Emotional Fortresses

A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city,

And contentions are like the bars of a citadel.

Proverbs 18:19

 This Proverb struck me this morning. First, notice that it is dealing with a brother. This does not only imply a blood brother, a sibling, but also a close friend, a companion. Second, notice the brother is “offended” and there are “contentions” or “conflicts.” Bruce Waltke says, “In view is a party in the closest human relation with another, whether by blood or choice, who feels wronged and has cut himself off from the other with a deep sense of personal injury.”[1] The Proverb tells us that the offended brother is harder to win over than taking over an impregnable city. The attempts at reconciliation seem impossible because the conflict is like bars that secure an entire city. The one offended has put up the strongest defenses because of the offense. What a picture.

Unless the conflict is settled, the brothers or close companions, are estranged. If they are estranged, they lose the precious benefit of a “friend who stays closer than a brother” (24b). If the conflict is unresolved, it can lead to an unbearable “broken spirit” (14b). If the conflict persists, words of death can ensure and bring about death, in this case, the death of the relationship (21).

The breach in the relationship has clearly established emotional and psychological barriers. In the case of such an impenetrable conflict, with fortified barriers around the heart, what can possibly be done? Perhaps the very context of Proverbs 18 helps us. In verse 17 we read, “The first to plead his case seems right, Until another comes and examines him.” This opens two possible avenues of resolution. The first is that this verse indicates that our perspective is not always right. We are often warned in the Proverbs about self-justification and being right in our own eyes. Prov. 18:17 is an encouragement to think my perspective about the offense my not be altogether accurate. If we can do this, by God’s grace, the barriers can start to come down.

The second avenue of resolution is involving a third party, an impartial party, who can look at the conflict and ask questions of those involved and make an assessment of the case. “Until another comes and examines” presumes a third party. It could be a judge in a legal case, but it could also just be an informal arbiter. This is where a good biblical counselor can help (Prov. 19:20).

There is another avenue of possible resolution in verse 18, “The cast lot puts an end to strife, and decides between the mighty ones.” So flip a coin? Heads I’m right, tails you’re wrong?[2] Not exactly. The lot was viewed as God’s answer to a decision (16:33). Bruce Waltke is helpful here, so I will summarize his argument. The lot was used to settle hidden matters. It is to submit the problem to the Lord’s decision, the Lord’s counsel. Casting the die is a small thing compared to a big legal battle, let alone a war. Although there is some debate as to whether this should be viewed simply as casting a lot, “The intent is to give the controversy over to God,”[3] and come to a peaceful settlement. The result is that an impartial decision has been made and those who submit to it, demonstrate humility, self-denial, and faith.

This avenue of resolution then simply begins by submitting the conflict to the Lord. Setting it before His eyes, before His Word. Sometimes it is very hard to take our offenses and then practice 1 Cor. 13 or the “one-anothers” or see it through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount. To do that would destroy the bars I have put up, the fortifications I have established. To start with humility and self-denial would put me in a place where I do not need a citadel around my feelings. To determine to live by the Lord’s decision on the matter demands that I look at the offense differently. To be committed to speak words of life and give up self-justification and protection, is the beginning of the end of my strong city.

What about the offender? In this context, the offender is not holding on to his offense. He is trying to win his brother. The offender wants reconciliation. Although that is not always the case, the point of this Proverb is recognizing our own emotional fortress of self-protection. If the offender is trying to win me, trying to reconcile, I must lower walls and take off the bars and be open to pursuing these avenues of ending the conflict.

Tearing down an emotional fortress is hard work. There is something easier than tearing them down and that is not building it in the first place. Is there a way to avoid the citadels of hurt feelings? Indeed, there is. “The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so abandon the quarrel before it breaks out,” (17:14). “A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression” (19:14). Maybe if I am honest with myself, my own thin skin, my own insecurities, and my own pride motivate me to quickly build a fortress and put bars on the windows. If we can see it for what it is, if we can see how harmful our emotional citadels are, then we can seek grace to abandon the quarrel, grace to be slow to anger, and grace to overlook a transgression. Maybe after years of building our emotional fortresses, we will find a sweet relief to realize they are not necessary. Maybe if we are in one right now, God will give us grace to practice some humility as we involve an objective third party, are open to being wrong, and willing to submit it all to the Lord.

[1] Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15–31, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 84.

[2] The NLT actually says, “Flipping a coin can end arguments”!

[3] Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, vol. 14, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 166.