Your Mouth: Understanding the Power of the Tongue
One of our goals as Christians is to live in peace with other people (Mathew 5:9, Romans 12:18, 14:19, 1 Thessalonians 5:13). If we live in peace, we can enjoy life (Proverbs 1:2:20) and get along well with other people. There are times we need to confront others with their wrongdoings. At other times, we have to bite the bullet and let go of our need to defend ourselves or set the record straight. Humbly, we let go of our need to get revenge and let God deal with wrongdoers.
The No-answer Answer
It is best to say nothing at all in many situations. Certainly, it would be foolish for me to confront a group of teenage girls. There are situations worse than this where confrontation could be dangerous. If we mouth off, we risk putting ourselves in danger of verbal abuse or even physical danger such as domestic violence. Jesus recognized this fact. Jesus said that of someone slaps us on one cheek, we should turn the other cheek to them. If someone takes our coat, we should not withhold our shirt from them (Matthew 5:40, Luke 6:29).
esus recognized that there were times to be silent. During His trial before the Sanhedrin, false witnesses lied and twisted things that Jesus said (Mark 14:53-65). The high priest asked Jesus to answer to them, saying, “We heard him (Jesus) say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another not made with hands.’” Jesus chose to say nothing.
There are times when a non-emotional, logical answer must be given her instead of a turn of the cheek. Christians are not meek mush that people can walk all over and abuse. When Jesus answered a question from the high priest, or had to respond to other people, his responses were clearly well-thought-out and served a specific purpose. Jesus recognized that the right answer will come from God when needed (Proverbs 16:1).
We have the right to set boundaries in our relationships and assert them when needed. If someone is being verbally abusive or is crossing our lines in other ways, we can explain to them why their behavior is unacceptable. Once we have drawn the lines in the sand, we can defend them verbally or walk away from the situation.
Taking a Timeout
Sometimes, we cannot answer offenders at the time, but need to defer to a future date when the situation can be discussed with the offender after anger and heightened emotions have settled down. It is biblical to take time to consider how we want to answer people.
Finding the Soft Answer
The right answer can de-escalate another person’s anger and frustration. It can stop a potential fight dead in its tracks and begin the reconciliation process. The soft answer promotes peace – something God loves (Psalm 34:14, Matthew 5:9, Romans 12:18, 2 Corinthians 13:11, 1 Thessalonians 5:13). Peacemakers will be blessed. Christians should always be considerate of everyone (Titus 3:2).
First, we need to check on our own emotional state. Are we angry? Frustrated? Resentful? Are you just itching to give them a zinger? People who are foolish gush everything they are thinking, but the wise keep things to themselves until an appropriate time (Proverbs 20:11). If we are slow to anger, we can appease another person’s resentment through our gentle words (Proverbs 15:18).
Answering in a Godly Way
We must weight our answers carefully (Proverbs 15:28, 13:3) instead of blurting out foolish words or remarks that will put us to shame. We need to listen to people carefully first before formulating an answer (Proverbs 18:13). It is folly to speak without hearing people out first, and doing so is bound to get us in trouble. God will give us the words that we need to use at the right time (Proverbs 16:1).
When people are unjust or misinformed, we will be tempted to set them straight and defend ourselves. We may become angry and tell them off. A tongue lashing, however, may be our way of taking revenge on a person who spoke the hurtful words. If we need to set the record straight, we should do so logically, kindly, and gently (1 Corinthians 4:13). Our speech needs to be full of grace (1 Corinthians 4:13).
If people ask us about our faith, we respond with respect for the other person. If we keeping a clear conscience, the people who slander us and speak maliciously against our good behavior in Christ will become ashamed of their behavior (1 Peter 3:15-16). We are blessed if we suffer for doing what is right (1 Peter 3:14).
The Time for Confrontation
Jesus used the soft or no answer to deal with people for the most part. The only rare exceptions were when He confronted sin, such as turning over the tables of the moneychangers or exposing the hypocrisy of Pharisees. As the son of God, Jesus could have confronted people all the time, yet most of the time, but He chose not to do so. Instead, Jesus showed compassion to sinners and wept over their lost state (Luke 19:41-42).
There are times when confrontation is necessary, but we must have positive reasons for it, such as helping a stumbling Christian to be restored to the faith, clearing up misunderstandings, or reconciling broken relationships. If we do attempt to restore a person, we should to do so gently. We have to watch out that we are not tempted to sin ourselves or get puffed up with pride (Galatians 6:1). We need to examine our motives for the confrontation. Are we doing it out of love for the person, or are we taking revenge by giving them a tongue lashing or venting our anger? We should aim to love people and do what we can to restore relationships and maintain peace with everyone.
The way we respond to people will determine if our conversation will calm down or escalate into anger or defensiveness. Everyone benefits if we learn how to be peacemakers. We can live in harmony with all people, and people can live in harmony with us.
The Holy Bible, New International Version
Speaking The Truth In Love, How To Be An Assertive Christian, Ruth N. Koch and Kenneth C. Haugk
Going Soft Against Wrath, desiringgod.org, Ray Ortlund
© 2014 Carola Finch