Have you ever dealt with a difficult person with whom you could make zero headway?
No matter what the conflict between you, the other person was right every time, and you were a trouble maker who insisted on making things up in your head that simply were not true?
One night several years ago I started reading through Proverbs for what seemed like the millionth time, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. God was talking about real people in Proverbs. And I could identify them by their actions.
As I combed through all the verses that talked about fools, I realized they were describing the man I was married to.
I felt guilty just thinking those thoughts. Who was I to judge whether or not another person was a fool? That’s serious business.
I didn’t want to believe it might be true. I mean, a fool is a pretty hopeless thing to be, and I cared about my husband and wanted what was best for him. I wanted to make our relationship work, but this was the first time I had ever faced the fact that there was a real possibility my relationship with him could never be close—as long as he insisted on staying in his “foolish” place.
I had believed a sackful of lies for so long. I had allowed another human being to control everything I thought about myself.
If he said I was a ditzhead or “goofy” for feeling the way I did or for seeing things from a different perspective than he did- I believed him.
When I tried to communicate with him, he shut me down by saying things that caused me to feel stupid and bad. If I asked him to stop doing something that was hurtful, he told me I was over-sensitive, overreacting, and mean.
If I disagreed with him, I was ridiculous and silly.
The only way to experience peace with this man was to always agree with him, never give him feedback, never question anything he did, and apologize and ask for forgiveness when I slipped up.
I had to repent of my own sin (which is right and good) as well as for being the cause of their sin. Not so right and good, but he always graciously bestowed forgiveness upon me albeit tucking a few of the worst things away to bring up again when it worked to his advantage to do so.
I’ve always been a sucker for a good guilt trip.
When I tried to talk to him about something I felt needed to change, he became angry and accused me of “always stirring up trouble.” I could not get close to this man, yet I had always believed it was my responsibility as a good Christian to do so.
I felt caught and confused with no way through the maze.
The Bible talks about how to handle people like this. But because of my belief that it would be wrong to label anyone a fool—after all, we are all sinners, right?—I was not able to see the answers to my dilemma.
Let me just clear up a little lie right off the bat. The lie is, “We are all sinners, therefore we have no business evaluating another person’s behaviors.”
The truth is that while we are all sinners, not everyone acknowledges their sin, repents of it, and works to change it.
In a relationship there are always two sinners, but if only one person is willing to admit their sin and work on it, the relationship is not going to function in a healthy way.
In fact, Jan Silvious, author of the book, Foolproofing Your Life, makes the point that it isn’t even a real relationship. It’s simply an arrangement. For a real relationship to develop and grow, it takes two people willing to own their own stuff and work together to meet one another’s needs for acceptance, love, and respect. Will they fail? Absolutely. But conflict and failure are not insurmountable issues as long as there is humility and repentance.
When a fool is involved, there is no humility or repentance. Why? Because, as Jan drills into your head when you read her book, “A fool is always right.” Always. And if the fool is right, what are you? Wrong. Always.
Where does she get this?
Well, it comes from just thinking logically and rationally. Common sense, you know? As in, nobody can be right 100% of the time, and likewise, nobody can be wrong 100% of the time either.
If you believe otherwise, your sanity comes into question. (The word “fool” comes to mind…) But she also gets it from an even more reliable source than human common sense.
She gets it from the Bible.
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes but a wise man is he who listens to counsel.Proverbs 12:15
So can we know what a fool is, for sure? Does God want us to figure this out?
Of course He does. There are different ways of dealing with different kinds of people. We don’t call out a loud greeting to someone in the morning. We don’t laugh around a sad person. We treat the elderly with respect. And we don’t throw pearls to swine.
So let’s look at what Proverbs says about fools, and you can think about the difficult people in your own life and decide whether or not you are dealing with a fool and what strategies you might employ if you are.
And by the way, before we start, one thing Jan is quick to point out is that everyone has foolish behaviors here and there. But not everyone is a Biblical fool.
So again, the way to tell a fool from someone who behaves foolishly now and then is that the fool is never wrong—ever. A fool will never say, “Oh wow. I behaved like a fool there. I’m so sorry. That must have really hurt you. Can you forgive me? How can I make that up to you?“
So if you wonder, “Am I a fool?” You’re probably not. A fool would never wonder that. A fool would never consider the possibility they could be a fool. If they did, they would be on the road to recovery from fooldom.
The sad thing is, while recognition, recovery, and change are possible for a fool, they are rare. And you can hold out for decades if you want to, but God will never force a human being to do what is right. He gives everyone the freedom to choose.
1. A fool will not accept feedback. (See verse above.)
They will make excuses. They will blame someone else. They will deny that they did anything. They will withhold information. They will accuse. They will change the subject. But they will not “listen to counsel.“
A wise man does that. But the fool doesn’t because the fool is always right, and that means that you are always wrong. Remember?
