A Gentle Answer

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Throughout July we’re taking an in-depth look at Proverbs, the Bible’s one-of-a-kind book about our never-ending need for wisdom.

A few weeks ago I had a close call with a guy driving a pickup truck.

I had arranged to meet an old friend for lunch at a local restaurant.  But I had tried to squeeze one too many errands into my morning, and found myself sitting at a red light still a quarter mile from my goal, already 10 minutes late. 

When the light changed I was ready to hit the accelerator.  But the pickup truck in front of me just sat there.  The driver was probably distracted.  The comedian George Carlin used to say that other drivers fall into two groups – those who driver faster than me and those who drive slower.  The former are maniacs.  The latter are idiots.  

This idiot in the pickup wasn’t moving, so I just whipped around him as fast as I could.  I didn’t break any laws.  On the other hand, I didn’t display the slightest iota of patience or grace.  In a rush to get to the restaurant, I hardly gave it a second thought – that is, until I looked in my rear view mirror and noticed the truck had closed in on my bumper.

Hmm, I thought.  That can’t be good. 

Nor was it good that the truck followed me into the left-hand turn lane.  And then stayed right on my bumper when I turned left yet again, this time into the general area of the restaurant.  When I pulled into a parking spot beside the eatery and the truck stopped directly behind me, I began to imagine that evening’s local news headline:  Road Rage Reverend Finally Gets His

I walked straight to the driver’s side of the truck.  The guy had rolled down his window.  I was glad to see he wasn’t holding a gun.  But he was definitely ready to unleash what would no doubt be a memorable communication. 

I spoke first.  “That was incredibly rude of me,” I said.  “I should never have pulled around you like that.  Because I didn’t plan ahead I’m about to disappoint an old friend of mine” – here I gestured to the restaurant – “and I just lost it.  I’m so sorry I was a jerk.” 

The other driver opened his mouth.  But nothing came out.  I walked off to meet my friend, and the Zionsville police had one less domestic incident to file.

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1) 

Proverbs may well be 3,000 years old.  But its relational advice is as fresh as every new morning.  As long as people have been compelled to share highways, family rooms, bedrooms, and boardrooms, there have been moments of anger.  The ancient Hebrews were well acquainted with insights that have only recently been confirmed by extensive research.

It matters, for instance, what happens in the opening minutes of a confrontation.

John Gottman and his associates at the Marriage Lab in Seattle have confirmed that difficult encounters usually begin and end at the same emotional temperature.  If things start hot, they usually end up hot (if not incandescent).  If things begin cool – what we might call a “soft start” – they usually finish that way, too.  It matters what we say and what we don’t say when it’s time to enter a crucial conversation.

One of the anger-management fads at the end of the 20th century was called “ventilationism.”  Anger was pictured as magma trapped inside a human volcano.  Therapists advised people to release their raging emotions by screaming, cursing, or “venting” at the objects of their displeasure.  You might recall images of conflicted couples on marriage retreats whacking each other with foam bats. 

The reasoning was that people would ultimately dispel all their built-up anger, which would prevent a Mt. St. Helens eruption. 

That theory, as it turned out, was seriously flawed.  Dozens of follow-up studies have confirmed that ventilationism doesn’t reduce anger.  It multiples it.  As you might guess, the spouse or co-worker or neighbor who gets “vented upon” doesn’t particularly enjoy the experience, and often finds herself thinking, “Just wait until it’s my turn.”

This was something the author of Proverbs foresaw a long time ago:  “Fools givevent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.” (29:11)

Which brings us back to the next time you’re facing a boiling cauldron of negative emotions. 

Stop and think.  Don’t let anger, yours or someone else’s, win the day.  A gentle answer turns away wrath

Be humble.  Admit where you’re in the wrong.  As Paul told his New Testament readers, overcome evil with good. 

You can always take comfort in this:

It’s highly unlikely you’re as scary a driver as I am.