Scriptures: Excerpts from Proverbs; Romans 12:14-21
I once read a list of popular sayings that, if you think about them, are contradictory. For example:
Look before you leap, … but … He who hesitates is lost.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, … but … Better safe than sorry.
Out of sight, out of mind… but … Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Many hands make light work, … but … Too many cooks spoil the broth.
(Robert Fulghum, Maybe (Maybe Not) pp. 21-22.)
So which is it? Do many hands make light work? Or do they mess up the soup? Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Or cause it to forget?
If you notice, some of the Proverbs on the insert this morning seem contradictory. Look at Proverbs 10:10: “Whoever winks the eye causes trouble, but the one who rebukes boldly makes peace.” To wink the eye probably means to overlook an injustice, to turn a blind eye to some wrong-doing. But now look at the verse below it—Proverbs 10:12: “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” Which is it? Should we cover offenses or confront them? Further down on the insert Proverbs 25:26 says, “Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain are the righteous who give way before the wicked.” But now look at the verse above it—Proverbs 25:21: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.”
In Proverbs making peace is complicated. You need to use your head; you need to discern the nuances of the situation and the people involved. It is not simply a matter of getting tough or of giving in. It is a matter of the telling the truth while also showing compassion, of standing up for justice while demonstrating the kind of forbearance that opens a door to healing.
Proverbs does not give us simple rules for managing conflict. If you are looking for simple answers where everything is black and white, Proverbs is not the book for you. Neither is the Bible. But Proverbs does suggest a mindset for approaching conflict, which I will try to summarize in two points:
#1: Think before you act, or speak.
We have heard this from Proverbs before, but it is particularly important when it comes to conflict.
15:1—“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
15:18—“Those who are hot-tempered stir up strife, but those who are slow to anger calm contention.”
19:11—“Those with good sense are slow to anger, and it is their glory to overlook an offense.”
29:22—“One given to anger stirs up strife, and the hothead causes much transgression.”
Here is my catch phrase for this week: “Evaluate before you escalate.” Two weeks ago my catch phrase was “Deliberate before you communicate.” This week it is “Evaluate before you escalate.” The danger is not in getting angry. I will talk more about that in a moment. The danger, according to Proverbs, is being impulsive, being hotheaded or hot-tempered. Evaluate before you escalate, which means slow down before you respond. As Proverbs says in 19:11: “Those with good sense are slow to anger.”
This does not mean we should never confront someone. Remember Proverbs 10:10—“Whoever winks the eye causes trouble, but the one who rebukes boldly makes peace.” When Proverbs says, “A soft answer turns away wrath,” it is not telling us to be silent. A soft answer is still an answer. A soft answer stands up and challenges those who do hurtful things. But it does so without giving in to anger or vengeance.
Which brings me to point #2: Act not out of anger but out of love.
10:12—“Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.”
29:11—“A fool give full vent to anger, but the wise quietly holds it back.”
30:33—“For as pressing the milk produces curds, and pressing the nose produces blood, so
pressing anger produces strife.”
Here is my catch phrase for this point: “Seek reconciliation not retaliation.”
Please understand, Proverbs is not saying we should avoid ever being angry. Anger may be sign of an injustice that needs to be addressed, a signal that you or someone you care about is being unfairly exploited or demeaned. We should pay attention to anger for the same reason we should pay attention to chest pains. It may be a sign that something is wrong.
But here is the key: Do not address it while you are angry. Use your anger as a warning that there is a problem needing to be addressed, but do not address it while you are angry. Write it down, if you have to, but wait to talk about it until you are calm enough to give a soft answer rather than a harsh one, to listen before judging, to choose words aimed at healing. Seek reconciliation rather than retaliation.
Let me close with two examples: one global and one personal. When apartheid came to an end in South Africa in 1995, the new South African constitution set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Victims of gross human rights violations under the former apartheid government could come to the commission, tell their story, and seek reparation. There were cases, of course, where reparation could never make up for or repair the wrong. But still the commission discovered that just telling the story, just letting the truth be known, was healing to people. Meanwhile, the perpetrators of these human rights violations—and remember, we are talking about arrests, torture, killings, imprisonment without trial, and unjust seizures of land—the perpetrators of these things could also come to the commission, make a full truthful disclosure of their actions, offer to make restitution where possible, and in return receive full amnesty and be restored to full citizenship in the new South Africa.
This, it seems to me, is the kind of confrontation and reconciliation, the kind of accountability and forgiveness, that Proverbs is talking about. Interestingly, South Africa, despite its long history of oppression, is one of the few countries in the world to experience a major social revolution without waves of violence and reprisal, followed by new forms of repression. The seemingly contradictory approach of Proverbs can actually work.
Now let me share the experience of a family. While I was a pastor in Potlatch, Idaho, I helped a family organize an intervention for an alcoholic husband. All the important people in this alcoholic’s life: his wife, his parents, his co-workers, his neighbors and friends—everyone who had a significant relationship to this person was gathered together at a family member’s home, where they coached in how to share their feelings with the alcoholic, how tell the person how his drinking had affected them. Then at a prearranged time the alcoholic was brought to the house by a friend under some pretense. It was somewhat like a surprise party. And believe me for the alcoholic it was a surprise. Then in the safety of the group each person there, one by one, shared directly with the alcoholic how he or she had been affected by his drinking. They did not talk about what an awful, irresponsible person he was. They did not lash out with angry, vindictive comments. They spoke truthfully about how the person’s drinking had made them feel and had affected their lives. Then, and this is the crucial part, each of them talked about the kind of relationship they would like to have with the alcoholic but can’t because of his drinking.
It was intense. The alcoholic went through stages of shock, anger, and then denial. But faced with a roomful of people all of whom cared about him, all of whom felt hurt and frightened by his drinking, he finally agreed to go in for treatment.
According to the Bible peace, like war, must be waged. It requires a careful, thoughtful campaign. Hence Proverbs 25:21-22 says, “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.” I don’t think this is meant as a subtle form of retaliation. This is not meant to make your enemies burn with humiliation and guilt. It is meant as a form of cleansing, a way of burning away anger and opening a door to healing. That is certainly how Paul understands it when he quotes this verse for the Romans. He concludes by saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Peace, like war, must be waged. And its weapons are the weapons of Jesus: truth, love, and sacrifice.