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By Lynn Japinga
Two men with sizeable egos engage in a power struggle. Neither will back down. Neither wants to appear weak or be humiliated. A violent ending seems inevitable.
A recent political headline? Yes, but also a story in the Bible.
In the years after he was anointed King of Israel, but before he actually took office, David and his men protected local landowners from pillaging Philistines. When David heard that the wealthy landowner Nabal was preparing a big feast to celebrate the sheep-shearing, David sent a messenger asking if Nabal might compensate his men by sharing some of the food. Nabal was stubborn, arrogant, and unaware of the protection David had provided. He refused to give anything to these men he perceived as greedy upstarts. When David heard this, he commanded four hundred of his men to strap on their swords and show Nabal who was boss.
Nabal’s wife Abigail heard about this exchange from a servant and without telling her husband, quickly packed provisions onto donkeys and went along to supervise the delivery. When she met David, she bowed down and begged for leniency. “Do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow,” she said. She referred to David as “my lord,” and herself as a servant. Some commentators criticize her for groveling, but her speech to David was anything but subservient. She reminded him of his vocation as king. She encouraged him to take the high road, and not return evil for evil. She said he would be more respected for restraint than for revenge.
This was hardly typical behavior for a woman in that culture, and yet David respected her wisdom. “Blessed be your good sense,” he said. Her advice had prevented a bloodbath. David had the good sense to listen to this unexpected voice. She had the courage to speak truth to power. She possessed emotional intelligence which allowed her to read a complex situation and find a solution that allowed David to back down in a way that showed strength rather than weakness.
We may wish for more good sense in the White House and other places of chaotic non-sense, but for most of us, our sphere of influence does not extend that far. Still, we have plenty of opportunities in our own contexts to be a voice of calm.
Abigail responded to David with kind words and generous actions, even when he had threatened to kill the men in her household. She embodied the proverb, “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). How might soft answers help to reframe a tense situation and find non-violent solutions to conflict? A soft answer might be telling a bully to stop picking on a classmate. A soft answer might be a parent who takes a time out rather than yelling at an angry teenager. A soft answer might be a gentle refusal to listen to nasty criticism of another person. A soft answer need not be weak or passive or afraid of confrontation. A soft answer can be strong, courageous and creative, just like Abigail was.
Soft answers and gracious responses do not come naturally. It was Abigail’s grace that ended the story with reconciliation rather than revenge. It is grace that enables a parent to scoop up an out of control toddler and make the child laugh. It is grace that inspires a co-worker to offer a cup of coffee to a hostile office-mate. It is grace that enables a high school student to invite the awkward loner to sit at the lunch table.
What might be gracious soft answers to the conflicts in our lives?
Lynn Japinga is Professor of Religion at Hope College. She recently published Preaching the Women of the Old Testament: Who They Were and Why They Matter, from which this essay is adapted. She is relieved to currently be in a season of reading books rather than writing them. One of the bright spots in her life is her “grand-dog,” a smart but stubborn Golden Retriever puppy named Wrigley who requires constant supervision lest he succeed in his mission to eat the entire yard.
Last night we had dinner with another couple, one of whom is a #NeverTrumper. We discussed a number of things and stayed away from politics. One time she seemingly tried to steer towards Trump, so we simply declined to engage in what would surely have been nasty criticism of another person. As a result, our time together was pleasant and dishonored no one.
Well said, Lynn. Thank you for this.