No one shows up in your life with a sticker on the lapel saying, “I am a gossip,” no matter how helpful that warning might prove. Similarly, to my knowledge, no one on Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media site provides a profile picture that reads, “Cagy Internet Troll.” Instead, we must figure these things out for ourselves. You cannot possibly anticipate which friends will make themselves your enemies or which people you failed to appreciate at first introduction would become close confidantes and great personal supporters. Life—and people—are unpredictable. In fact, people often behave in unpredictable ways because they do not really know themselves. Regardless, we still should work at reaching people of all kinds and with all kinds of flaws, because they need the gospel, just as Jesus taught in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:3-9). However, even then there are limits, as Jesus also explained to the apostles (Matt. 10:14).
Oddly enough, knowing when to move on from people can be one of the most difficult judgments to make. We must be willing to reach out to anyone and everyone while still recognizing the openness and character of those listening. This often requires great wisdom, as Solomon himself noted in Proverbs 9:7-9, “He who corrects a scoffer gets shame for himself, And he who rebukes a wicked man only harms himself. Do not correct a scoffer, lest he hate you; Rebuke a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; Teach a just man, and he will increase in learning.” Nevertheless, no one can know the difference between a scoffer and a wise man just by looking. Only the response to godly instruction exposes the difference, and herein lies the true lesson.
In Proverbs, “scoffer,” like “fool,” has a strong connotation. It implies the arrogant attitude of one unwilling to learn, unwilling to admit fault, unwilling to acknowledge what he does not know. He remains comfortable in his wickedness and uninterested in changing his situation. Indeed, he resents even the implication that he should wish to do so. He will not change his mind regardless of the evidence, and he will not soften his heart regardless of the kindness demonstrated. As a result, they respond to godly instruction with an insistence that no one can tell them what to do, with insults and personal attacks, and malice often spread within their group of friends.
The wise man, on the other hand, describes someone who appreciates learning his faults so that he can correct them, who embraces information that informs his ignorance, and who applies all this to life to improve his own character. Therefore, he listens carefully and attentively, even to critique, he consistently seeks out learning opportunities for his own personal growth, and he applies what he learns to grow personally and deliberately. Such a person makes difficult interaction easy because even the most knowledgeable do not assume superiority but rather know their own weaknesses so well that they find opportunities to improve on them beneficial and positive.
The stark contrast thus presented by Solomon offers helpful guidance for all our interactions. We should have a heart to teach others, but we should also have the wisdom to recognize the difference between those who scoff and those who learn. And while knowing the difference between these two is important in teaching others, it is also essential if we are going to learn anything ourselves. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10).