Suffer fools gladly
“He didn’t suffer fools gladly” reads the obituary… “Cantankerous old grouch” we imagine… Or at least I do. I might be wrong in the particulars, but that’s how I read the phrase in general.
No-one ever does suffer fools gladly. We are only told when someone definitely does not. And since, generally, no-one seems to have any patience for fools, the person who is said ‘not to suffer fools gladly’ must be very irritable indeed. We can imagine that, in this person’s company, it is the fools that do the suffering. And not gladly.
So perhaps we think that the Christian response is that we should suffer fools gladly. Perhaps this biblical phrase arose as an exhortation to bear with fools with infinite patience.
Well there is something very Christ-like in that practice. Jesus put up with a lot of folly – mainly from His nearest and dearest. We can think of Mark chapter 10 where He has just described the agony and sacrifice of the cross which is before Him (v32-34). Instantly James and John ask Him for glory – they want cabinet posts in the coming kingdom (v35-41). It is such a vulgar and stupid request, especially with the prediction of Golgotha still hanging in the air. If Jesus “didn’t suffer fools gladly” we would now get to see James and John put in their place.
But how does Jesus respond? He calls them all together and, with great patience, tells them again of His servant-hearted love (v42-45). That is to be their model. Not worldly power-grabs.
Jesus does suffer fools gladly. And through His glad-hearted patience He teaches fools that they might cease to be fools. How astonishing! Here is the one Man who does suffer fools gladly.
But that is not what the Bible exhorts us towards with the phrase “suffer fools gladly.” St Paul, who coined the term, does not put himself in the shoes of the patient sufferer. In this phrase, Paul is the fool.
In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul is concerned about the Corinthian church. They are putting up with (i.e. “suffering”) the ministry of false apostles (v13). Such false apostles expected generous payments while they boasted of their accomplishments and great giftings. On the other hand Paul expected nothing, nor did he boast about his own service or experiences. But in order to make his point, Paul decides that boasting is the order of the day. Therefore he will make his own boasts to the Corinthians, but they are nothing like the boasts of the false apostles:
18 Seeing that many glory after the flesh, I will glory also. 19 For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise. 20 For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face.
There are fools that we should not suffer gladly. They are called false teachers. And we should not tolerate them. Yet Paul says that a curious thing has been happening in Corinth. They have suffered to have slave-drivers among them, bringing them into bondage through their false gospels. Paul is amazed. And so he seeks to shock them out of their complacency by subverting the boasts of the false apostles. He speaks as a fool (v21). In other words he uses the rhetoric of the foolish false teachers, but his message is very different:
22 Are they Hebrews? so am I. Are they Israelites? so am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? so am I. 23 Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. 24 Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. 25 Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. 28 Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not? 30 If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Corinthians 11:22-30)
Paul’s boast is that he is vastly less prosperous, less healthy, less settled and less respectable than all the false teachers they have been entertaining! He boasts in his weakness because this is the mark of an authentic follower of Christ.
If Paul is forced into the foolish game of listing his resume, he will “glory of the things which concern [his] infirmities.” If the Corinthians suffer those proud fools – the false apostles, Paul hopes they will suffer him – a humble fool for Christ.
Today, if someone “doesn’t suffer fools gladly”, it’s usually because they consider themselves to be above the fools. Paul puts himself beneath the fools and begs for the sufferance of the “wise ones”!
In this way he resembles his Lord who could easily have cast away fools like us. Instead Jesus humbles Himself beneath our folly – subverting it with His own up-side-down glory. Jesus became a fool on the cross, and His weakness became His glory.
So the question is, Will we be impatient with the folly and weakness of the cross? Or will we suffer His kind of folly gladly?
We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:23-25)
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