2. A fool puts himself in the place of God.
A fool doesn’t need God because they trust in their own heart. Their heart knows what is best. The world revolves around them and what they believe to be right and true.
If you bring a different perspective to the table, or even a different memory of how an event “went down,” you are wrong. Their interpretation is always the real one, of course.
He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, but he who walks wisely will be delivered.Proverbs 28:26
Fools are often very charming and warm when they want to be. They can be generous and kind. They want you to be in their world.
But once you are there, they begin to grow irritable until they either explode or draw you into a communication trap. You are left trying to figure out what you did that caused the chaos, and you try to fix it for next time. The fool gets charming again, and the whole cycle starts over. Nothing is really fixed.
3. The fool reveals his character through his mouth.
A fool does not delight in understanding but only revealing what is in his own mind.Proverbs 18:2
A fool’s lips bring strife and his mouth calls for blows.Proverbs 18:6
A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are the snare of his soul.Proverbs 18:7
A fool lives in their own world. Your world is irrelevant. Your perspective or viewpoint means nothing. In fact, in their universe you are just a plastic LEGO character who much do and say whatever he says you must do and say. (And they will have quite the tantrum if you actually show up like a real human with your own ideas and opinions.)
Their entitlement attitude reveals itself in their body language as well as the things they say and do. They insist their opinion is the only right one. Their way, the only right way.
When Proverbs says their “lips bring strife and their mouth calls for blows,” that means they stir up emotional chaos and confusion that “calls for blows” with the things they say and the way they say them.
In other words, the person dealing with the fool often has strong feelings of wanting to box them between the ears. (Hey, I didn’t say it. God did.)
For some of you this will be a huge relief. This doesn’t mean we should box a fool between the ears, but it does mean that God understands and acknowledges the reality of how we can feel at times in our interactions with our fools.
He “gets” that crazy, confusing, chaotic feeling. I believe He is compassionate toward those who are stuck dealing with a fool on a regular basis.
You may not get any compassion or understanding from anyone else, but I promise you’ve got it from God.
We all behave foolishly at times, and it often follows on the heels of an interaction with a fool. We hate our sin, and we work toward eradicating it from our repertoire of behavior.
But a fool continues unrelentingly in his foolishness without ever truly confessing or repenting. For them, it’s a chronic problem. That’s the point of the last verse above. His mouth actually brings about his ruin and snares his soul. This is tragic.
4. The fool creates chaos and devalues you.
When a wise man has a controversy with a foolish man the foolish man either rages or laughs and there is no rest.Proverbs 29:9
Rage is anger, and when they laugh at you, call you silly, goofy, ridiculous or something similar, they are scoffing at you. Both of these behaviors demonstrate they are devaluing and dishonoring you as a fellow human being made in the image of God.
Your feelings and thoughts are insignificant because you are insignificant to the fool.
Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who returns to his folly.Proverbs 26:11
A fool will keep repeating their foolish behaviors because they refuse to accept feedback and see their behavior in its true light. They deflect all responsibility onto others.
This in itself creates much of the pain you find in your relationship with a fool. No controversy is ever solved.
There is no “meeting of the minds” because your mind is as nothing in the mind of the fool. There is no closure in any discussion because the conversation always ends the same.
Your fool is right and you are wrong. (Just in case you forgot.)
5. The fool controls others through anger.
A fool always loses his temper.Proverbs 29:11
A fool is unable to control their emotions. They will often even deny they have negative emotions because they are right and trust their hearts.
Their angry behavior may be overt or covert.
We all recognize overt anger, but here are some examples of covert anger: irritability, withholding information, questioning what you say, arguing, disagreeable, rolling eyes, scoffing, mean looks, silent treatment, refusing to answer questions, pretending not to understand, criticizing, accusing, and blaming.
Covert anger is very difficult to pin down or prove, but if you are around someone like this on a regular basis, you know how it feels to be treated this way.
Over time it destroys who you are and damages your soul. It causes emotional trauma that takes years to heal from.
6. A fool creates heavy burdens in relationships.
A stone is heavy and sand is weighty, but the provocation of a fool is heavier than both of them.Proverbs 27:3
Jan says that when you are up close and personal with a fool, you cannot be up close and personal with God. The fool is all consuming. He will emotionally yank your chain whenever you begin to get your equilibrium with the Lord. That’s why it is important to learn how to deal with a fool properly.
They WILL NEVER CHANGE. You need to change.
Jan points out that getting close to a fool is like hugging a fan. It will slice you up. Don’t do it.
He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion (“he who grazes in the same pasture with”) of fools (“stubborn, dull, and arrogant”) will suffer harm (this word actually means “destroyed”).Proverbs 13:20
The fool doesn’t care about anything unless it works for them.
