Studying shrewdness: Where Jacob got it

The point of this series of blogs is that, while most people view shrewdness through a negative lens, it is a tactic that can be used for good or evil. Author of Shrewd, Rick Lawrence, describes it this way:

“Shrewdness is a weapons-grade relational tactic—a way of thinking and acting—that Jesus long ago urged His followers to use in their uprising against the powers and ‘spiritual forces of wickedness’ of this world. Shrewd people… first study how things work, and then leverage that knowledge to tip the balance in a favored direction. Shrewdness is the expert application of the right force at the right time in the right place.”  

As I emphasized in my last post, Jesus urged his followers to study the shrewd ‘people of this world’ to sharpen our skills, noting that shrewdness is more commonly practiced in the context of evil. For today, I want to start with some case studies from Scripture, and then we’ll move to examples from the world around us today.

Shrewdness is not a rare trait in the Bible. On the conniving side of the table, the clearest examples come in a streak of manipulation and deceit in Jacob’s family that runs from his mother Rebekah and her brother Laban through Jacob and his wives to his sons Simeon and Levi.

Episode 1: Jacob vs. Esau

Jacob is a twin who is born second but comes out of the womb trying to pull his brother back. So he earns the name “cheater.” Genesis 25 and 27 paints a picture of a young man who takes advantage of weakness in his brother—to steal Esau’s birthright—and naïveté in his father—to steal Esau’s blessing. But, lest we give Jacob too much credit, it’s his mother Rebekah spying on her husband, drawing her favorite son into the scheme and then planning and implementing the deception.

What positive lessons can we learn from this outright deceit?

  1. Value is in the eye of the beholder. A shrewd person understands value comes not from what we think something is worth, but what it’s worth to the prospective customer.
  2. Strategy involves managing tradeoffs. Michael Porter at Harvard Business School says that strategy is about trading one thing for another. If there is no trade off, there is no strategy. And if there is no need for a trade-off, there is no need for a strategy.
  3. The heart is an important motivator, even creating blind spots. A strong vision and a cause can be sufficient to overcome pain points, or even mental objections. Chip Heath and Dan Heath wrote in Switch that the heart is like an elephant, and the mind like the rider on top of the elephant. It’s important to engage the heart, because it has the power to override the will of the mind.

Episode 2: Jacob vs. Laban

So, deception runs in the family, but we find out just how broadly when Jacob flees to his uncle Laban’s house (Gen 28-31). It’s like Jacob is looking in a mirror at someone with the same traits, but wielded with far more skill. Jacob realizes the stakes when he wakes up the morning after his wedding and discovers he’s married the wrong daughter. Earning his true love will require Jacob to indenture himself again. While the first seven years had passed quickly because Jacob had a dream to anticipate, the second seven are all out battle with his crafty father-in-law. Then he agrees to a deal for another handful of years to provide for his own household. It’s a dangerous game, because Laban changes his wages ten times and tries to disadvantage Jacob at every turn. Jacob proves more than capable at building wealth in spite of the obstacles.

Lessons

  1. Shrewd people use every weapon at their disposal, even redeeming those others might question. There’s no indication that Jacob knew shepherding and breeding beforehand (Gen 25:27). I suspect he was a quick study of the latest science and theories (old wives tales?) about breeding, which he learned from the shrewdest person he knew, his uncle Laban.
  2. Shrewd people respect those who meet them on their terms. As Laban sees his own wealth trickling away and Jacob’s building (Gen 30:42-43), and then Jacob outsmarts him and sneaks away, Laban seeks a draw—he asks him to sign a covenant of equals. Lawrence says, “most shrewdly self-centered people have acclimated themselves to people who generally offer little resistance. Because of this, they’re soft—and that softness is exposed when they’re heartily engaged by someone who is innocently shrewd” (Shrewd, 160-161).
  3. God sees and uses the evils done to us. Jacob has a lot of tricks in his bag, but Genesis 31:4-12 says that God has seen what Laban has done to him, and has blessed Jacob’s maneuvers. It’s important to note that Jacob’s own character is challenged by Laban’s intense cunning. He begins to despise deceit and value honesty (Gen 30:33, 31:7, 31:38-42).

