Five-or-so years ago I was locked in what felt like an all-out war over a dream that was in danger of dying, because a man who was much shrewder than me was bent on stopping it. One day, in my grief and fear and anger over what was about to happen, I felt Jesus sort of “sit me down” and challenge me—it was clear that my “frontal” way of dealing with this situation was not going to work, and He was asking me if I was going to have the courage to move more shrewdly. In the nicey-nice Christian culture that is promoted and perpetuated in most churches, shrewdness is anathema—worse, it’s entirely off the radar as a spiritual practice.
So, in an uncharacteristic spirit of desperation, I asked God to teach me what I needed to know about shrewdness—and He (of course) brought me to Jesus, the source of all good things. The point of Jesus’ “Parable of the Shrewd Manager” (Luke 16:1-8) is specifically to highlight the behavior of a lazy, lying, good-for-nothing servant who has no qualities we’d want to emulate except for one: his shrewd way of saving himself from the consequences of his terrible behavior. Jesus highlights this anti-role-model for one purpose: “The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” Later, in preparation for sending out His disciples on their first ministry journey without Him, He tells them to take nothing with them (no clothing, money, or “insurance” of any kind)—instead, He tells them they need just two things:
1. Be as shrewd as a serpent, and
2. Be as innocent as a dove.
The word He uses here for “serpent” is the same one He uses for Satan. And the word He uses here for “dove” is the same the Bible uses to describe the Holy Spirit. Jesus is telling His disciples to be as shrewd as Satan is, but as innocent as the Holy Spirit is. Shrewdness, then, is a way of living and relating that Jesus first modeled for us, then commanded us to do likewise.
In my 2012 book Shrewd (David C. Cook), I describe “shrewd” as 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—and Jesus is the Exemplar—first study how things work,and then leverage that knowledge to tip the balance in a favored direction. Shrewdness is the expert application of leverage—“the right force at the right time in the right place”—as The Way Things Work author David Macaulay observes. Jesus is perpetually taking what His enemies intend for evil and morphing it into good—He uses their destructive momentum against them, like a martial artist. Most Christians have a negative reaction to the word “shrewd,” but Jesus not only exemplified this way of relating to others in His redemptive mission on earth, He gave us a mandate to grow much, much more adept in our practice of it.
Because I’ve had scores of conversations with people, both young and old, about the mechanics of “innocent shrewdness,” I know people of all ages have experienced repeated failure in their frontal, conventional approaches to problems and challenges in their life. They’re frustrated and lost. And when I simply walk them through a Jesus-centered process of thinking and acting more shrewdly, it’s like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz moving from her flat, black-and-white world into the 3-D colors of Oz. The process, simply, looks like this:
• Answer the question: “What do I really want?” Jesus habitually asked an irritating question of people with obvious needs who approached Him for help: “What do you want?” (e.g., Matt. 20:32; Mark 6:22; Mark 10:36; Mark 10:51; Luke 18:41). We must know what we really want before we can truly ask in faith.
• Answer the question: “Is my ‘want’ born out of innocence? Would I feel just fine asking Jesus for this ‘want’ if I was face-to-face with Him?”
• Answer the question: “How does this (person, organization, or process) work?” Shrewd living always starts with understanding how things work—so spend five minutes brainstorming (either alone or with someone you trust) an answer to this question.
• Based on your understanding of how things work, spend five minutes brainstorming a point of leverage to go after with a “sideways” approach. Sideways means the leverage comes from an unexpected direction—you find “sideways” by experimenting with approaches that carry the force to move the situation.
- Now, try one of your options and debrief the results with someone you trust. Decide whether to continue with that option or whether to try a new approach.
- Repeat steps #3, #4, and #5 in a continuous loop—until you’ve landed on “the right force at the right time in the right place.”
Rick Lawrence is the author of dozens of books, including Shrewd: Daring to Obey the Startling Command of Jesus (shrewdbook.com) and Sifted: God’s Scandalous Response to Satan’s Outrageous Demand (siftedbook.com) and the upcoming Skin In the Game: Living an Epic Jesus-Centered Life (2015). He’s has been editor of Group Magazine for 26 years and is the co-leader of the Simply Youth Ministry Conference. Rick is a church leader, consultant to national research organizations and a frequent conference and workshop speaker. He and his family live in Colorado.