From an anonymous female listener: “Hello Pastor John, what is the difference, if any, between foolishness and sin?”
As it turns out, this is a very illuminating question. It was for me. It helped me see something more clearly than I had seen it before. Let me make the question more precise, though. Instead of “What’s the difference, if any, between foolishness and sin?” let’s ask, “What’s the difference, if any, between foolishness and sin according to the Bible?” Otherwise, I don’t know whose definition she’s asking about.
This is always a problem when you start arguing over foolishness or sin and you say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Whose meaning do you want me to use? Yours? Joe Blow’s? Or the Bible?” I’m going to go with the Bible here because I assume that’s really what’s she asking.
“Sin opposes God. Folly opposes you. Since opposing God is suicide, all sin is foolish.”
Let me read a sampling of biblical texts about the fool or folly, and then draw out some inferences about its relationship to sin. Mark 7:21–22, “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” Then he continues like this, “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:23). Jesus lists foolishness with other sins like sensuality, deceit, wickedness, slander, etc. and calls them evil things. That’s a pretty strong statement to me about the relationship between foolishness and sin.
Here’s another one, Psalm 107:17, “Some were fools through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities suffered affliction.” Sin and foolishness are linked with sin being what leads to folly. Or another one, 1 Chronicles 21:8, “David said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing.’” He’s talking about the census that he took. “‘But now, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.’” Sinning and acting foolishly are the same act in 1 Chronicles 21:8. You see the same thing with Aaron and Moses’s sister in Numbers 12:11, “Aaron said to Moses, ‘Oh, my Lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned.’”
Jesus says that “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man” (Matthew 7:26). In other words, disobedience is folly, like a foolish man who built his house on sand. Not doing Jesus’s commands is what makes a man foolish. Then he tells a parable about ten virgins (Matthew 25:1–13). Five of them were foolish. Five were wise. The foolish were excluded from the kingdom. This was not an innocent mistake.
Then you go to the book of Proverbs. “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?” (Proverbs 1:22). That’s what fools do. They hate knowledge:
Proverbs 14:8, “The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving.”
Psalm 14:1, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”
Psalm 74:22, “Arise, O God, defend your cause; remember how the foolish scoff at you all the day!”
That’s enough for me to get some inferences here. Here’s my inference from all that biblical picture. Foolishness in the Bible is always sinful. To act foolishly is to sin. I think we can say it the other way around. To sin is to act foolishly. To act foolishly is sin, and to sin is to act foolishly. Sin is an attitude or a thought or an action that dishonors God or is the fruit of a heart that does not treasure God above all things. So, sin dishonors God like that, and folly dishonors God like that.
“Fools show how stupid sin is. The full-blown sinner is not just evil. He’s an idiot.”
Here’s the catch. You have to think carefully now. This does not mean sin and folly, or foolishness, are identical or that calling someone a sinner and calling him a fool are saying the same thing about the person. The opposite of sin is holiness or goodness or righteousness, but the opposite of foolishness is wisdom. This shows, I think, that something different is being said when we call something sin and when we call it foolishness. Calling it sin puts the emphasis on God-belittling badness. Calling it foolishness puts the emphasis on God-belittling stupidity.
In the Bible, the word “foolishness” exists mainly to bring to light how stupid sin is. The full-blown sinner is not just evil. He’s an idiot. He’s irrational or, to put it positively, foolishness and wisdom, those words are in the Bible in application to people. I’m not thinking about calling God wise here — in application to people.
Foolishness and wisdom are words in the Bible in application to people to show that goodness and holiness and righteousness are smart, rational, shrewd, wise. You might say calling something sin means it displeases God and calling it foolish means it’s going to displease you in the end. Sin shoots God. Folly shoots yourself. Sin opposes God. Folly opposes yourself. Since opposing God is suicide, all sin is foolish.