“A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
~ Proverbs 15:1
I’ll admit it. I sometimes have trouble reading through the book of Proverbs. Not because I don’t love the wisdom in there…but because I don’t honestly know how to read it in a way that lets me absorb it. These chapters don’t tell a story. They’re not even a single poem or song, like in Psalms. Instead, through much of the book, each verse or couplet is its own thing. It’s own wisdom. Only occasionally do you get a chapter that’s one cohesive thought.
On the one hand, I love these bite-sized bits of musing and thoughtful pondering. On the other…reading through a whole chapter of them usually leaves me without a clue as to what all I just read. And yet, some certainly stick in our hearts and minds, especially when they’ve been oft-quoted. And the opening wisdom of Proverbs 15 is certainly one of those.
As a generally soft-spoken person who rarely gets angry (frustrated, but not angry very often), this is a verse I always thought I understood. And one I also always appreciated. Because it’s true, right? If you yell at someone, it’s only going to make them angrier. Wrath begets wrath. Or as Dale Carnegie observes in How to Win Friends and Influence People, the moment you lose an argument is the moment you START an argument. Which is to say, you never win anything by arguing. Definitely a philosophy that aligns with that proverb.
A proverb that today’s outrage culture could stand to take more seriously, right? When something gets us angry, offends us, or makes us want to rant (on social media or otherwise), we could certainly stand this reminder: harsh words will only make everyone more angry. To turn it away, to seek healing instead of rifts, we need a different approach.
And last week in the Marco Polo group for Patrons & Peers, one of our members, Lee Anne Womack, pointed out something I’d never considered before about this verse: That it doesn’t necessarily speak to how others react. It speaks to what happens in our own hearts.
Cue the mind-blown emoji. Let that sink in a for a moment.
We can’t actually determine how others react to us. Sometimes if we give a soft answer instead of an angry one, it will diffuse a situation…but let’s be honest. Sometimes if we stay calm, that makes the other person even angrier. It will lead them to shout, “You don’t even care!” Or they’ll call us smug or cold or stupid.
But what does a soft answer do to our own hearts? That’s the thing that Lee Anne’s insight made me ponder. Because a true soft answer doesn’t mean saying one thing but meaning another, right? It means answering from love instead of frustration…which means seeing them through the lens of love. It means that even when we speak hard things, we do it in a gentle and loving way. And when we do that, when we view people we’re in opposition to at that moment through love’s eyes–through God’s eyes–what happens to us?
The anger melts away. Sometimes it allows us to see that we shouldn’t be angry at the offense but sorrowful at the sin. Sometimes it lets us see that their point of view is perfectly legitimate. Sometimes it enables us to see that they’re acting from pain, not from hatred.
Our soft answer turns away our own wrath and makes room for compassion. For empathy. For love.
But what if we give a harsh word instead? Certainly–without question–it will make the others angrier. That goes without saying. But reflect on what it does to our own hearts too.
The more we grumble, complain, and speak of offense, the more negative, outraged, and angry we become–not just with a particular person, but with the world. With generations. With whole groups of people. Harsh words breed disdain, condescension, bias, prejudice, bitterness, and hatred.
And those harsh words don’t even have to be spoken to that person. They can just be mumbled and grumbled under our breath, or spoken to friends and family about those people. In those cases, the person in question can’t respond to us, because they don’t know what we’re saying. They aren’t being “stirred up.” But WE are. We are stirring up ourselves, our own anger, all the dark things that pull us down, away from God, away from loving our neighbors as He calls us to love them.
There’s a strange, seductive allure to holding onto anger. To finding reasons to be frustrated and outraged and offended by people. But ultimately, it’s only our own hearts that suffer. So how can we instead practice giving that “soft answer”…not just to and for them, but in order to keep our own hearts soft?