The Word: The ‘value’ of foolish arguments

Published 6:12 pm Friday, May 17, 2024

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Recently, I’ve been working my way through Clinton Portis’ classic novel True Grit. It isn’t my usual reading fare, but I’ve enjoyed it. I haven’t quite finished, but I have read far enough that I can recommend it for anyone who enjoys a good story told well.

At one point in the story, Mattie Ross, the protagonist and narrator, has to listen to a drunk Marshal Rooster Cogburn spout off offensive nonsense. Yet she chose not to reply because, as she put it, “What have you done when you have bested a fool?” The implied answer to that rhetorical question is either “Not much” or “Nothing at all.”

This comment on the lips of a 14-year-old fictional character strikes me as a needed word of wisdom for our day and age. We live in a time where quarreling, antagonism, and argument seem to be the mode of communication we are most comfortable using; this is most evident in our online interactions, where many of us spend more and more time and where confrontation seems easier than ever from behind our keyboards. Yet it is evident in our offline interactions, too. Cable news, political campaigns, and even workplace conversations seem to default to an argumentative posture, while family meals can become tense, even over things that aren’t all that vital. We may not be fools, but we are easily drawn into foolish arguments.

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But, to paraphrase Mattie Ross, what does winning a foolish argument accomplish?

The answer is, not much. And we would be better off to avoid all the foolishness.

This isn’t just the wisdom of a mid-20th-century author; it also is the consistent witness of the Christian Scriptures. Several proverbs in the Old Testament speak of avoiding strife and the danger of harsh or divisive language, and the New Testament teaches the value of seeking peace and avoiding wrathful words in many places. A representative example is 2 Timothy 2:23, where Paul says, “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” He goes on to say that, yes, there are times when we need to offer instruction or correction – there are always times when someone has a false understanding or incomplete information – but that such responses are much better accomplished through a kindness and a lack of resentment.

Which is a far cry from most of what we see on cable news or in the average Facebook comment section.

What would it look like if we, you and I, took the advice of Paul and Mattie Ross to heart? What if caught ourselves before we spoke a harsh word or pressed ‘send’ on that biting comment online? What if we became people, a community, known for our graciousness and our gentleness? What would it look like if the Heart of Virginia became the epicenter of grace and peace?

Rev. Dr. J. Adam Tyler is the Senior Pastor for Farmville Baptist Church and he can be reached by email at