It is painfully obvious that alongside the Covid-19 pandemic, there is another epidemic ravaging the United States, one affecting the spirit rather than the body. The symptoms include irrational claims, toxic misinformation, vicious tribalism, oppressive suspicion, malevolent gossip, intense polarization and hateful speech. Like Covid-19, this disease of the spirit is no respecter of persons, infecting people of all ages, situations and political persuasions. Unfortunately, even American Christians are proving to be vulnerable.
Secular speculation abounds as to the nature of this sickness of the soul and its causes. While many of those observations may be helpful, Christians should begin by embracing the teaching and vocabulary of the Scriptures. Hence this study of people whom the Bible describes as fools.
This is a difficult topic to address well, because mindlessly condemning people as foolish is, itself, a mark of foolishness. Jesus famously warned us not to call people “fools” as a name-calling expression of frustrated anger (Matthew 5:21-22). Yet, Jesus himself called people fools three times—Matthew 23:17 and Luke 11:40 for leaders who maintained that they were models of virtue when their lifestyle betrayed hypocrisy, and Luke 12:20 in a parable about a man who thought that economic success is more important than being right with God. Jesus was not being snarky. There is a difference between hurling insults and exposing seriously afflicted souls. Jesus apparently thought that fools are dangerous, especially when they appear successful or are entrusted with leadership.
The word “fool” translates several different Biblical terms, and the English word can be used in different ways. But Jesus’ use reflects a very specific Old Testament meaning carefully developed by the wisest author on record. In the Book of Proverbs, Solomon gives considerable space to recognizing and dealing with the same sickness of the soul that today is choking the life out of America and spreading in Christ’s church. We need to listen and we need to understand.
Here is a list of Solomon’s observations, each paired with a simple paraphrase of what it says about a fool. For ease of reference, verses are listed in the order they appear in Proverbs.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction (1:7).
Fools do not value humility or being taught, especially by God.
How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? (1:22).
Fools enjoy mocking ideas they do not understand.
The wise of heart will receive commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin (10:8).
Fools always have reasons why the rules don’t apply to them.
The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near (10:14).
Fools freely speak in ignorance, putting other people in danger.
Doing wrong is like a joke to a fool, but wisdom is pleasure to a man of understanding (10:23).
Fools think it clever to get away with doing or saying something naughty or immoral.
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice (12:15).
Fools inflexibly justify themselves in the face of reasonable critique.
The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult (12:16).
Fools openly obsess over opposition against them.
Every prudent man acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly (13:16).
Fools boast of their actions, even when they are not justified by facts.
A desire fulfilled is sweet to the soul, but to turn away from evil is an abomination to fools (13:19).
Fools are adamantly opposed to admitting bad behavior, even when that undercuts what they want.
The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving (14:8).
Fools gain a following by manipulating rather than analyzing the facts.
Fools mock at the guilt offering, but the upright enjoy acceptance (14:9).
Fools think that confessing a fault is stupid, even when others know better.
One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless (14:16).
Fools make snap evaluations and decisions that often promote wickedness.
The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly (15:2).
Fools confidently claim things that have no relationship to what is factually true.
Good sense is a fountain of life to him who has it, but the instruction of fools is folly (16:22).
Fools give advice that is unhealthy.
A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool (17:10).
Fools stubbornly reject valid criticism.
The discerning man sets his face toward wisdom, but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth (17:24).
Fools ignore proper responses to immediate needs, and instead focus on vague, far-flung schemes.
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion (18:2).
Fools are more interested in having their thoughts admired, than actually making sense.
A fool’s lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating (18:6).
Fools intentionally stimulate conflict.
A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul (18:7).
Fools damage their own souls by believing the nonsense they affirm.
Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool (19:1).
Fools are willing to distort the truth in pursuit of their goal.
Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly (26:11).
Fools repeat the same disgusting statements or actions over and over.
Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him (26:12).
Fools who actually believe their own foolishness are the least likely to change.
A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty, but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both (27:3).
Fools make people’s lives miserable.
Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his folly will not depart from him (27:22).
Fools will not change, regardless of how much adversity their foolishness creates.
Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered (28:26).
Fools rely solely on their instincts, and it doesn’t work out well.
A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back (29:11).
Fools simply cannot control their tongue.
Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him (29:20).
Fools court disaster when they will not waver from ill-conceived opinions which they made public.
