A Soft Answer…

In the reading of Proverbs these last few days it seemed easy to me on what scripture I would like to write and base this message. My favorite scripture in the writings of Solomon is found in Proverbs 3:5-6 — “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths.” I have long tried to follow this counsel, and in doing so now I have found a different subject on which I should write.

There is cause for us to be concerned about the growing incivility we are seeing all around in our society. I have been on this planet for just shy of 59 years and I have observed a change in my lifetime that is particularly worrisome.

There has always been anger and acting out on emotion. Some of the most terrible wickedness and tragic circumstances have been born out of a lack of temperamental self-control. My own father had anger issues, and so did I after some circumstances of my youth shortened the fuse of my temperament. With a lot of hard work, and more the grace of God, I hope in Christ that I have come to a place where I believe those issues to be under control. Nevertheless, what we are observing now is a height of societal incivility that must be checked.

No particular person is to blame. There are many contributing factors to the circumstances leading to our current situation. I will not attempt to assign blame or express regret for some historical tipping point. When we look back through the spectrum of time it is always tempting to wish that we could somehow return to an earlier era or self and make a change that would alter our course. But that is not to be.

In politics and the sports arena there has always been a certain level of incivility and unsportsmanlike conduct. I never liked that about basketball and some other team play, and found myself avoiding it as a result. If the effort is to win at all costs, even if to cheat if one could get away with it, what is winning?

I have always held ideals that I believe transcend politics. I hoped the majority of public servants to be good people battling for right. Unfortunately, public life often ends up consuming goodness. It seems that obtaining or holding onto power in our day has descended into a pit of incivility, vipers seeking to control a dark world that inspires no hope, but only fear and loathsome angst. For unrighteous rulers this has always been, but with smart phones and the 24-hour news cycle, never has society been exposed as we are today by the sickening behaviors and misleading fabrications across the partisan spectrum. To whom may we look up if people we should hope to admire wallow in the mire?

With abhorrent mudslinging coming from those who should lead in the public square, star on the screen, excel on the field, or even provide the news of the day, where do we turn for examples in civility? It is no wonder that social media is filled with raunchy ugliness and untruth, that road rage jeopardizes public safety, that the classroom has become a place where teachers and students fear that their opinions and values may receive unfair public judgment, that wearing or not wearing a mask may invoke criticism, or that raising one’s voice in a peaceful gesture of expressing belief or concern may invoke violence or cancellation. How can we go on in a society living in fear to embrace the agency with which God has blessed us, and the freedoms with which our constitution endows?

“A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”

Proverbs 15:1

How do we go on? We can individually and collectively work and teach to follow the wisdom found in Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”

I am not here criticizing any political party or belief. I do not wish to demonize news networks or actors on the stage. In this I am not favoring one sports team over another, although I actually do have my favorites. I am simply appealing to all that we please tone it down. We need to think about how it might sound before we open our mouths or press those little keys on our phones. We certainly should not want to provoke a person in authority, nor be provocative in our leadership or exercise of authority. We should ask ourselves, “Is this really worth getting angry over? Is this really worth dying for if mouthing-off might get ourselves or someone we love killed? Is it worth any amount of money we will get from the lawsuit if someone acts out because we did not control our temperament, and we lose a loved one?” I hope and pray those who seek to lead us will start thinking about the good of our people over the value of winning and holding office. We need to be able to look to them for leadership.

I am not certain I have ever met a paragon. There are individuals who by their actions and examples have shown me in many ways that they are the paragons of certain traits, certain virtues, of which we should all aspire. There is one I know that is an example of all the righteous virtues and gifts, who we may count on to always follow. The Savior Jesus Christ always taught and showed us by His actions to be kind. He spoke soft answers, but with courage and conviction. He did not hesitate to speak truth and share wisdom, but He chose time and place, the season for each thing to be said with measured response to teach His purpose without unnecessary insult or offense.

The Savior spoke soft answers with conviction. He did not hesitate to speak truth, but He chose time and place, the season for each thing to be said with measured response to teach His purpose without unnecessary offense.

As Elder W. Craig Zwick taught, “A ‘soft answer’ consists of a reasoned response—disciplined words from a humble heart. It does not mean we never speak directly or that we compromise doctrinal truth. Words that may be firm in information can be soft in spirit” (General Conference, April 2014).

I am reminded of a hymn, “Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words,” written by Joseph L. Townsend (1849–1942), that seems to speak to the heart of the subject.

Let us oft speak kind words to each other
At home or where’er we may be;
Like the warblings of birds on the heather,
The tones will be welcome and free.
They’ll gladden the heart that’s repining,
Give courage and hope from above,
And where the dark clouds hide the shining,
Let in the bright sunlight of love.

Like the sunbeams of morn on the mountains,
The soul they awake to good cheer;
Like the murmur of cool, pleasant fountains,
They fall in sweet cadences near.
Let’s oft, then, in kindly toned voices,
Our mutual friendship renew,
Till heart meets with heart and rejoices
In friendship that ever is true.

Oh, the kind words we give shall in memory live
And sunshine forever impart.
Let us oft speak kind words to each other;
Kind words are sweet tones of the heart.

The kindness, the civility that we want for our society, for our families, and our personal lives can be brought about by the examples which we set and the lessons we teach in the way we live our lives. This is not something that we can force. Anger begets anger, as love begets love, and if we wish for love to prevail, then anger cannot. It needs to begin with us. “Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9). As the Apostle James wrote, “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19). We need to check what is within our hearts, and monitor what comes out of our mouths, otherwise the fault will lie in us as much as anyone else.

Oh how wonderful for there to be no fault, no finger pointed, and no haste to anger. That may seem like an optimistic world to hope for, but with the grace of our Savior Jesus Christ, and every measure we can muster, this world can be a better place, a place where we are slow to anger, quick to forgive, and at least tolerate the differences between us with some understanding and modicum of respect.

May we His people, “Trust in the Lord with all [our] heart; and lean not unto [our] own understanding. In all [our] ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct [our] paths.” I am certain that in this matter He would admonish us as He inspired Solomon, and a living prophet today, to turn away wrath with soft but truth-filled answers, for grievous words stir up anger, and that is not the way to love. It is my prayer that we will soften our hearts and our answers away from anger, and show forth loving kindness and due respect, that we might receive the same. This world can be a better place, and it begins with each and every one of us, and our response to it. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Daniel Malcolm is an entrepreneur, journalist, photographer, husband to Monica and father of twelve. He is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ and His Atonement.