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Daring to Live the Starting Command of Jesus
By RICK LAWRENCE
David C. CookCopyright © 2012 Rick Lawrence
All rights reserved.
Shrewd as Serpents, Innocent as Doves
All machines that use mechanical parts are built with the same single aim: to ensure that exactly the right amount of force produces just the right amount of movement precisely where it is needed. —David Macaulay, in his introduction to The Way Things Work
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist. —St. Francis of Assisi
If there is one terrible disease in the Church of Christ, it is that we do not see God as great as He is. We're too familiar with God. —A. W. Tozer, "Worship: The Missing Jewel"
Not long ago I was at a large fund-raiser dinner for a ministry my family has supported for years. I brought my video camera along to record interviews, asking a roomful of longtime Christians to give me their definition of shrewd. These are the exact words and phrases they used in their definitions:
Clever with a touch of calculation
Coarse, rude, and unbecoming
Crafty and good at getting what they want
Good at getting money and not very happy—not very fun
And perhaps my favorite response, because it's so snarky ...
A German warship from the 1800s
Ah, the Good Ship Shrewd—it's almost impossible for us to keep from infecting the word with negativity. We'd never praise a friend, for example, by saying: "I really admire you—you're the most conniving person I know!" And you won't find a single greeting card that reads: "Thanks for the way you've been cunning in my life." It's hard to separate shrewd from its negative connotations, but in truth, it's a neutral force that can be used for good or for evil. And even though Dr. Sharp describes shrewd at work in an epic moment in history, its more natural and much broader application is in our everyday encounters, opportunities, and challenges. All of us intrinsically understand the basics of leverage in our relationships—when I give my kids a consequence for disrespectful behavior, they often stop behaving disrespectfully—but most of us have done little to harness that leverage in service to the kingdom of God. We are shrewd accidentally, and often not innocently. That's why so many of our deepest hopes and dreams suffer shipwreck—we've paid little or no attention to the clear imperative Jesus delivered to His disciples: "Be shrewd as serpents but innocent as doves."
Shrewdness Hiding in Plain Sight
People all around us are studying how things work, all the time, then using leverage to gain a favored outcome. Pry the lid off any vocation, and you'll find shrewd people acting shrewdly. Not long ago a principal in a San Francisco school conducted an experiment. He told three of his teachers that, because they'd been recognized as three of the district's best instructors, they'd been assigned ninety high-IQ students with a charge to see how far they could take them academically. By year's end, these students had achieved about 25 percent more than their peers. The principal then came clean: he'd given the teachers "average" students chosen at random. Furthermore, he'd chosen the three teachers by drawing their names from a hat. By studying how things work in his school—paying attention to what motivates both students and teachers—the principal produced an astonishing surge in academic progress, leveraging both kids and adults toward his goal of a higher-achieving school.
Even though we're mostly oblivious to it, acts of shrewdness are lurking behind every big moment in our history, no matter where we plant our finger on the time line. A random case in point: after landing on the moon in 1969, the astronauts of Apollo 11 were hurtling back toward earth when a potentially catastrophic failure threatened their safe return. A failed bearing in the turret of a powerful antenna at the NASA tracking station in Guam had knocked the antenna out of service—it was the last line of communication with Apollo 11 before splashdown. The whole world waited on the edge of its seat as the crisis deepened. Meanwhile, fourth-grader Greg Force sat at home with his mom and three brothers while his dad, Guam tracking-station director Charles Force, monitored communications with the spacecraft as it headed toward reentry. Charles knew there was no time to replace the bearing before the capsule entered earth's atmosphere, so he did some quick (and shrewd) thinking. If he could pack a little more grease around the failed bearing, the antenna might work long enough to get Apollo 11 safely home. But the access hole was just two-and-a-half inches in diameter, and nobody at the station had an arm small enough to reach the bearing. So Charles had someone race to his home and pick up Greg, whose skinny little arm reached through the tiny hole and packed grease around the failed bearing. It worked, and Apollo 11 splashed down safely. Mr. Force found a way to use the right force in the right place at the right time.
These are standout examples of shrewdness in play, to be sure, but maybe the biggest surprise is how often the people who are closest to us—and even our own surprising selves—speak and act shrewdly. Aik Hong Tan says: "[Shrewd is] just like parenting kids—you can say 'It's my way or the highway,' but that's being a tyrant. Instead, you study to understand their leanings or tendencies—all kids are different. And when you understand their natural leanings you'll know how to apply the right style of teaching." So we study how things work, come to grips with our "favored outcome," then apply the right force in the right place at the right time to move the situation in that direction. This is no rhetorical exercise, by the way—this kind of progressive thinking can make a huge difference in almost all our everyday relational challenges. A case in point: the thirty-minute conversation I had with my wife today.
