“If a man loudly blesses his neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse” (Proverbs 27:14).                  

I hadn’t thought about this verse in a long time until a friend in China asked me about it via Facebook IM this morning. How could it be, he wondered, that something intended as a blessing could be received as a curse?

Good question.

There is a bit of mystery surrounding this particular proverb. Is the man in view simply a gregarious friend who is just a little-too-happy early in the morning? Or is there a sinister implication here, that this man is being falsely friendly in order to gain a personal advantage? Is he too friendly too early because he wants to take you off-guard while you are still waking up? The Message evidently inclines to the first view, translating the verse this way: “If you wake your friend in the early morning by shouting ’Rise and shine!’ It will sound to him more like a curse than a blessing.”

So what’s the problem? At the very least, your gregarious neighbor is showing a deplorable lack of common courtesy. Even if he means well, his timing is off by about two hours. Harry Ironside calls this behavior “utterly obnoxious.” Such a person is tone-deaf to the delicate sensitivities of friendship. There is a proper time for everything—including hearty greetings—but this man evidently doesn’t know or doesn’t care.

The idea behind the proverb is, Be sensitive to how other people feel. Think about them before you speak. You don’t know how your neighbor is feeling in the morning. He may be burdened. If you come in laughing and talking loudly, you will be like a clanging cymbal to him and he will not be glad to see you.

John Henry Newman commented that “it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain.” Because he possesses a keen understanding of human nature, he knows when to speak, when to be silent, when to drop in for a visit and when to go home. He doesn’t wear out his welcome and he doesn’t use humor as a tool to hurt others. To use an old expression, he wears well.

1 Corinthians 13:4-5 tells us that “love is kind” and “is not rude.” Courtesy is nothing more than the practical application of Christian love to the ordinary affairs of life. The dictionary calls it “excellence of manners” and “polite behavior.” It is a combination of tact, timing, sensitivity, and kindness. Courteous people are known not only by what they do and say, but also by what they don’t do and don’t say.

Admittedly, this virtue may not seem as noble as courage or as important as integrity. But when analyzed, courtesy is impossible without a whole host of other virtues, including patience, forgiveness, self-control and humility. If a gregarious neighbor knocks at your door at 6:15 AM, will you be gracious enough not to pour hot coffee down his pants? 

In a very real sense the test of courtesy is the bad manners of others. Anyone can be courteous to nice people. It’s how you respond to the cads and louts of the world that makes all the difference.

“Life is short,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “but there is always time for courtesy.” That’s a good thing to remember the next time your neighbor knocks at your door early in the morning.

Lord Jesus, you were the epitome of courtesy toward friend and foe alike. Give me the grace to treat others as you would. Amen.

You can reach the author at ray@keepbelieving.com. Click here to sign up for the free weekly email sermon.