This is getting longer than I intended, so let’s pause there, and we’ll pick up in my next post with episodes 3 and 4 in Jacob’s family line.


Shrewd Series

Pentecost: When Peter’s world changed

In my last post, I discussed how COVID has shifted our world fundamentally in the economy, the nature of government, the charitable sector and international relations. Into that volatile mix—and since I published that blog post—a new force for change is sweeping the U.S. and is spilling over to Canada and Europe: the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have exposed faultlines around systemic, long-term issues of race and equality. The early indications are that long-silent voices have taken this moment to say, “Enough!” We don’t know yet how these protests will shift the direction already being set in motion by COVID. I think my thoughts here are still relevant.

My previous example of a change of eras might seem extreme; the tectonic shifts we’re facing may be big, but they’re existential and therefore much more difficult to define than a global flood. So let’s look at an example centered around the day of Pentecost we just celebrated: Peter in the first few chapters of Acts.

As a student of leadership, I’m fascinated by the transformation in Peter between his betrayal of Jesus and his emergence as bold leader in Acts 2. He’s just been restored by Jesus in John 21 and given a new commission to feed His sheep, but if he’s to take up the mantle of leadership, he feels lacking. So what does he do? 

First, he compresses a few years’ worth of Bible school into one month. Consider the following. 

  • We know Jesus has just spent 40 days opening his followers’ minds to the Scriptures and interpreting what the Old Testament passages said about himself (Luke 24:27,45). I suspect Peter was a sponge, soaking up everything Jesus could offer him.
  • After Jesus leaves the disciples, we know they spend their days in the temple, worshiping (Luke 24:52). And we know a group of them return to the upper room in Jerusalem, devoting themselves to prayer together (Acts 1:13-14). 
  • When Peter finally speaks up in Acts 1 and 2, the frequency with which he tosses out references to Psalm 69, Psalm 109, Joel 2, Psalm 16 and Psalm 110 reflect the way he’s used his time. He couldn’t just flip to the various pages in his Bible; he has likely memorized these passages after hours devouring the scrolls at a synagogue or the temple library.

Then in Acts 2, the day of Pentecost, it’s showtime. The Holy Spirit falls and gives the believers everything Jesus promised: power, gifting, a message and supernatural linguistic ability. With 3,000 new followers, Peter has to figure out what exactly Jesus meant when he charged him to “Feed my sheep.” What was their religious practice going to look like? There are no models for the Church. I’d be very surprised if Jesus spelled out to Peter what church governance and structure he should use. It’s up to Peter and his colleagues to contextualize. As they do this, the sand is shifting under their feet. Peter will have to draw on all of his preparation to meet the needs, challenges and opportunities that are on his doorstep. 

That’s what makes Peter’s era so relevant to leadership today. Let’s look at a few points of application we can draw out of these early days of the Church, as we consider our own place, on the threshold of the post-COVID world, and the frustrations spilling out on the streets. Maybe this is our day of Pentecost.

1. Establish patterns of discernment and attentiveness

There’s a sense of anticipation about Acts 1. Jesus said to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes. Jesus made it clear that Peter’s education would continue after Jesus’ departure, as the Holy Spirit would remind him of all that Jesus said and teach him all things (John 14:26). So the disciples position themselves in the familiar confines of the upper room. These first believers establish an early pattern of devoting themselves to prayer and fellowship (Acts 2:42), and the apostles will later commit themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). 

The combination of prayer and the ministry of the Word isn’t just about preaching; it includes searching the Old Testament Scriptures and finding application to their situations. That’s what Peter does in Acts 1 when he quotes two Scriptures to support his decision that they should replace Judas among the Twelve. He does it again in the next chapter when he interprets the Spirit’s work at Pentecost as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.

In a conversation recently about these ideas with leadership consultant Jonathan Wilson  (read more at Lead by Soul), he told me:

one prepares for the future by understanding (or more accurately, discerning) the present. And that’s where Christians have resources that others don’t have, because not only can we do the necessary work of observing and interpreting the various socio-cultural and political dynamics unfolding before us, we have both the Spirit’s enlightening presence as well as theological tools of, e.g. thinking about worldviews and assumptions, about understanding needs, fears and desires, the way societies operate “in the flesh”, etc., that others don’t or can’t readily access. 

