“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” – Proverbs 15:1
This past Spring, my house became practically infested with earwigs.
If you don’t know what earwigs are, they’re little black bugs no more than an inch long. But they have a pincer attached to their abdomen which they like to raise up in a defensive posture. Look up a picture. They’re gross.
At first, we didn’t see many. And my wife and I were sure to hastily dispose of the ones we did. But because we live so near to Lake Huron and have a cement basement that floods every time we get a hard rain, our house became the perfect environment for these bugs to inhabit. And at a certain point, it became unusual for us to not see an earwig on at least one wall each time we entered a new room. But sticky traps were bought and set. Anti-insect spray was utilized around the outside perimeter and basement floor of our house. And after a Saturday morning spend searching out and eradicating nests, our earwig problem thankfully disappeared.
For those of you who don’t like bugs, I’m sure that story was unsettling. But that’s exactly the feeling I wished to evoke at the start of this blog post. Because, it’s unsettling that certain sins work in a similar way to that of an earwig infestation. Sometimes it is obvious that we are missing the mark. Certain temptations are invited in right through our front doors. But there are other types of sins that can be harder to figure out how they’ve entered into our lives unless we thoroughly investigate. They are just there one day, and if we’re not careful to find their origin, we can easily become infested.
Wrath, often times, is one of those second types.
A Wrathful Type of Christianity
In an essay printed in the New York Times titled “Isn’t It Outrageous,” Tim Kreider describes how he came to recognize alluring nature of outrage. Anger is addictive and outrage feels good. But over time, Kreider explains that they have the power to devour us from the inside out.
There are acceptable forms of anger, of course. But when such emotions aren’t used to mobilize us toward justice, they often take on malicious properties. We can even get hooked to feelings of resentment much like a drug addict can get addicted to their drug of choice. And in our search for our next anger-induced “high,” we might be tempted to blow things out of proportion or to fabricate outrage where there is none.
What’s more distressing, however, is that certain institutions have begun to market this. As a cartoonist and essayist by profession, Kreider has inside knowledge on how the newspaper and tabloid industry pumps out material to feed our need for outrage and keep us coming back for more. And in his short essay, his details this to troubling effect.
But as a pastor by profession, I think that such practices are also used from the pulpit, too.
In fact, there seems to be a whole catalog of acceptable wrath-filled topics and phrases that many Christians draw from quite regularly. And whether we are aware of what we’re doing or not, the outcome of such has produced results similar to that of the institutions Kreider highlighted.
Many Christians have become addicted to wrath. And many pastors have learned how to fuel this addiction rather well.
Think about how many times you have heard sermons warning congregants against the dangers of “society.” Think about how many comments you have heard about the agenda of particular outsider groups supposedly poised to destroy Christianity. Think about the off-the-cuff remarks that are sometimes made like “this generation is going to hell in a handbasket” and “we’re close to the end times now” when something doesn’t go the way we hoped it would. Think about the individuals and groups the Church has villainized throughout the years. Billy Graham warned us against the dangers of Communism and the Marxists who were out to get us. Francis Schaeffer warned us against the dangers of Darwinism and the Evolutionists out to get us. And more recently, the Southern Baptist Convention has warned us against the dangers of Critical Theory and the race theorists who are out to corrupt our minds.
Again, there is such a thing as good outrage.
It’s healthy to be suspicious of any ideology. And there certainly are dangers within society. However, when we use anger and fear as tools against certain ideologies, we often personify, or even make caricatures of, the entire group of people who follow them. Our warnings against evolution become attacks against evolutionists, and so on.
But this never produces very healthy results. We do gain a hollow validation for our beliefs. We might also foster a greater sense of solidarity with those in our communities who feel a similar despise. But we gain these things only at the shared expense of our wrath against others. And consequently, we put up metaphorical roadblocks in the way of genuine empathy and understanding.
This is a subtle form of violence.
It’s an earwig that’s snuck in through the damp basement of our faith.
Proverbs 15:1 and Wrathfulness
There is a maxim recorded in Proverbs 15 that might help us think a bit more constructively on this subject. It’s quoted at the beginning of this blog post, but here’s Proverbs 15:1 again:
“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
This proverb appears within a loose grouping of related maxims that mostly deal with irresponsible language. 15:1-2 and 7 discuss the use of our words, and the effect they can have on those listening. 15:4 links careful speech to a fruitful life, but foolish speech to a destructive life. 15:3 reminds us that the LORD cares about our conduct; and it seems like the editor of this list understood God’s attention to be particularly focused on righteous or wicked language by placing 15:3 within this structural context. But it’s 15:1 that is especially helpful for our context now.
Proverbs 15:1 presents its reader a choice. They can offer up a gentle answer in response to a conflict they are facing which might de-escalate the situation. Or they can react in hot anger which will assuredly make the conflict escalate. But conflict doesn’t happen on just the interpersonal level. It can happen on a community level. And individuals, but especially leaders within a community can use their language to stir up or de-escalate conflict on a larger corporate scale, too. This type of setting is also in view within this proverb.
If anger, outrage, and wrath are addicting, harsh words might be exactly what leaders wish to utilize in order to rile up their followers. By leaning into anger, they can stoke the flames of their community’s resentment in order to create solidarity around a shared hatred. But, according to Proverbs 15:1, this is outside the bounds of what the LORD wants for his people. Anger, outrage, and wrath should be replaced with soft words, a gentle spirit, and kindness.
It’s peacemakers that are called the children of God, not agitators.
So, before we are tempted to preach or teach that particular point in our sermon, or make that comment to our friends, or even post that meme on our social media accounts, we should seriously consider the intention behind the words that we use.
Is the fruit of our message producing love? Or is it producing division and disunity, even against people we don’t like or who aren’t like us?
Do the words that we speak, or type, absolutely necessitate the exclusion or the belittling of someone else? And if so, are our words really in line with what the LORD would wish us to say?
Wrath is addictive.
And wrath is a sin that sneaks through the cracks in the cement of a damp basement, not through the front door. This means that we need to be careful to hunt wrath out lest we become infested.
 1 John 4:7-21