To satisfy our daily craving for uninterrupted conversation (our two girls = constant chatter), Bev and I often take a walk around a two-mile loop in our neighborhood. On the menu of topics today is her strong response to a friend in another state who is acting self-absorbed, rigid, insecure, and arrogant. For the last five years or so, this friend has been unable to accept a very painful reality in her life. Because of that, this woman is often bemoaning her situation, frequently directing conversations back to the source of her pain. Bev has, so far, simply offered her patient support, encouragement, and honest feedback, but today I can tell she's reached a tipping point—she's gearing up to unload a piece of her mind on her friend. About halfway into our walk I start wondering what shrewdness would look like in this coming confrontation, so I ask: "Just for the sake of experiment, and given the insights you already have, would you be willing to consider how you could engage your friend more shrewdly on all of this?" She tells me she'd first need to express to me exactly what she wishes she could say to her friend directly.
When she's finished explaining her very understandable response, I ask: "You've explained your perspective very well, but what about my question?" She responds, very authentically I think: "That seems like work to me, and I don't know if I want to work that hard at this." And I'm nodding my head in agreement because I know just where she's coming from—no doubt, shrewd responses do take work. That's why so many of us, including me, aren't shrewd most of the time. But when a friendship is riding on that response, it seems worth the effort, and that's what I say to Bev. "Just for the sake of the experiment," I ask, "what's something in your life that feels a lot like the painful reality in your friend's life?" She quickly reels off two things that fit the description. Then I think for a moment and offer this: "If you can connect with her on a feeling level by understanding your own struggles to accept the 'pain elephant in your room,' then maybe you can win the right to say something about the way she's struggling." Maybe, I venture, as Bev thinks about her own responses to the painful realities of her life, she could simply extend that interior conversation to her friend. I say, "Maybe this would help you communicate that you are for her as a preamble to you saying a hard thing to her."
My wife is quiet, deep in thought, churning through what I'm saying, opening herself to the experiment. Then I ask: "How do you typically respond to someone you know is not for you?" She looks at me and says, "Not well." I hold my hands out in front of me like a stop sign and say, "Like this?" She nods and gets quiet again. She's doing the "hard work" of crafting a shrewder response to her friend—considering how to apply the right force in the right place at the right time to move her friend out of the prison of victimhood and into a place of freedom. Ten minutes later, after I'm back at my desk at home, Bev reminds me of why I love her so much. She could have been frustrated with my feedback, but, instead, she comes into my office and thanks me for our conversation: "I really needed that—you not only challenged me to think through a shrewd way to bring this up to my friend, you also challenged me to be for her instead of against her." And this is what it means to wrestle with the best way to apply force in the right place at the right time. It is work, but only because we're so unpracticed at it. Thankfully, we can get through most of our everyday interactions using our relational default setting—openhearted and direct—as long as we're prepared to live and move and breathe shrewdly when it's warranted. And to do that we'll have to set aside our natural revulsion for shrewd's darker roots.
The Dark Art of Old Man Potter
To be labeled shrewd is an insult to most Christians—only scoundrels, ne'er-dowells, and the pirates of Wall Street wear the description well. This is why we're not at all surprised, for example, when a wicked character in a film acts shrewdly—that's just what wicked characters do. A case in point ...
Among the many moments that sear like parables in the classic holiday film It's a Wonderful Life is the scene where Old Man Potter tries to convince the young, self-sacrificing George Bailey to join him in his predatory business ventures. Potter is a craggy, bitter, small-town robber baron amassing a fortune by siphoning every bit of financial margin from the poor working-class fathers and mothers who are forced to deal with him. His great purpose in life is to dominate—to capture and control all sources of power and commerce in little old Bedford Falls, no matter what the cost. His food is the freedom of others, and he fills his belly with the fruits of his narcissism. Shrewdness is his weapon of choice, of course. So he first studies how George works to discover what motivates him, then surgically leverages his barely hidden resentments, heartbreaks, and longings for his own purposes. This is what the cycle of shrewd looks like from Potter's perspective:
1. George has a lifelong dream to do something really big in the world, but that dream has continually, repeatedly been subjugated to responsibility, duty, and service. So, shrewdly, Potter offers him a job that promises him a slightly twisted, and ultimately evil, version of his dreams.