A fool may give nice presents at Christmas or do good deeds like fix up the house or take you on a trip or give you flowers or take you out. They are looking to get something in return. Your trust and affection.
When they appear loving, it throws you off balance. We crave relationship with them, so we take the “love” or the nice things they do and warm up to them. We get close to the “fan.”
But you know what happens next, right?
Why do we need those trips or flowers or presents? Do we worship our dream of having a good relationship with this other person more than we worship God? Do we worship the good things that come with the person rather than being willing to let go of those things and keep our eyes on Jesus, knowing that He is all we need?
Sometimes, especially in Christian circles, a fool will use religion to control you. They aren’t interested in a wise dialogue or discussion. They are often masters of spewing forth isolated Scripture verses to drench you with guilt and shame. To shut you up.
But what does God say about this?
Leave the presence of a fool, or you will not discern words of knowledge. (NAS)Proverbs 14:7
Fools will tie you up in confusing little knots with their foolish twisting of Scripture and spinning of words. God says to get away from them.
Life is foggy enough without having a well-oiled fog machine by your side.
I’ll bet many of you reading this are beginning to realize you have at least one fool in your life. It might be an adult child. A friend. A relative. A spouse. So the loaded question is, “What in the world am I supposed to do?”
I’ve tried having mutual conversations with my spouse, but we never get anywhere. He’s always right. My opinions matter little to him. He tends to dismiss and minimize any of my concerns. Every attempt on my part to engage in a meeting of the minds is met with either hostility or laughter. I often leave conversations feeling guilty. Like I did something wrong to even bring up an issue. I often feel confused and stuck. What do I do?
The second half of Jan’s book is geared toward helping the “fool’s companion” deal with their fool in a wise rather than foolish manner. All quotes below are taken from this last section, and here’s how she introduces it:
When I listen to these sad tales, the question that always comes to my mind is, What will it take for this “companion of a fool” to stop doing the same things over and over again? A wise person’s definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” My heart cries out, When will you stop giving your life away in little pieces? When will you assume responsibility for the life God has given you? The only way to foolproof your life is to stop being foolish yourself.Foolproofing Your Life by Jan Silvious
To come to a place where you can handle a fool wisely, you need to come to understand and believe some things.
1. Correcting a fool never works.
A man of great anger shall bear the penalty, for if you rescue him, you will only have to do it again.Proverbs 19:19
One of the reasons we keep trying to get through to our fools is that we believe that if we could just come up with the right words or the right way to say them, our fool will finally “get it” and change. The light bulbs will turn on. They’ll cry out, “Oh! NOW I GET IT! I will change my foolish ways!”
The Bible says, “Understanding is a fountain of life to him who has it, but the discipline of fools is folly” (Proverbs 16:22, NASB). In other words, any attempt to correct a fool is useless because “discipline” is foolishness to one who despises wisdom, mocks at guilt, and starts quarrels. This is the great dividing line: If discipline does nothing to change the fool, then your focus must be on you and your “understanding.” Wisdom must become your goal and your hope. It must be your safe haven and your delight.Foolproofing Your Life by Jan Silvious
2. You have to change your game plan.
“Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are.” (Proverbs 26:4 New Living Translation)
Change for you means that you stop doing what you’ve always done, and you do something different. One of the first things you need to change about yourself is how you think about your situation with your fool.
A doctor friend of mine described what had happened to them this way: “When you relate to a fool, it’s not just irritating or abrasive; it will alter who you are. I work on furniture, and if I want to get rid of small imperfections or smooth out a rough place, I use a fine sandpaper, something that is coated with many small, fine grains. I think of those abrasive grains of sand as the people God uses in our lives to help us grow. Their presence is a challenge that we are better for having overcome. They are people who are different than we are, and as we emotionally rub against them, they help us get rid of some of our imperfections. We can be better for having interacted with them even if the situation wasn’t pleasant.
There’s another kind of paper, and that’s the kind that alters the very appearance and contour of a piece of wood. If I want to change what this wood looks like, then I get out the coarse paper. It has very few grains, but the grains that are there are large and powerful. With a few swipes of the paper I can do some major damage. That’s what relating to a fool is all about.”
It was interesting to me that none of the people I talked with said that while they were in the thick of their involvement with their fools they were truthful, caring, kind, loving, or spiritual. And there is a reason for that. When you allow a fool to define who you are and you fail to correct his definition, you become the exact representation of who the fool says you are. If you are called “stupid” and you believe it, then you can act stupidly! If you are called “crazy” and you believe it, then you take on the behavior of someone who is crazy. You see, part of the tragedy of continuing to engage a fool is that, despite all of your protestations and efforts to alter him, you are the one who will be altered—and not for the better!