Everyone acts foolishly from time to time. That does not make a person a fool. The point of reviewing Proverbs is to see that from a Biblical perspective, a fool is not defined by taste or disagreement over issues. People can be passionate without being foolish. According to Solomon, fools are people who regularly spin facts, boldly assert falsehoods, care only for their own opinions, defend themselves through attack and confusion, and all the rest.
We should love and care for fools as we would anyone created in God’s image. But they are spiritual health hazards and must be treated as such. I can’t help but notice how Solomon’s best practices for dealing with fools strangely resemble our battle with a pandemic.
Practice social distancing
Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge (14:7).
Let a man meet a she-bear robbed of her cubs rather than a fool in his folly (17:12).
It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling (20:3).
Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the good sense of your words (23:9).
If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet (29:9).
These five proverbs urge us to actively and intentionally avoid engaging with fools. Engagement will only result in fruitless quarreling. A fool will use the occasion to act out. He or she will be allergic to sound reasoning, and aggressively make those who disagree objects of rage and scorn. When we give fools an occasion to spew out their foolishness, we risk infecting others.
For our own personal protection, we must recognize that close and extended exposure to fools can lead to our own infection.
Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm (13:20).
The wise inspire wisdom in others, while fools infect others with foolishness. Their toxic speech is virus-like in its ability to spread, weakening the character of all who listen. Solomon tells us to purposefully distance ourselves from fools. That doesn’t mean that we stop caring for their needs and their feelings, or stop working with them for common cause. It means that we dare not assume the truthfulness or wisdom of anything they say.
We should explore life and seek guidance from the most Christlike people we can find. Give fools genuine love and care, but do not make them your companions or guides in your search for truth. Six feet of separation may not be enough.
Filter what comes out of our mouths
Of course, engaging with fools is often unavoidable and even necessary. They may be old acquaintances, coworkers or even family. They may pop up any time in online discussions. How are we to interact?
Solomon artfully answers that question in two consecutive verses:
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself (26:4).
Do not let a fool goad your response, lest you argue on his level and only spread the infection.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes (26:5).
Frame your response according to the foolishness being spouted, addressing the issues wisely—rationally, calmly, clearly, factually and graciously. This reduces the spread of infection.
Doing these things will not end the spiritual epidemic in our nation, but it will flatten the curve.
The most dangerous fools are those in positions of authority who influence large groups. They are capable of infecting multitudes.
Of course, in a free society, we have some influence over who is honored or given power, whether in business, education, entertainment, science, religion or government. Solomon warned that when we give power to fools, we bear responsibility for the consequences.
Like one who binds the stone in the sling is one who gives honor to a fool (26:8).
Like an archer who wounds everyone is one who hires a passing fool or drunkard (26:10).
Solomon says that entrusting a fool with power is like hiring a drunken man as a security guard. He will promise to protect what is precious to you, but once armed, he will unpredictably shoot at anything. It’s what fools do. That is why, when I choose to raise up a fool, I become partly responsible for the widespread damage he or she inflicts from the platform I gave them.
As the coronavirus decimates the economy and attacks the vulnerable, a spreading plague of foolishness is literally destroying the nation we have loved. We must intentionally implement Solomon’s best practices for the good of our nation: practice social distancing from fools, filter what comes out of our own mouths in response, and do what we can to isolate super-spreaders from positions of broad influence.
Most importantly, Christians must not succumb to this spiritual epidemic. Jesus calls and empowers us to be humble, most sensitive to our own sin, meek, hungry to live what is right, merciful, pure, peacemaking, and willing to be despised by others who reject these things (Matthew 5:1-12). Christ’s Spirit in us manifests healthy love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
Following Jesus does not mean avoiding conflict. It means that we do not let fools set our tone or agenda. No speech, blog, news report, tweet or post … no poll, rumor or viral video … no personal opinion or national threat justifies a Christian imitating anyone but Jesus Christ.
Biblically-defined foolishness is the outward symptom of a deadly soul infection, a virulent plague of fear and arrogance resulting in enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions and divisions. I take no joy in reminding us that those who refuse to treat this disease will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:20-21).
The treatment is not difficult, not hard to obtain and not expensive (it has already been purchased for us on the cross). The remedy is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the amazing grace of God that rescued even me. We must inject more gospel whenever we see symptoms of foolishness in ourselves. We must offer the gospel when we see symptoms in each other. A healthy dose every day will keep us immune.