Going Soft Against Wrath (Proverbs 15:1)
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. —Proverbs 15:1
What is the wise response to an angry person who says something cruel, false, or demanding? Proverbs 15:1 helps us in those awkward moments at home, at work, in our churches. The key is “a soft answer.”
So, you’re standing there, stunned by those words that have just exploded in your face. In that instant of decision, as your mind is forming a response, “a soft answer” is the category you need. What is that?
Maybe, for Sure
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.
God Gets the Last Word
The Bible gives us many encouragements to restrain ourselves when people are unkind. For example, “You shall reason frankly with your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:17). “Let your reasonableness be known to all” (Philippians 4:4). “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Colossians 3:15).
Most wonderfully, we have in our Savior the perfect example of wisdom: “When Christ was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
This helps, doesn’t it? It helps to remember that God sees, and God judges justly. Sometimes people judge unjustly. They don’t mean to. They just do. But God always judges justly. So we don’t have to get in the last word. On that great and final day, God will finish every conversation in this life that didn’t go well. He will do so with perfect justice, fully satisfying to every redeemed heart. Let’s trust him for that now, whenever we are under this kind of pressure.
Venting is the world’s foolish way, intensifying conflict. Restraint is the Lord’s wise way, spreading shalom. And the Lord’s way succeeds. It might satisfy our aggressor, and it will surely safeguard us.
Ray Ortlund is the president of Renewal Ministries, the pastor to pastors at Immanuel Nashville Church, and a canon theologian with the Anglican Church in North America. He is the author of several books, including The Death of Porn; the Preaching the Word commentaries on Isaiah and Proverbs; and Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel. He is also a contributor to the ESV Study Bible. Ray and his wife, Jani, have been married for 50 years.