“You can catch more bees with honey than with vinegar.”
It is a good saying. And it is undoubtedly true. Bees seem invariably to prefer honey over vinegar.
But what if the purpose is not to attract bees? What if your purpose is to warn bees away from a danger far greater than the bad taste of vinegar? In that case the application of honey is downright cruel.
In our discourse there are times when an irenic approach fits most appropriately the goal of the moment. May God give us (and by “us” I mean primarily “me”) greater reservoirs of gentleness and patience. But I would suggest that there are times when irenic engagement is far worse than unhelpful. There are times when sweet words are deceptive.
For example if you saw a man ingesting poison you would not take your time, sleep on it, consider your words cautiously so as not to offend before suggesting in soft tones that perhaps the poison he is consuming will not maximize his flourishing.
Don’t misunderstand. I am someone who fully accepts the fact that my tendency is to err on the side of too much vinegar. Believe it or not, I don’t like that about myself. I want to become more disciplined in taking time before speaking. I want to become a better listener. But I also plead with those for whom vinegar never seems to be the appropriate ingredient to our discourse to consider if perhaps their preference for honey may sometimes be driven more by distaste for conflict than a love for others.
When people like me pour out vinegar it is usually not because we do not love others. It is usually because we are zealous for God’s truth and we find a direct correspondence between zeal for the truth and love for others. Do we…do I get it wrong sometimes? Sadly, yes. I wish I never got it wrong. But I do.
However, I wonder how often an irenic tone has communicated to the hearer that the matter being addressed is not serious? Does constant irenicism unintentionally communicate that all matters can be shrugged off into the “it just doesn’t matter than much” category? I know that there are times when a harsh tone can exaggerate the relative importance of an issue. But is the reverse not also true?
And let us also examine our own preferred cultural aesthetics. We have generally become a much softer people than past generations. As tough as I can be at times with my words I’ve never once called a group of people a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 3:7; 12:34; 23:33). I’ve never made a whip and driven anyone out of a holy place (John 2:13ff). Nor have I ever come close to suggesting that anyone castrate themselves (Gal. 5:12). Compared to Paul and Jesus I usually sound like Zig Ziglar.
I am not calling for an end to irenic engagement. Far from it. Indeed, I desire to add more of that quality to my own speech. But let us remember that God chastised the unfaithful shepherds of Jeremiah’s day for healing “the wound of my people lightly” (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). He rebuked them for saying, “peace, peace when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). There are times when a soft tone masks the truth and hides the need for repentance.
I value my brothers who excel at being irenic. I need their influence in my life. I need to be more like them. But is it not also true that the hard word in hard tones is necessary when the gospel is at stake? When godliness is at stake? When ministerial faithfulness is at stake? When the church’s witness is at stake?
So, today I pledge that I will work harder to add more honey to my repertoire. But I also encourage my more naturally irenic brothers to consider from time-to-time the positive uses of a bit of vinegar.