Rhythms of discernment and attentiveness are best established before crisis—when intentions are easily discarded and habits remain firmly in place.

2. Hold assumptions loosely

At first, the early Church seems to believe Jesus is coming back right away, perhaps based on Jesus’ ambiguous statements about his return (e.g. John 21:22). To me, that assumption best explains the earliest practices of the Church. They are continually at the temple, praising God (Luke 24:53, Acts 2:46). No need to work, but they do need to eat, so they start selling possessions (Acts 2:45). Their communal living and having everything in common sounds idyllic, but would not be a sustainable model for the future church. 

As each day passes without Christ’s return, the Church leaders have to deal with increasingly complex problems. They need to begin equipping believers for working and living in an increasingly-hostile environment. They shock the community by deploying church discipline (Acts 5). They are forced to find a structure that allows the movement to scale appropriately (Acts 6). They have to start establishing rules and order to these church services. This requires constant re-evaluation of assumptions. 

It’s the same for us today. Strategy and plans that were developed before the pandemic need a critical look to see if they’re relevant anymore. Activities need to be weighed against criteria, such as whether they’re essential to accomplishing the mission and whether they’re the best way to approach something in light of the new realities. All of these assessments start by holding our assumptions loosely, or even deliberately questioning them. 

Wilson says that this is the moment for organizations to use a

combination of strategy and agile methodologies to engage in adaptation and, even, eventually, self-reinvention. It’s actually too early to truly reinvent, as we don’t know what we’re reinventing for, but it isn’t too early to build the capacity and capabilities for quick adaptation that, coupled with the kind of “discerning the times” I mentioned above, equip an organization to reinvent over time.

3. Reframe setbacks as opportunities

The idyllic model for Church of the first few chapters of Acts is built around the favour of the people and the government (Acts 2:47). Persecution, on the other hand, is an external disrupter, scattering the believers. A Church that risked becoming insular and territorial is suddenly thrust into fulfilling Jesus’ mission in Acts 1:8—witnessing throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1-4). The movement continues to grow in the face of adversity. 

But these shifts bring new grey areas. Now the leaders of the Church need to either establish central control, managing the dispersed Church from Jerusalem, or embrace polycentric ministry, with multiple centres of influence. A combination of factors, such as a coming famine (Acts 11:27-30) and the killing and imprisonment of leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-5) invert power and allow the dispersed church to minister back up to the mother church.

What new things is God doing right now through COVID? What new doors is he opening that you never dreamed could happen? How do you reframe for your followers the setbacks we’ve faced? Shifting the narrative, and the thought processes behind the stories we tell, is critical to the path your organization will take: either merely trying to revert to normal or keeping the good things that have emerged while remaining open to new ways of structuring and operating for the future.

4. Never stand in God’s way

Then the Holy Spirit leads the Church to expand to include the Gentiles (Acts 10-11). Between a new satellite location in Antioch and Paul’s missionary journeys, a mixed church arises, based on a new identity in Christ rather than race, culture or caste (Gal 3:28). The church council meeting in Acts 15 is a pivotal moment in the Church as they decide whether they will truly become global or remain an offshoot of Judaism.

How does the Church respond? Look at the phrases I highlighted in the following statements and actions:

  • In Acts 10, when the Jewish-background believers are “astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles,” Peter asks, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (Acts 10:45,47)
  • When he faces criticism, he then asks: “So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)
  • After Paul explains to the Council of Jerusalem that Gentiles are hearing and believing, James concludes they would not make it difficult for the Gentiles who turn to God (Acts 15:19).

All of these phrases are about control. When the Holy Spirit is moving, and your assumptions are challenged, it’s a great principle to not get on the wrong side of an issue if God is on the other side. Rather than standing on principles and trying to fit God into your dogma, rewrite your principles around the movement of God.

So here we are, just after Pentecost, facing an unknown future. What can you do today to prepare yourself for the ambiguity ahead, and the movement of God that seems to accelerate when we stand between eras? Through the help of the Holy Spirit, Peter and his fellow leaders got a lot of decisions right. I pray He helps you do the same.