I am send you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. – Matthew 10:16
Much to my embarrassment, I can recall a number of “inelegant” conversations I have had with nonbelievers in futile attempts to help them see the truth. You see, I am an engineer at my core. One of my favorite quotations is: “Arguing with an engineer is a lot like wrestling with a pig in the mud. After a while, you realize the pig enjoys it.” For me, a good debate is sporting. Unfortunately, winning an argument rarely changes a heart.
In Matthew 10, Jesus is instructing his disciples on how to act when going out to preach the Gospel. One of the things He tells them is to “be as shrewd as snakes”. The engineer in me reads this and automatically assumes Jesus is authorizing the twelve to be cunning and crafty for the purpose of self-preservation. After all, they are going out as sheep among wolves. It takes a mighty shrewd sheep to survive among wolves. I have no doubt that self-preservation is part of what Jesus is communicating here. In fact, in the very next verse He tells the disciples to “Be on your guard against men.” (Matt. 10:17a) But I think Jesus is preaching more than just self-preservation. He is sending them out with the purpose to save a lost world. If self-preservation were the highest value, then they might as well stay home.
What is translated in NIV as “shrewd as snakes” is translated as “wise as serpents” or “wary as snakes” in other Bible versions. Perhaps, Jesus is conveying how we should approach nonbelievers for THEIR benefit, not merely for OUR self-preservation. When a wise and wary messenger approaches a nonbeliever they would:
- explain the Gospel in a context that starts with the nonbeliever’s current assumptions
- take care not to say and do things that alienate
- communicate with tact and sensitivity
In short, they would speak to the heart, as well as the mind.
I am happy to report that despite my “engineer’s mentality”, I can celebrate some successes when communicating with nonbelievers. Sometimes success has meant shutting up until the right opportunity arises to gently impart a contrary viewpoint. Sometimes success has meant finding common ground with someone who has a far different worldview. In fact, not too long ago I had an interesting conversation with an agnostic where we shared very similar criticisms of an atheistic worldview. It’s a start.
You made me with the ability and desire to reason. Impart your wisdom, so that I may use my mind to help save those who are lost. Amen.