Attempting to relate to your fool is time-consuming and exhausting. Remember, a fool will give you no rest (see Proverbs 29:9). And if you have no rest, then your mind becomes muddled. It is hard to make a decision. It is hard to think about anything except what your fool is doing or saying. So you can see why beginning to focus on yourself can be a royal chore. You almost have to peel your eyes off your fool even to see anything about yourself other than how you are affected by his behavior. If you are entangled with a fool and you are feeling like a piece of soft pine that has been altered, scarred, and indelibly changed by the coarse sandpaper of your fool’s defining work, there is hope for you. Just as a fool’s tool is foolishness, so the instrument you can command is understanding! When you understand, you will be able to see things as they are and respond appropriately.Foolproofing Your Life by Jan Silvious
3. Then prepare for kickback.
Fools do not like game-changers. They often react with more intensified blaming, anger, lies, and attempts to send you down the river on yet another guilt trip.
They may get other people you care about to collude with them and define you in negative ways. This is quite uncomfortable.
If you believe them, you may even cave and revert back to old habits. In fact, this is likely to happen anyway if you are just waking up to the realization of what is going on in your relationship.
You may have to cycle through this a few times before reality sinks in and you come to a place of acceptance and readiness to seriously change. Living and walking in Truth hurts sometimes.
But it also ultimately sets people free.
4. You can become an adult in relating to your fool.
A child has little self-control. They just “say what they want to say and let the words fall out.” (Hat tip to Sara Bareilles.)
Whatever they think – it bubbles out like soda from a shaken can. So when your fool provides all the inspiration you need to spill your verbal guts all over, you are behaving like a child.
Don’t be ashamed to admit it. You should see me when I’m acting like a child. I used to actually start spinning around in circles flapping my arms and singing, “Round and round and round we go, where we stop nobody knows!”
It’s crazy ridiculous. And crazy too. I felt FLIPPING CRAZY. Ever feel that way? That’s childish. An adult doesn’t do those things unless they are feeling insane. (That’s why you’re still reading this, isn’t it? Because you have a fool in your life, and you wonder if any day now you’ll need to be committed.)
Here’s how Jan puts it:
Consider your relationship with your fool. Are there areas in your life where you are still holding out to get what you want from him or her? Are you continuing to invest energy into getting your fool to do what you want? Is there anything you have determined to accomplish in his or her life? Have you been working on your fool for the past twenty-five years? Are you determined that one of you will change or one of you will die? Are you holding on to a set of impossible expectations because that is what you want?
As you begin to mature in relating to your fool, you will learn to put those thoughts and strategies aside….It takes maturity to lay aside the childish schemes we use to control the important people in our lives. It takes real wisdom to become whole, functional people who are aware of the childish thoughts and behaviors that have buoyed us up in our struggle with our fools. It takes courage to admit that they do us no good and that we do them no good. Rather, they keep us stuck in a place where there is no air and no hope.Foolproofing Your Life by Jan Silvious
See? I knew my circle spin wasn’t doing any good. So what can you do, and how can you do it?
Don’t Return Evil for Evil
That just makes you a fool. This doesn’t mean, however, that you don’t:
She calls it “feeding someone with a long-handled spoon.” So you’re polite to them, the way we should be to every member of the human race, but you don’t get too close. Remember what happens when you hug a fan?
Live, Breathe, and Speak the Truth
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. ‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.Ephesians 4:25-27
Your fool will throw lies at you, about you. Practice calmly speaking the truth and then disengaging. (Walk away.)
Don’t speak the truth for their benefit (fools only believe what they want to believe); speak it for your benefit. Speak it because it is right to speak truth.
You may be thinking, Let go? If I let go, everything will fall apart. I can’t let go. What will happen if I do? That’s a great question. But it’s one you can’t answer, and neither can anyone else. The only thing you can know is that if you let go, you are making a positive step toward freeing yourself from the complications and chaos that bind you, and you’re releasing your fool to the natural consequences of his foolish behavior. When you see the source of your problems and are willing to admit that only God can change your fool, you will have stepped out of denial into reality, where only God can work. By letting go, you remove yourself from the fool’s realm of influence and you give up responsibility for your fool. It is a conscious effort on your part as well as an act of faith.
…If you will determine to remove your fool from the center of your attention by detaching and leaving him in God’s hands, then and only then will you see what God can do.Foolproofing Your Life by Jan Silvious
Foolproofing Your Life was one of the first books I read that validated my experience in my former marriage. From there I began reading many other books that helped educate and equip me in my journey up and out. I’ve created a list of my favorites HERE.
Want more? Check out the Flying Free Podcast episode 6: The Insanity of Relationships with Fools.