It was well past midnight as I stared out the window of the church retreat center at the falling snow. I was 19 years old and exhausted from 36 hours of nonstop work running my first weekend retreat for 200 teenagers. While it was quiet and serene outside, inside I brooded over the chaos and conflict in my heart. The chaos didn’t come from the teenagers; they were in bed. It came from an escalating conflict with a respected veteran youth leader who was giving me a lecture I’ve never forgotten.
She was flat‐out livid. She didn’t like how I was running the retreat. She told me that I ruined all of her hard work to get her teenage friends there, that I was too young to do this work, and that I failed her and everyone else.
My mind and body were already running on empty, and I simply didn’t have the energy or brainpower to respond. Plus, I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t say anything. I kept silent. I listened, and then—I listened some more. Her words felt like a roller-coaster that was screaming down steep tracks, then slowing, before climbing the next hill and accelerating into the next dip. I thought it would never end. But, eventually, her diatribe swung around the final corner, abruptly hit the brakes, and the seatbelt released. The ride was over.
I stood in shocked silence for a moment to catch my breath. Then, after a long pause, I engaged in the conflict and said, “Thank you for coming to the camp. You absolutely deserve the best.” That is when my jaw dropped. She broke down and started crying. She went on to tell me how her prior week had been terrible and that she was on the verge of losing her job. She concluded by saying, “Sean, you are doing a great job, especially for someone so new. Thanks for hearing me.”
I wish I could say that I knew exactly how to handle that conflict. I didn’t. Instead, I stumbled backwards into biblical wisdom. I accidentally obeyed Proverbs 18:13 (NIV): “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.” Since then, I have come to see that a number of Proverbs help me wisely address conflict.
Wisdom for conflict
The book of Proverbs contains two main sections. The first section comprises an opening discourse on wisdom in the initial nine chapters and crescendos by describing two women: woman wisdom (9:1) and woman folly (9:13). As the reader turns to chapter 10, the question becomes: which woman will you follow? The second section, where we find Proverbs 18:13, is what Tremper Longman III describes as “assorted advice, observations, and warnings.”1 There may be no overarching arrangement of these proverbs,2 but there are common themes. For example, Proverbs 18:12–15 includes a number of positive and negative attitudes that impact living in community3—including when people are in conflict.
The first part of Proverbs 18:13 is rather straightforward, “to answer before listening.” I have made that mistake countless times, especially during conflict (see also James 1:19—“quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”). The second part of this proverb shows us why it is so important to listen fully in the midst of conflict: failure to do so leads to “folly and shame.” “Folly” occurs often in Proverbs. It is rashness, making “stupid mistake[s].”4 “Shame” is the “state of dishonor”5 that results from rash, stupid mistakes. Patient listening in the midst of conflict can be an opportunity for honor if we are patient, shame if we aren’t.
When I was in the midst of my doctoral studies, I stumbled into a surprising lesson that has helped me gain wisdom for working through conflict. I recorded my meetings with my supervisor, with his permission. I recorded our conversations because he had the knowledge and wisdom I needed. I listened and re‐listened to the recordings countless times in order to squeeze all the wisdom I could out of them.
To my shock, these recordings captured my extreme lack of wisdom. They showed me that I frequently interrupted my supervisor. Often my supervisor would be on the verge of saying something important, and then I would chime in with a trivial comment that disrupted what he wanted to teach me. I never would have noticed this without studying these recorded conversations. This strange experience taught me to keep my mouth shut with my supervisor and with others too—including my coworkers, friends, and family. In doing so, I have avoided conflict and gained wisdom in many of my relationships.
When we use the book of Proverbs to meet life’s questions, we need to remember one important caveat. Longman explains, “Proverbs are situation‐sensitive. We must not apply them mechanically or absolutely.”6 This principle applies to conflict management as well as listening. While many conflicts benefit from patient listening before answering, this isn’t always the case. When conflict becomes abusive, manipulative, or mean‐spirited, it might be best to interrupt the person or simply walk away.
In order to win the TV game show Jeopardy, the contestants have to wait patiently for Alex Trebek to finish speaking before they push their button, or else they are automatically locked out (briefly) from answering.
You know—that sounds like a pretty good idea for real life.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.
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- Tremper Longman III, Proverbs (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 38.
- Longman III, 225.
- Lindsay Wilson, Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary, ed. David G. Firth, vol. 17, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2017), 213.
- The Lexham Analytical Lexicon of the Hebrew Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017).
- The Lexham Analytical Lexicon of the Hebrew Bible.
- Tremper Longman III, How to Read Proverbs (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 57.