It’s the time of year when my Bible-reading plan takes me through the book of Proverbs. There’s something almost absurd about reading this book at a pace of three chapters per day. That’s like quickly crunching through a whole bag of peppermints rather than slowly savoring each one. Yet reading the proverbs in great swaths does make it easier to identify its themes. Just as we can miss the forest for the trees, we can miss the themes for the maxims. But what might be difficult to see at a meditative pace has a way of standing out when read quickly.
As I work my way through the proverbs, I see anger everywhere. I see the folly of anger, the danger of anger, the sinfulness of anger. I see that the godly learn to control their anger while the fools let it rage. The godly allow themselves to be offended while the fools demand satisfaction for every little slight. The godly draw people into close relationship while the fools destroy friendship. There’s a high cost to all this anger.
One proverb stands out as posing a particular challenge to me: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1). It is sinful to initiate an angry confrontation, but equally sinful to exacerbate one with an unfitting response. Wisdom insists that we so put anger to death that we no longer respond angrily even when sinned against. Sanctification is not only about holiness in situations we initiate, but also situations we are drawn into.
I’m not naturally given to anger. I tend to be pretty easy-going and unlikely to spark a conflagration. But that’s not to say I can’t be too easily riled up, especially when living and ministering among people who may be a little bit more prone to anger. It’s when I’m sinned against in anger that I am most likely to sin in anger. It’s when I’m angered at that I tend to get angry with. And it’s right then that a soft answer might just turn away wrath. It might just turn it away from that other person and it would certainly turn it away from me.
It’s easy enough to provide a soft answer to a soft question. It takes little wisdom and little godliness to do that. But it’s a great challenge to provide a soft answer to a harsh question. It’s a greater challenge still to answer gently when rebuked savagely. It takes unusual wisdom and godliness to resist the temptation to snap, to retaliate, to answer in kind.
No wonder, then, that Solomon insists, “A gentle tongue is a tree of life” (15:3). Gentleness is no challenge when circumstances are good and respect given, but it’s almost impossibly tough when respect is withheld, when bitterness and harshness rage. Yet even then, or perhaps especially then, “he who is slow to anger quiets contention” (15:18). A hot-tempered man stirs up existing strife with his sharp response. A wise man quiets the contention with his cool response.
Sanctification is not only about putting to death those sins that so naturally spill out of me, those sinful behaviors I tend to initiate. It’s also about putting to death the sins that come roaring out when I’m sinned against. Coming alive to righteousness means gentleness when faced with harshness, joy when faced with bitterness. It’s about being like Jesus who, “when he 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).