King Solomon's Mines: Keep calm and try a soft answer
Three years ago I was in Harare, Zimbabwe to give some church presentations. After checking into my hotel I took an afternoon walk along the streets of the busy capital.
Impressed at the architectural style of one of the buildings in the city centre I began taking pictures. Suddenly, I heard someone shouting: “Hey! Hey! Hey you!” I turned around and found myself looking straight into the furious eyes of a soldier. He was armed with a rifle and he angrily pointed it at me. Then he began jabbing the muzzle of his rifle into my chest and yelled “This is a security area – you are forbidden to take pictures!”
I was shocked. A security area in the middle of town? I was embarrassed. People were stopping and staring. The situation was tense but strangely I did not feel afraid. I calmly said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know this was a security area. I won’t take any more pictures.” The soldier’s aggressive rant continued but the louder he shouted the more I lowered my voice. Again I apologized. Then a strange thing happened. He slowly lowered his volume (and his rifle!), changed his tone of voice, and listened to me rather than attack me. Within a few minutes we were having quite a pleasant discussion which concluded with him giving me directions to the local bookstore!
As I walked away and returned to my hotel a well known proverb kept on reverberating in my mind: “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). In one bizarre incident I had experienced a dramatic illustration of Solomon’s wise words. I also recalled praying a specific prayer that morning which I will share with you later.
Practising the soft answer is the opposite to what our culture teaches us. We are urged to ‘let our feelings out’ and ‘say what we feel.’ Proverbs 15:1 seems to be encouraging us to be doormats. But any fool can yell or insult. It takes far more character to meet an angry person with calmness and gentleness. This is about being Christ-like in our ordinary daily lives (1John 4:17). But isn’t that easier said than done? I have learned (and am still learning!) some valuable lessons when dealing with an angry person and applying the soft answer.
Returning Like for Like
Have you noticed that when you try to fight somebody they fight you back? If they are using cutting remarks, we’ll try to cut them down. If they raise their voice or shout, we raise our voice louder. Everyone wants to get the last word in, making one last point or throwing one last jab. But if we just let down our defences and don’t try to prove them wrong and don’t be aggressive towards them they often just calm down. Many an argument can be stirred up or defused by the kind of answer we give.
I have also learned that often we are not angry about what we think we’re angry about. That crazy driver who just cut you off today didn’t wake up this morning with the intention of driving you off the road! He doesn’t even know you but he knows his wife and he’s furious with her. You just happened to be in his way! The intensity of this anger can often be out of proportion to the significance of the event that prompts it. Common sense is replaced with anger, frustration, disappointments and animosity towards the wrong people - thus the road-raged driver, the rude customer in the checkout queue, or the yelling boss. It’s not really you they are angry with so don’t take their anger personally!
As A Man Thinks In His Heart So Is He
If we desire to respond to an angry person with the soft answer, our heart needs to be right in the first place. Sooner or later, our thoughts will usually be manifested in our words and behaviour. Proverbs 16:23 teaches us that “A wise man’s heart guides his mouth” Like a bucket draws water from a well, so the tongue dips down and pours out whatever is in the heart. If the source is clean, that is what the tongue communicates. If it is contaminated, again, the tongue will expose it. If our mind is contaminated with bitter and angry thoughts our knee-jerk reaction to an angry person will be harsh, offensive and retaliatory. Garbage in garbage out! Instead, meditate on Proverbs 15:1. Memorise it. Write it down so you can regularly see it. Internalise it. Solomon says “Don’t lose sight of my words. Let them penetrate deep within your heart, for they bring life and radiant health to anyone who discovers their meaning” (Proverbs 4:21-22 NLT).
Whenever we encounter someone who is angry we have a choice as to how we respond to them. But it is not the choice to try and make in our own strength. This brings me to my prayer: “Father, place your thoughts in my mind. Put your words on my tongue so that your words become my words. In your grace enable me to be Jesus to others today.”
Angry people come into our lives at the most unexpected times. Be prepared.