So what can we conclude in our study of shrewdness, a megacompetency that I believe is needed more than anything in these days when we are sent out as sheep among wolves?
First, a quick review:
- Rick Lawrence has proposed a definition of shrewdness: the expert application of the right force at the right time in the right place.
- The people of our age are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than Christ-followers are.
- We can learn a lot from observing shrewdness in the world around us, even when done with evil intent—such as in Jacob’s family line.
- Our practice of shrewdness must be paired with the innocence of a dove—as a number of Bible characters did.
To wrap things up, here are some specific aspects the average believer needs to grow in to deal with this current world.
1. Use situational tactics
When did niceness become the primary value for Christians? Certainly there’s a place for traits like meekness, compassion, sympathy and even naïveté, but Lawrence says those are not an across-the-board rule for the believer. By boiling Christianity down to a single trait, the world is defining us in order to sideline us. Jesus did not use the same approach to every situation, and he urged his followers toward shrewdness in dealing with our own kind and in relation to the world’s hatred of our values. Paul became all things to all people in order to win some (1 Cor 9:19-23), and urged us to wage war with appropriate weaponry (2 Cor 10:3-4). And God shows himself differently to different audiences, including appearing shrewd to the devious (Ps 18:25-26).
2. Counter our enemy’s shrewdness
Paul fully expected believers to be aware of Satan’s schemes (2 Cor 2:11). Lawrence urges, “we must beat Satan (and those in his service) at his own game by practicing a greater level of shrewdness than he does, but with none of his cruel intent or evil motivation” (Shrewd, p34).
He offers an example of Satan’s strategy from James Ryle:
Don’t expect a frontal assault from the enemy. He’s far too clever for that. He knows that you love and treasure the Word of God, and that you would not stand for any attack against it. Instead, he sabotages your time and distracts your attention. He preoccupies you with skirmishes on other battlefronts, or he lulls you into complacency with prolonged cease fire. All the while he feverishly working at cutting you off from communication and supplies. If he succeeds he will win the war!” (Shrewd, p144)
3. Practice obliquity
Oxford professor of economics, John Kay, coined a term, “obliquity,” for avoiding the frontal approach and finding ways to outflank an obstacle or opponent. As mentioned above, this is a favourite practice of Satan’s, but there are positive models we can use to spark our own ideas. Esther learned that King Xerxes could be shifted by an oblique approach rather than the direct challenge Queen Vashti made to stand up to power (Esther 1,5,7). Another great example is the prophet Nathan, who drew King David in with his story about a rich man stealing a poor man’s sheep and then sprang the trap on David (2 Samuel 12). Jesus also used story to cloak hard truth in a deceptively-palatable package.
4. Avoid dichotomy
Imposing false choices is a form of power. In response, shrewdness finds a way to navigate between the poles to find another way. In some cases, it means finding a way to avoid war by creating a third space—a space to establish safety and neutrality and have opposing parties find common ground. In other cases, it might mean discovering an alternative that doesn’t require acceptance of the assumptions behind the two stark choices readily apparent. Jesus regularly avoided the traps the Pharisees laid for him, such as when they asked where his authority came from (Matt 21:23-27) or whether they should pay taxes (Matt 22:15-22).
5. Learn discernment
My final thought is that all of this calls for discernment. How did Paul know when to adjust his strategy and approach to each audience (Acts 22-23)? Even Jesus, who had previously sent out his disciples in pairs as sheep among wolves and telling them to take only shrewdness as their weapon, in Luke 22:35-36 says now is a time for a different approach: his disciples should bring a purse, a bag and a sword. The world these days is volatile and unpredictable. It requires constant awareness of what God is doing and ongoing listening for his guidance. Above all, it requires that our weapons not be the weapons of the world (see my post on under armor).
May God guide you as you put these ideas into practice. Let me know your thoughts, and share your examples. We can all grow in these skills, and we can learn from each other!