For a part of Scripture that is supposed to help us gain insight and discernment, the book of Proverbs can be hard to understand at times, or at least, hard to apply.
Jesus warned us about the dangers of arbitrarily labeling a person a fool (see Matthew 5.22), but Solomon has no problem describing what a fool looks like. “Fool” might not be a godly insult to use, but it might be an accurate description. According to Solomon, a fool is one who not only makes a few isolated foolish decisions, but also refuses to accept instruction or correction. Furthermore, a fool is one who begins to delight in folly and becomes more resistant to the teachings of wisdom. Even as they are reaping the painful consequences of their folly, they refuse to heed correction. At this point, fools are beyond hope and any attempt to rescue a fool only drags the wise down into their pit of destruction.
Consider the following proverb:
Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning. (Proverbs 9.7-9)
There is definitely something about this proverb that goes against our “Christian religion.” We believe, and rightly so, that no man is beyond the saving grace of God. If the apostle Paul can be reached on his way to murder believers, then surely none of us are beyond hope.
Beyond that, there are clear biblical teachings that we are supposed to reach out to those who have gone astray to restore them to Christ. Consider the words of James,
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5.19-20)
We have a clear example of this in Paul’s life, when he confronted Peter over his decision to not eat with the Gentiles because of pressure from the Judiazers. Paul wrote,
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2.11-14)
Paul did to Peter exactly what James encourages us to do: he brought back a sinner from his wandering.
And yet the warning from Solomon not only rings very clear, we have all experienced it in real life. And just to be clear, this is not an isolated proverb. Consider,
• A scoffer does not like to be reproved; he will not go to the wise. (Proverbs 15.12)
• Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the good sense of your words. (Proverbs 23.9)
• Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear. (Proverbs 25.12)
• He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing. (Proverbs 29.1)
• Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue. (Proverbs 28.23)
The wisdom of Solomon is clear: there comes a time when advice given to a fool is not only wasted effort, but a danger to the wisdom giver.
Several questions come to mind. For instance, when do we know when we have reached a point with another human that they no longer have a “listening ear” or that they are “despising the good sense” of our words? Is it obvious when a sinner can be brought back from his wandering ways and when a sinner cannot be brought back from his wandering ways?
Moreover, how arrogant does it seem to say to a drowning man crying out for help, “Sorry, but you will just ignore the life preserver anyway so I am not going to throw it to you”? Doesn’t decency and charity require us to at least give it one more try and throw it to him anyway?
Not to mention the fact that my own sinfulness is quick to label a person “beyond help” if trying to help them is requiring too much work and sacrifice from me. Labeling them a “fool” beyond help can be quite convenient for me, and knowing that only makes it that much more difficult to ignore the drowning fool.
But on the other hand…
Those who are in the pastoral profession, or the counseling profession, or the human race for that matter, regularly find themselves in situations where they are dealing with either “fools” or those right on the edge of “fool-dom.” We get frustrated with the time and words that we waste in an effort to bring them back from their wandering ways. They don’t accept wise counsel, they refuse to abandon their behaviors that continue to bring them pain, and they are always able to blame the consequences of their decisions on someone else.
Counselors who are paid to suffer the presence of fools can just write it off as another hard day’s work. But what about those who share life with a fool? What about the spouse of a fool? What about the close friends of a fool? What about the roommate of a fool? What about the parent of a fool? What advice do we give to them? When do we say to a spouse, or to a parent, “Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you” (Proverbs 9.7-8). When does a parent let a child wander off into the land of fools as Jesus did the rich young ruler? When does a parent say, “As you wish” to a foolish child who delights in folly and refuses correction? When does a spouse say to their marriage partner, “if you want to delight in folly that brings destruction and ruin, then you will have to walk that path alone?” That is an anguishing decision for any parent and for any spouse.
But perhaps Solomon’s advice does not necessarily bring anguish as much as it brings comfort to a soul already in anguish. The spouse or parent of a fool has already lived Proverbs 9.7-8. They can give personal testimony of the injury and abuse that comes upon those who try to correct a fool in his folly. They know all too well that those who are hardened in the path of folly really do spew hatred on those who try to rescue them.
The wisdom of Solomon is not to be applied to quickly, and it is not to be the quick escape hatch for those who are struggling to bring a sinner back from his ways. But, the wisdom of Solomon does become very wise to those who have reached the breaking point of loving a fool. There is a point where the injury and abuse becomes too great, and a fool must be left to his folly. The wisdom of Solomon can be great words of comfort for those who have reached that point.