A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Proverbs 15:1, ESV)
It has happened to all of us. Someone stands in front of you, wags their finger, raises their voice, and hurls words like so many stones, all of it meant to hurt, wound, and win. In the face of such intense emotional energy, rare is the person who is able to calmly respond. Shields go up, and we make ready our defense. We carefully choose our own stones to hurl back. It's our right to react in kind, is it not?
The wisdom-writer has counter-intuitive advice. Don't smooth out the stone of that harsh-word to place upon the sling of your tongue, with the hope of embedding it in the forehead of your wrath-ful attacker. All you'll do is stoke the fires of anger.
Stop the cycle of dizzying arrays of mutually assured destruction.
Create a soft-word, place gently on the tongue, and lob it upon your burning friend, with the likely result you will cool the flames of wrath. And even if you don't turn down the heat, you've won. You've played no part in moving someone further down the path of sin, and saved your own self from actions you will later, surely, regret.
Ray Ortlund writes:
The word “soft” means tender, delicate, gentle, even weak. We don’t like being weak, especially when we find ourselves in the crosshairs of anger. We would rather justify ourselves. It is hard to be wronged. It is doubly hard to be wronged and not fight back but respond softly.
Of course, if the angry person is a heretic, bent on wrecking your church, he or she must be confronted strongly. But if that person is not a danger but only immature, then a tender, delicate, soft, weak answer might help that person see things in a new way. Maybe not. Maybe nothing will help. When God himself answered Jonah’s anger softly, Jonah wasn’t satisfied (Jonah 4:1–11). But with the wisdom of Proverbs 15:1, the tension in the air might not escalate. The awkward moment might even be turned into something positive.
But dishing out anger in response to anger will surely go badly. Here is what we can always expect: “. . .a harsh word stirs up [more] anger.” A harsh – literally, “painful” – response can include words with sharp edges, a tone of sarcasm, implied threats of retaliation. There are many ways for the encounter to escalate quickly.
Part of why this is so hard is that the harsh-word is wired into our flesh. The Fall has assured this. We want to get even. Someone wrongs me with the wrath-word; fine, I'll dish out the harsh-word.
But the person remade in the image of Christ is a new creation. All things have been made new. While the flesh wants its due, the Spirit cares not for even-stevens in such conflicts. Jesus, wisdom himself, shows us the way:
"[Jesus] did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly" (1 Peter 2:23).
Nancy Guthrie comments:
The most innocent man who ever lived suffered the most outrageous injustice ever experienced, and yet he refused to seek revenge. Instead, he turned it over to God because he knew God would do what is right.
Jesus is our example to follow.
Yes, may it be! With God's help, may we follow our great King in the path of the soft-word.
Friends, this is why Scripture memory is so important. It is why our church family has a Fighter Verse program (Proverbs 15:1 is this week's fighter verse) - we want to fight the fight of faith. To do so, we need the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, quick on the tongue for every season. Having the Bible in our hearts means it is there so that the Spirit may bring it to mind at the exact moment it is needed.
And when it is there, who knows? You may save both yourself, and your hearer.