Does the Bible elevate being right over rightly relating?

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Or you will also be like him.
Answer a fool as his folly deserves,
That he not be wise in his own eyes.
— Proverbs 26:4-5

This passage creates cognitive dissonance for readers pining for a single, solidifying principle to answering challenging people; and, unfortunately, no matter the exegetical application, there is no clear “If the person does this, then it is appropriate to say or do that.” This passage confronts the person who has pat answers to assumed questions, for this passage demands one to be fully present when addressing a person.

Jesus offers great illustrations of how to address challenging people without resorting to biting sarcasm, patronizing irony, or indifferent scorn. For example, when Jesus received Nicodemus’ questions, he answered according to his (Nicodemus’) folly while remaining fully present with him. Nicodemus’ questions were not questions leading to transformation but simple debate. Jesus did not just respond to Nicodemus’ superfluous questions—“How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (John 3:4)—with disdain but called him to be aware of God’s present work of redemption (3:8).

Jesus encountered people not just to answer their questions, but for the sake of transformation, without competing for power to gain an advantage over them. In all of Nicodemus’ questions, Jesus remained present with him, not shrinking back to indifference or frustration.

Similarly, as Jesus approached the woman at the well, he answered questions that she did not ask. Jesus did not entertain “How is it that you … ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman”; rather, He responded to her—her as a person, not a question. Because Jesus was fully present, He discerned what was beyond her questions. Jesus responded to the woman, speaking of God’s gifts, eternal satisfaction, repentance, eschatological fulfillment, and proper theology. Jesus did not offer pat answers to assumed questions; He encountered her beyond what was naturally heard, addressing the person and not just her questions.

Jesus listened for the opportunity to confound the true seeker, the one who genuinely desires transformation. With Nicodemus, Jesus answered him with enough information that later wooed him to return without fear or consequence. It should not be a surprise that when we encounter Nicodemus later in John’s narrative, we see him defending Jesus (7:50) and later following Him (19:39).

These two episodes offer many applications; however, there cannot be an application that suggests a solidified foundation that allows easy answers. In both of these meetings, Jesus allows Himself to be interrupted, offering Nicodemus and the woman at the well a face-to-face encounter. He does not begin with “Nicodemus is a ruler of the Jews and deserves more/less attention”; or, “The woman at the well is an imprudent strumpet and will continue just as she did in the past.” So, Jesus did not leave room for sarcasm, scorn, or patronization. Jesus offers the seeker a personal encounter, a face-to-face event, and His full involvement, hearing what is not said and answering what is not asked.

These texts demand readers to elevate the person in their presence more than the principle or predetermined answer in their back pockets. Jesus leads His reader to listen with discerning ears and respond with carful lips. These two examples offer a way for people to communicate genuinely without manipulation, elevating the other in a way that offers transformation. This kind of response takes purposeful prayer, discerning ears, and patient lips.

These two encounters offer many obvious applications for the believer and nonbeliever’s interactions; but, can these passages offer applications for the husband and wife, or the parent and child? Absolutely!

As I sit here writing this article, I realize that this challenge is difficult, especially since I have six kids, varying in ages from 7 to 18, and have been married to my wonderful wife for more than 20 years. This way of thinking and acting demands more than I would like to give. It demands me to listen patiently, allowing my children to interrupt me, giving them the space for a personal event to occur, a face-to-face encounter different from other events or encounters. I cannot retreat to all the previous events and previous answers the same way as I did before. I have to be prayerfully patient and courageous without retorting, “This is the same thing your sister did or the same situation your brother was in when….” I must allow each event to take me, which demands my full involvement to hear what is not said, and answer what is not asked. This is challenging because pat answers are not allowed, but the elevation of the one asking the question is. This way of acting allows the child to be heard and respected in a transformational way (not necessarily their transformation—perhaps mine).

More than just my encounters with my children, this way of acting demands my full involvement with my wife, especially when she has a personal challenge or a vision that scares me out of my comforting shackles. Perhaps I might desire to manipulate her questions in order to abscond from my responsibilities or my involvement in the challenge or vision before me. Perhaps I may have an answer before the question is articulated; this is neither prayerful nor courageous. She may be asking me a surface-level question, but I am to hear prayerfully and courageously, allowing an encounter to interrupt me for a transformational encounter.

Proverbs demands one to seek wisdom, the kind of wisdom that transforms. This kind of wisdom begins in an imbalance, forcing me to encounter challenging people with courage, leaving no room for pat answers, sarcasm, indifference, or manipulation; demanding me to listen to people without becoming immune to their needs.