A Willingness to Suffer Fools Gladly…Or At All

The topic of foolishness – individual and corporate – seems to have come up in random conversations quite a lot lately, and I had taken note of this before David Brooks addressed the topic head-on in his Jan. 3rd editorial in The New York Times (“Suffering Fools Gladly“). For those with an extra five minutes to spend, I can strongly recommend the Brooks article as it points unblushingly to the biblical root of the phrase “suffering fools gladly” and rightly exposes an unwillingness to engage with fools as nothing other than pride.

As you might expect, my go-to source for uncovering foolishness in all its forms is the book of Proverbs. “One of these days,” said the foolish procrastinator, I plan to make good on my intention to highlight (in four different colors) the words “fool,” “wisdom,” “death” and “Sheol” as they appear throughout the book of Proverbs. King Solomon – divinely inspired by the Spirit of God – has left humanity with what I believe to be a highly-underutilized roadmap for uncovering foolishness in ourselves and, secondarily, in others. (Until I take the time to do this, another great means for applying Proverbs to ourselves and others is the Jan Silvious book Foolproofing Your Life; Lynn Roush and I mentioned this book in a prior ESI post.)

So why all the conversations about foolishness of late? I think there are two primary reasons.

  1. Coming out of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, all of us have spent time with other people we are “somehow connected to” without necessarily being “close to.” Annual rituals of affirming the connections that we might otherwise wish to pretend did not exist seems to me fertile soil for focusing on the foolishness and failings of others. Families, of course, bring all manner of historic dysfunction with them to holiday gatherings, but the same can be said for office parties, year-end staff luncheons or any other corporate gathering that puts people at small round dinner tables and asks them to behave as if they were decent human beings. This, of course, is entirely impossible for us to do with any level of consistency, and thus we arrive back at our post-holiday comfort zones with fresh, exciting tales of “Uncle Bob’s” latest episode of silliness, conveniently forgetting all the stupid things we might have said or done.
  2. The other reason, I am convinced, that the New Year tends to elicit conversations about wisdom (or the lack thereof) is that we are all naturally inclined to look back at the previous year and size up where we did well and where we either need improvement…or flat-out messed up. In other words, a New Year’s resolution is more or less an admission that we have not done well, that we have been “fools” in one sense or another. We ate too much, or did not eat the right foods. We talked too much, or we didn’t speak when we should have. Show me your list of New Year’s resolutions, and I can show you where you’ve previously been foolish. You can do the same for me, and odds are very favorable that we can do the exact same thing, God willing, for each other yet again at the start of 2014.

God’s lavish grace to us through Jesus Christ is (of course) the facade-ending liberation that helps us admit that we are all, indeed, fools.

Put another way, once I have grasped how deeply I am truly loved by the God Who made all of creation and upholds it by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3), I am “free” to be a fool, even as I am gently encouraged to do better next time. By leaning into God’s love for me not only as a sinner but also as a fool – often at the very same time – I stop laboring under the debilitating curse of having to prove to others how wise I am. Whatever wisdom I have is derived from God Himself – whether I acknowledge Him or not – so in the seemingly-contradictory moment that I admit I am a fool, I am simultaneously placed on the road to true wisdom. When I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). When I admit foolishness, I am wise. And, it turns out, compassionate, as Brooks’ article notes.

Currently, my wife and I are revving up to begin facilitating another semester of DivorceCare at The Crossing. Doing so serves as a regular “reminder” for both of us that while we might all find it hilarious to make fun of the way in which our uncouth cousin Eddie empties the septic tank of his RV into our local sewer system, it’s worth remembering, I think, that there is a tremendous dark side that comes along with pointing out the foolishness of others without first taking full ownership of our own blindness and weak spots. As I considered what Brooks had to say about the unwillingness others have famously displayed to tolerate foolishness, I found it amazing that he chose to quote G.K. Chesterton speaking directly to the topic as it plays out in marriages:

An obvious instance is that of ordinary and happy marriage. A man and a woman cannot live together without having against each other a kind of everlasting joke. Each has discovered that the other is a fool, but a great fool. This largeness, this grossness and gorgeousness of folly is the thing which we all find about those with whom we are in intimate contact; and it is the one enduring basis of affection, and even of respect.
G.K. Chesterton, Common Sense 101

For whatever this may be worth, I can tell you that some of the greatest laughs I have ever shared with my wife have come “at my expense,” if you will, as she has delivered a perfectly-timed barb that pokes fun at one or more of my own obvious-to-all weaknesses, hang-ups and/or oddities. Typically, she has such a large buffet line of failings to choose from that it is no great feat for her to take me to task on several fronts simultaneously, effectively piling up the laughs one after another. There have been times when she has so expertly torn me asunder that I have been wiping away tears from a fit of sustained laughter. And of course – just to show my love, of course – I will very often return the favor.

Undergirding all of this hilarity, though, is a firm assurance that we absolutely love each other. A bedrock of unswerving commitment to the good of the other is the key to unlocking this sort of tremendous freedom. In a word, it all comes down to a mutual respect, as Chesterton has said.

I suspect that there are many life-giving freedoms which I do not yet fully understand, ways by which Christ has set me free from my previous life of sin, folly and rebellion. I can guess that I will likely be discovering new on-ramps to joy from now until the day I die. That said, I think I can make the strongest-possible case that leaning into – not away from – our own foolishness frees us up to learn at the gracious feet of Jesus and simultaneously offer both respect and compassion to those we love, all of whom will only be relieved to hear that at least one person in their life has resigned their roles as judge and foreman of the jury.

I don’t think it is any coincidence that when we accept our freedom in Christ and arrive at that wonderful place where we can laugh at our foibles – and eagerly allow others to poke fun at them as well – we will look down to find that we are planted in the best-possible soil for real, lasting and loving improvement. And wisdom.

Proverbs 15:1
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Proverbs 29:11
A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man holds quietly back.

Ecclesiastes 10:14
A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be, and who can tell him what will be after him?

Ephesians 4:1-3
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:29-32
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

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