A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger."-Proverbs 15:1
The whole world stopped, or so it seemed in that instant, to watch this woman throwing things at me in the grocery store. She screamed and cursed and cried as she vented in rage, and nothing I said sank in or slowed down the torrent. Eventually she did stop throwing things, but the yelling continued. She was telling everyone-at the top of her lungs-how I'd just fired her husband at Christmas and now she couldn't even buy groceries for her children.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what the folks in the crowd were thinking about me as they listened to her tirade. Some were people I knew; most were faces I didn't recognize, but I was still stunned and stung and deeply embarrassed by this woman's accusations and behavior, and I desperately wanted to defend myself.
Should I yell back? Tell the world, or at least the part of it watching this drama, that I fired her husband because he'd been stealing-a lot! That my "Christmas charity" to her family was convincing the owners not to press criminal charges? Any first-year law student or experienced human resource manager can tell you, I couldn't legally do any of that, but legal concerns weren't the overriding emotion I was feeling at the moment. I was embarrassed and angry and even feeling guilty because I knew she wasn't lying: She probably couldn't buy groceries. Worse, as I listened to her rant, it became obvious her husband hadn't even told her why he was fired; just that he was fired. So from her perspective, I really was worse than Scrooge.
What would you do if you were there in my place?
How should we respond when faced with unfair situations, or when confronted by angry, hurt, misguided, or even mean-spirited attackers?
It's not a rhetorical question, either, because it is, in fact, the defining characteristic of an evangelical follower of Jesus Christ in this era: How we respond to attacks and insults. People everywhere are under intense pressure, and they're looking for places to vent their fears and anxieties and anger. And they're doing it in road rage episodes, in ballot-box stunners, in workplace violence outbursts and any of a dozen other places. People are mad at each other, mad at their leaders, mad at their church, mad at themselves, and even mad at God.
"Why" they say (or shout) "would a good God let things get this bad?" And woe to any Christian who tries to answer their question, because they don't want an answer: They just want to vent. In fact, they need to vent.
What Jesus modeled for us, indeed, what Scripture teaches us, is honor goes to the man or woman with the courage to hold their fire under even the most withering of assaults. "Turn the other cheek." "A soft answer turns away wrath." "Blessed are the meek.""Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult." On and on and on it goes, stamped with an air of authenticity because Jesus didn't just preach it, He lived it. Standing before the Jewish leaders of the Sanhedrin with the most horrible of deaths ahead of Him, He resisted the urge to lash out verbally, or to call down angels from heaven to crush the arrogant accusers.
On nearly every front today, people who call themselves believers are responding to pressure and assault by fighting fire with fire, by launching attacks of their own.
It is right to stand up for Jesus; it is right to draw a line between ethical and unethical behavior; it is right to defend those not able to defend themselves, born or unborn; it is right to speak up and express dissent against unrighteousness or inequity. But how we stand up, how we draw that line, how we defend, how we speak up, is the most important testimony we Christians have to offer our world today.
And here's the payoff: The world is looking for that person holding that belief that so strengthens them that nothing moves them from their place. We have that Rock; we have that Hope. We must stop letting ourselves be carried away in the river of emotions that are sweeping whole groups of people in lemming-like mob mentality down the canyons of anger and retribution.
We must be the ones who stand in the middle of that raging torrent unmoved because God has our back. Not only that, but we must stand and speak in quiet voices words of comfort and concern without a wisp of doubt or whining. It's why the author of the Book of Revelation calls us Overcomers.
In the grocery store that morning, nothing I said was going to stop the woman's fear-filled rant, but there were a lot of things I could have said to make it worse. I tried twice to find "soft words" to turn away her wrath, but that wasn't working. Then God helped me see her through His eyes, and compassion overcame my embarrassment.
I walked away.