2. George has always had a wanderlust, dreaming of world travel from the time he was a boy. But every opportunity has slipped through his fingers, repeatedly and sometimes at the last moment. So, shrewdly, Potter promises him a couple of trips to Europe every year if he will abandon his ideals and accept a position with his firm.
3. George's self-sacrificing leadership of his dead father's low-margin Building & Loan has condemned him to perpetual financial pressures at home. So, shrewdly, Potter offers him ten times his current salary, wiping out his greatest source of daily stress.
If you set aside your obvious disgust for Potter as a person, you must admit he's the smartest person in the film, right up until the end—he has shrewdly studied the pressure points of frustration and wounding in George's life, has discovered how they are motivating him, and then applies the right force in the right place at the right time. He's determined to destroy George and everything he represents, but Potter has been repeatedly thwarted when he's used a more direct approach. So he concocts a much shrewder plan—he comes at George sideways, from a place of surprising leverage that wobbles George's seemingly unshakeable integrity.
In a pivotal scene in the film, George lights up the expensive cigar Potter offers him, and the smoke from it curls around his head like a poisonous wreath. The leverage is working. George, for a moment hypnotized, is living in the alternate universe Potter has painted for him, and the one man in the film who can be counted on for his virtue is this close to giving it all away. It's only when George reaches across Potter's massive desk to shake his hand that the spell is broken—the touch of the evil man's hand awakens George to the poisonous vapors that fill the room, and he comes to his senses. As George's head clears, he responds with fury. The fury is directed more toward himself than it is toward Potter, because Potter has come this close to stealing his soul for "a mess of pottage," and George is incensed at himself for even considering it.
The story, as you know, ends in fairy-tale fashion—happily ever after. A rescuing angel named Clarence arrives to give George the gift of seeing what the world would be like if he'd never been born. The gaping truth of his never-born existence sets off a chain reaction of misery and darkness for his family and everyone in the small town of Bedford Falls. He recoils from the experience, and his desperation leads to a rebirth ... rather literally. And so, through the generosity of all of those who've benefited from George's selfless love over the years, Potter is thwarted. Niceness wins in the end, and shrewdness is punished. There's only one problem with the rise and fall of shrewd Old Man Potter in this film....
In real life, Potter would've squashed George like a fly.
People like Potter—cunning and committed and shrewdly evil—make appetizers out of nice, principled guys who are repelled and surprised by their enemy's "dirty work." George Bailey is a virtuous metronome, a sheep unaware that he's been tagged for slaughter (just as the apostle Paul described the followers of Jesus: "we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered"—Rom. 8:36). And Potter, a living metaphor for Satan, is determined to destroy those who have what he wants—he is hardwired to "steal and kill and destroy" (John 10:10). People like George are typically no match for them—they're not expecting to deal with "steal and kill and destroy," and even when they see it coming they don't know what to do about it. Most of us could not stomach picking up the very tools Old Man Potter uses to thwart the evil he intends. George's lack of shrewdness in dealing with Potter almost drives him to suicide, because he's a nice guy, and nice guys don't do shrewd. When the truth about the "game" shrewd people are playing finally dawns on nice people like George and you and me (if it ever does), we are plunged into rage and despair. We suddenly realize we're playing poker with Satan. And that is literally true because, once again, "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph. 6:12).
Nice No More
We're disgusted by Old Man Potter. But we're drawn to George Bailey because he seems so much like the person we want to be—a gritty, determined, dependable, nice guy. In today's Christian culture, where nice is naturally venerated as both the primary evidence of faith and its primary expression—from our earliest days in Sunday school right through to the senior ladies quilting circle—very few of us do shrewd. "Conniving" does not fall under any definition of "nice," and, therefore, shrewd behavior seems un-Christian. And those scattered few believers who do act shrewdly are reluctant to come out of the closet; they are equally reluctant to pass on to others what they know. This is why, when Jesus tells us in Matthew 11:12 that the kingdom of God "suffers violence, and violent men take it by force," we scratch our heads, then quickly jump over that verse like it's a mud puddle. He's saying the kingdom of God is under assault, and that some kind of force is therefore necessary for advancing it. How many sermons have you heard on that little enigmatic passage? Zero.
Excerpted from Shrewd by RICK LAWRENCE. Copyright © 2012 Rick Lawrence. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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