Former U.S. Poet Laureate Joseph Brodsky was “born on May 24, 1940, and was persecuted in his native Russia and was forcibly exiled in 1972. With the support of poet W.H. Auden he eventually settled in the U.S.” (quote source here). Brodsky “was awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature ‘for an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity.’ He was appointed United States Poet Laureate in 1991” (quote source here). He died in New York City in 1996.
Joseph Brodsky once made the following statement:
“The surest defense against evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even–if you will–eccentricity” (quote source here).
Evil is insidious in nature “intending to entrap or beguile; stealthily treacherous or deceitful; operating or proceeding in an inconspicuous or seemingly harmless way but actually with grave effect” (quote source here). Think Adolf Hitler, for example.
Ephesians 6:10-18 makes a very clear statement regarding the source and the all encompassing nature of evil and how, as Christians, we are to fight it:
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”
I’ve written several posts on the subject of evil (see “The Problem of Evil–Habakkuk Revisited,” “Standing Firm,” “Satanic Rip-Off,” “Winning the Battle,” and “Regaining Our Balance”—the last post listed specifically relates to the passage above–to name a few listed under the category of “Spiritual Warfare”). However, in this particular post, I’ll be focusing on a specific statement Jesus made to his disciples in Matthew 10:16, which states:
“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
Matthew 10 is not an easy chapter to read. Jesus didn’t send his twelve disciples out into the world with a set of “ten easy steps to conversion and the life you’ve always wanted” or “how to win friends and influence people.” He knew exactly what his followers would be facing and he didn’t paint a pretty picture. He told them clearly that he was sending them out like sheep among wolves, but that they were not to be afraid and he also told them why (see Matthew 10:26-31). Unfortunately, his instructions don’t exactly describe the mainstream Christian climate in America today. And we are being devoured by our culture as a result.
“Eighty-four percent of the inhabitants of this nation say they believe in the deity of Jesus Christ, according to Barna Group, and 45 percent claim to be born-again Christians. Other studies show it is closer to 33 percent . . . .
“Yet America has the highest percentage of single-parent families in the industrialized world, the highest abortion rate, the highest rate of sexually transmitted diseases, the highest rate of teenage birth by far, the highest rate of teenage drug use and the largest prison population per capita than any country in the world.
“Consider also the great moral decline of the last generation (50 to 60 years) and these telling statistics in America. The divorce rate has doubled, teen suicide has tripled, reported violent crime has quadrupled, the prison population has quintupled, the percentage of babies born out of wedlock has risen sixfold, couples living together out of wedlock have increased sevenfold, and gay marriage is now a legalized reality in a number of states, with many believing the end is not in sight” (quote source here).
We fail to even recognize the evil that has taken over in our own ranks let alone the culture at large (at least without pointing fingers). And those wolves are devouring us. When Jesus sent out his disciples and told them to be “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves,” what exactly did he mean? He didn’t mean anything remotely like what is found in most of our churches today.
The definition for shrewd is “having or showing an ability to understand things and to make good judgments; mentally sharp or clever; marked by clever discerning awareness and hardheaded acumen” (quote source here). “Wise” is another term for shrewd. It’s not a namby-pamby niceness that is so pervasive in Christian settings today or going along with the crowd. It’s very much like what Joseph Brodsky stated above–“extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even–if you will–eccentricity.” In other words, it’s not going along with the crowd but rather it is focused on what Jesus taught his disciples when he sent them out into the world. Read Matthew 10 if you think that isn’t true.
“To be wise means to be marked by understanding of people and situations, to have keen and unusual discernment, and a capacity for sound judgment in dealing with people and situations. Prudent would also be an appropriate synonym.
“To discern means to detect with the eyes and with senses other than vision. It also means to read character or motives. We would all do well to have this ability. In place of ‘wise,’ other translations use ‘shrewd’ and ‘wary.’ Shrewd means to be practical and to be given to an artful way of dealing with situations and people. To be wary is to use watchful prudence in detecting and escaping danger” (quote source here).
On the “harmless” (or innocent) side of Jesus’s statement in Matthew 10:16, John McClain states:
“To be harmless is to lack the capacity to injure or to be free from inflicting physical or mental damage. Other translations use ‘innocent’ or ‘inoffensive’ instead of ‘harmless’ for this verse. Innocent means to be harmless in effect or intention. Inoffensive means to be giving no provocation.
“Doves aren’t referred to as the birds of peace for nothing. Their temperament is calm and their disposition is sweet. Doves do not bite. At most they might slap you with a wing if they are guarding the nest or do not want to be picked up. Doves really are harmless” (quote source here).
Being able to do/be both at the same time (e.g., shrewd/wise and innocent/harmless) takes skill and the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit’s leading and guidance in our lives (see Jesus’ statement to his disciples shortly before his crucifixion in John 16:12-15). If we don’t spend regular, consistent time with Jesus Christ through the study of the Bible, praying also for wisdom and discernment/understanding, and developing a relationship with him, we cannot learn how to be both shrewd and innocent in our dealings with others and the circumstances that enter our lives. Indeed, we will often not spot trouble even if it is staring us in the face. If you want to learn how to recognize the Holy Spirit’s leading in your life, here’s an article titled, “How Can I Recognize the Guidance of the Holy Spirit?” on the topic to get you started (click here).
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
“Looking the other way” in the face of evil is, unfortunately, commonplace. Failing to realize that evil left unattended will eventually have enormously detrimental effects at some future point in time is one of the greatest failures of mankind that has been repeated throughout history (again, see the example of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany). As Wayne Greeson states in an article titled, “When Good Men Do Nothing”:
“Time and again those who profess to be good seem to clearly outnumber those who are evil, yet those who are evil seem to prevail far too often. Seldom is it the numbers that determine the outcome, but whether those who claim to be good men are willing to stand up and fight for what they know to be right. There are numerous examples of this sad and awful scenario being played out over and over again in the scriptures . . . .
“Too many Christians and too many churches do nothing. They are standing idly by, they are mere spectators. They sit on the sidelines instead of actively participating and working for the good. If good wins, they join in the celebration though they did nothing to produce the victory. If evil wins, they will complain long and loud though their own apathy helped produce the undesirable result” (quote source here).
This world of ours is a battleground, not a playground. At the end of the article titled, “The Great Deception in the American Church,” the author makes the following statement that we all need to ask ourselves:
“Are you in touch with your true spiritual condition? Or are you allowing the pop culture around you to dictate your standards? Are you conforming to the world’s standards or to the Bible? Are you deceived? How can a nation of people among whom a large percentage claims to be born-again Christians experience the kind of degradation the above statistics reveal? Such deception is the state of America today, and the above statistics reveal the fruit of it.
“The problem has been that the real gospel has not been preached nor lived. Both the profession and the practice of many so-called Christians in this nation have not matched up. Our substandard message has produced substandard believers. Our departure from the preaching of the cross, repentance, holiness, and the real empowering grace of God has increased the level of deception in the church. How else can we explain the disparity of the above statistics in the church and the nation?” (quote source here).
The surest defense against evil in our world is a close relationship with Jesus Christ that takes the highest priority in our lives over anything or anyone else. Without it, we are defenseless and without guidance, catering to our whims and wants and our own agendas and neglecting to see and live in the world as it really is just as the Apostle Paul stated in Ephesians 6:10-18 (quoted above).
The question remaining for us to answer is this: Are we willing to stop straddling the fence or will we continue to maintain the status quo? As Edmond Burke stated so long ago . . .
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil . . .
Is for good men to do nothing . . . .
So let’s do something instead . . . .
YouTube Video: “From the Inside Out” (2009) by Phillips, Craig and Dean: