“To whom much is given, of him shall much be required” (Lk. 12:48), but is it also true that to whom less is given less will be required? Although the broad range of average encompasses most of us, a few fall outside and below that range. Are those with diminished capacities held to higher accountabilities?
Paul addresses this troubling question in I Thessalonians 5:14:
“Warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all” (KJV).
“Warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (NIV).
“Admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (BASB).
“Warn those who are irresponsible, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (HCSB).
Different explanations for misbehavior are the subject of this verse. Paul does not rush to assign contemporary psychological diagnoses, but he does recognize three differences and three different responses. Some are (i) “unruly,” others are (ii) “feebleminded,” and still others are (iii) “weak.” Some need to be (i) “warned,” others (ii) “comfort,” and still others (iii) “help.” What do these words describe?
Those who are (i) “unruly” know better, but do worse. Into this category fall the vast majority of people who possess every ability to follow God’s will, but who deliberately disobey. Paul prescribes a warning or admonition for the unruly. These words describe a forceful censure and a sharp correction. To whom much is given, much is required, and much should be the measure of correction that comes their way.
Those who are (ii) “feebleminded” are those who are discouraged, possibly by persecutions or possibly by the rigors of life. Instead of a strong censure, those who are “fainthearted” need a comforting, supportive arm around their shoulder. To whom much suffering has come, much support is needed.
Those who are (iii) “weak” are those who, for whatever reasons, have lost their spiritual stamina. For whatever reasons, they simply cannot. For those who have fallen off the end of their rope, “help” is needed, the help of some other to carry their burden. For whom nothing is left, everything must be born.
Paul’s words require special consideration for special circumstances. They also challenge us to apply different solutions with sensitive consideration to the differences among those who are (i) deliberately disobedient, those are (ii) suffering despair, and those who are (iii) too weak to be able. Everyone is due patience, but not every need of every brother or sister can be met in the same way. On “some have compassion, making a difference: And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 22-23). To whom different challenges have come, different remedies are required, some more tender, and others more aggressive.
Solomon recognized similar differences and empowered similarly different remedies.
Guide a horse with a whip, a donkey with a bridle, and a fool with a rod to his back! Don't answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are. Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools, or they will become wise in their own estimation (Prov. 26:3-5).
Human complexity makes cookie-cutter consistency impossible. Some need gentle guidance, others need clear, bridling limits, and still others need a whack with a stick. Sometimes stone-cold silence is the best answer, but at other times foolish statements require immediate response. The entire range of possibilities is at play. Such is the challenge of wisdom, knowing how to respond to different people with proper consideration for their unique circumstances.
Just as these passages and principles prevent all-purpose harshness, they also prevent all-purpose tenderness. Their point is that tailor-made responses are better than ready-made responses. We fail just as surely when we are always tender as when we are always forceful. The Christian tool box of responses should be filled with many kinds of tools.
Wielding our many tools while dealing with the many needs of people – sometimes hammers and chisels; sometimes very fine files – we reflect the severity and goodness of God (see Rom. 11:22). Searching hearts and examining minds (see Jer. 17:10) God is able to distinguish among the (i) “unruly,” the (ii) “feebleminded,” and the (iii) “weak.” We should search our own hearts and minds to find the best possible responses.