What's a Soft Answer?
by Mart De Haan
I admire the person who can use humour, thoughtfulness, or a self-deprecating comment to defuse the tension of an angry moment. Maybe that's why I've become so intrigued with the proverb that says, "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Prov.15:1). I'm convinced that there is more here than a reminder not to yell at one another.
The Neighbourhood of this proverb. The previous proverb (14:35) reminds us that anger isn't always wrong. Solomon provided needed balance when he said, "The king's favour is toward a wise servant, but his wrath against him who causes shame."
At best, angry emotions show that we care enough to be upset when someone or something we value is in danger. This is like the anger if the king (14:35) who becomes emotional when one of his servants acts without regard for the needs of others.
Wisdom, however, keeps this emotion on a short leash. Solomon's "rule of the soft answer" helps us avoid the danger of unnecessary anger.
The danger behind the anger. Anger is like a guard dog. It can help us protect ourselves, our property, or someone we care about. But without training, fencing, or a short leash, he could bite a friend as quickly as he will attack a thief.
The motive behind this proverb. So what restraint does wisdom give us? Is Proverbs 15:1 just encouraging us to lower our voices to avoid waking the sleeping dog? No, the wisdom described here isn't just about volume. What makes a response gentle is our motive, not our volume. A soft answer is motivated by love.
A voice raised in love is less threatening than a thought whispered in contempt. A loud "Yes, I'm upset. I'm sorry. Forgive me. But I happen to care about you!" is much more calming than a softly spoken "You're nothing but a worthless version of your father (or mother)."
"What I do with my time is none of your business" is a harsh answer even when it's said softly through smiling lips. On the other hand, "What can I say? What I said was thoughtless and mean. You didn't need to hear that from me!" is likely to be "soft" even if expressed with loud regret.
Proverbs 15:1 isn't about loud responses. It's warning us about harsh responses that, even when whispered, awaken anger because they're spoken as a threat. "Soft" words, though, tend to defuse anger, regardless of their volume, because they're an offer of safety.
The limits of this proverb. It's important to add that the calming effect of a soft answer is a general rule that has exceptions. A "soft answer" does not always quiet anger.
Yah'shua (Jesus) was crucified for speaking the ultimate soft answer. As the King of kings He had every right and reason to come in anger. The streets of His kingdom were full of servants who had acted shamefully. Yet this King put everyone off balance by surprising people with kindness. He comforted people whose lives were a mess, unnerving those who were resting in their own self-righteousness. He infuriated the religious and moral leaders of His people by earning a reputation as "a friend of sinners".
While known sinners loved Him, raging religious moralists were convinced that no one would be safe until He was dead. His example reminds us that we should not expect to avoid anger. Instead, we should make it our goal to hold in check the kind of anger that harms others in an attempt to defend our own selfish interests. An even better strategy is to find such security and safety in God that we are not quick to get angry for self-centred reasons
The connections of this proverb. Proverbs 14:26, a close neighbour of 15:1, points us to the security and safety that will help us avoid unhealthy anger in ourselves. There we read, "In the fear of the Lord there is strong confidence, and His children will have a place of refuge." Another neighbour (15:3) reminds us that "the eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good."
When considered in the shadow of our God, Proverbs 15:1 is not an end in itself. It is not a simple moral principle. Instead, it leads us to the source of love, security, and spiritual strength we all need. After helping us to think about what it means to answer in a soft rather than a harsh way, this proverb points us to our God. Our "soft answers" are prompted by His offer of security, the example and forgiveness of His Son, and the enabling presence of His Spirit.
Reproduced from RBC Ministries "Been Thinking About", June-August 2002
This page was created on 18 August 2009
Last updated on 18 August 2009
Copyright © 2002 RBC Ministries - Reproduced with Thanks