From the Archives: Should We Suffer Fools Gladly?

Just about everybody complains about the quality of discourse on the Internet. In my experience, it isn’t much worse than the quality of discourse most other places—with one important exception. Foolishness of the verbal variety has always required cheap and easy forms of communication in order to really thrive. The talk of fools is not merely ignorant but impulsive, spontaneous. So, for centuries, the cost of publishing has been a mitigating factor, filtering much of the worst sort of foolishness out of the world of the written word. Printed error tended to at least be thoughtful error.

But decades of steadily-improving Internet technology have changed all that. Now any idiot who can click a mouse can publish his insights for the eyes of millions at the cost of pocket change. And since the Web also facilitates rapid interaction (of the sort previously limited to conversation), fools can now speak or write their minds (Prov.18:2) at each other at a rate, and with a passion (Prov. 12:16), previously undreamt of.1

So it’s probably fair to say: there’s no foolishness like Internet foolishness.

There is a bright side to Web publishing and interaction. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t believe that. But today, in honor of All Fools Day, let’s consider some principles for dealing with fools and foolishness—including the Web variety.

1. We shouldn’t attach much weight to what fools say.

A prudent man conceals knowledge, But the heart of fools proclaims foolishness. (NKJV, Prov. 12:23)

The tongue of the wise uses knowledge rightly, But the mouth of fools pours forth foolishness. (Prov. 15:2)

The lips of the wise disperse knowledge, But the heart of the fool does not do so. (Prov. 15:7)

The testimony of Proverbs is that fools have nothing important to say. In our culture, we’ve trained ourselves to think that everybody has not only a right to an opinion, but that we’re all obligated to listen to and respect everybody’s opinion—pretty much equally. We’re supposed to think that Justin Bieber’s thoughts on North Korea should get roughly the same sort respect as Hillary Clinton’s.2

But according the Bible, some people are fools, and what comes out of them isn’t worth waking up to hear.

In a day when large numbers of people do not discern the difference between fools and the wise, the truly insubstantial words of a fool can be seriously damaging. In these cases, the perceived weight of their words might require a response. Just as often, though, a fool’s words have no impact at all on the kinds of people who make decisions and lead. In these cases, the better option might be to avoid lending weight to fools’ babble by acknowledging that it even exists.

2. We shouldn’t waste too much time trying to help fools.

In Matthew 7:6, Jesus instructs us not to cast our pearls before swine or give the holy to the dogs. In the context, Jesus has been warning against judging, so, in verse 6, He qualifies that teaching by commending discernment.3 In other words, there is a kind of judging we must do, and it involves making some effort to identify what sort of people are most likely to receive what we have to say. Though it sounds callous to our modern sensibilities, Jesus was indicating that there are some people that are simply not going to listen to the truth and we shouldn’t expend much effort on them.

Proverbs seems to make the same point.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, But fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Prov. 1:7)

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But he who heeds counsel is wise. (Prov. 12:15)

Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, For he will despise the wisdom of your words. (Prov. 23:9)

3. We shouldn’t “be nice” to fools.

Some of the loudest complainers about the quality of discourse on the Web are selective fans of niceness. They have a history of dishing out criticism recklessly or deceitfully, but when some criticism comes back at them, it’s “bias,” “slander,” “character assassination” or the current favorite of whiners everywhere—“ad hominem attacks.”

Another group of Internet discourse critics seems to be sincere and consistent—just misguided. These apparently believe that rhetoric from believers should be all sweetness all the time, that communication is evil whenever it isn’t nice.

But Scripture doesn’t really support this way of thinking. Though passages abound warning and exhorting us to avoid evil speaking, malice, strife, etc. There is another side. When it comes to “fools,” the Bible calls us to deal firmly and, sometimes, severely.

Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 11:16-21 is a stunning example. The passage weaves multiple, subtle layers of meaning into what Paul apparently hoped would be something like a spiritual slap in the face for some folks who needed it (whether he ever got a “Thanks, I needed that!” from them, we don’t know). Using both irony and sarcasm, Paul implies that the Corinthians themselves were being foolish because they were, in KJV parlance, “suffering fools gladly.”

By his example in dealing with their extreme folly, he taught them how they ought to deal with the fools among them. The situation did not call for being nice.

Seeing that many boast according to the flesh, I also will boast. 19 For you put up with fools gladly, since you yourselves are wise! 20 For you put up with it if one brings you into bondage, if one devours you, if one takes from you, if one exalts himself, if one strikes you on the face. 21 To our shame I say that we were too weak for that! (v.16-21a)

Once again, Proverbs expresses the enduring principle.

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Lest you also be like him. 5 Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own eyes. (Prov. 26:4–5)

There is a time to shrug off a fools’ babbling. There is a time to deliver a stinging exposure of his foolishness. Paul’s example shows that sometimes the latter is best accomplished using some not-very-nice rhetorical creativity. Jesus’ example reveals this as well.

Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.’ 17 Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? 18 And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.’ 19 Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift?…. 24 Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! (Matt. 23:16–24)

4. We shouldn’t classify people as fools recklessly.

If you’ll pardon the cliche—“ay, there’s the rub.” Who exactly is a fool? Biblical thinking requires that we accept the principle that there is a breed of human being (the fool) who is nothing but trouble and is—from a human point of view—pretty much hopeless. We’re right to see fools as irritating, sometimes dangerous, and deserving of stinging rebuke. But we’re not supposed to allow malice to be the driving force in our response to them. We’re also not supposed to hastily identify those we disagree with as being in the biblical “fool” category.

But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. 23 Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt. 5:22–24)

Here Jesus confronts our too-human tendency to get into a tiff with a brother and conclude that he is a hopeless, senseless fool. Whether it’s even possible for a “brother” to be in that condition, I’m not sure. What’s certain is that mistaking an ordinary, flawed human being for a fool is not better than mistaking a fool for an ordinary, flawed human being.

We really can’t be too careful either way.

Notes

1 Nabal would have loved the Internet! (1 Sam. 25:25)

2 I’m not calling Bieber a fool here—just a complete cipher on the topic of foreign affairs.

3 So D. A. Carson, The Expositors Bible Commentary; and C. Blomberg, The New American Commentary.

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