What Do You Mean: Wise and Harmless?

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Wise and Harmless?

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When you think about high-risk jobs, what comes to mind? How about bull riders, stuntmen, race car drivers, test pilots and soldiers? Do you think of preachers or evangelists as being exposed to high risks? Jesus did. When He sent His disciples out to preach the gospel, heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead and cast out demons, He told them that it would be dangerous work.

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16, first part). One modern version reads, “Stay alert. This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack” (The Message). That sounds pretty risky to me.

Jesus also gave the 12 disciples advice about what to do in this hazardous situation. This is good advice for each of us as we go through our daily lives: “Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (last part of verse 16).

Have you ever wondered what that meant?

Wise and harmless?

How are serpents wise and how are doves harmless? Let’s examine some key word meanings and the most common traits of these two creatures to answer these questions.

Can we be just one and not the other, or do we need to be both wise and harmless? Can we do it the other way and be as wise as doves and harmless as serpents?

We all know many snake stories, and we know many of their unpleasant traits. There are many ways we do not want to be like serpents—but we do want to copy their wisdom!

How are serpents wise?

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.

Now consider several facts from snake experts.

Snakes are pros at escaping. Their most common form of self-protection is avoidance. A snake’s first line of defense is to escape to safety among rocks or vegetation. Snakes have to be alert to dangers. Most snakes are not aggressive. Snakes do not want to attack humans. Snakes bite humans only in self-defense. They would rather not confront us.

Remember, a synonym for wise is prudent. Do these facts bring any scriptures to mind? Let’s read Proverbs 27:12 in the New International Version: “The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it.” Another verse earlier in Proverbs mentions both wisdom and prudence: “The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways” (14:8, NIV).

So it seems that we can be as wise as serpents by perceiving and avoiding danger and escaping from it!

Our dove experience

Four years ago we put up two large hanging baskets of geraniums on our front porch, with three plants in each basket. Within three days, unknown to me, a dove had nested in one of them. So when I came with the long-necked watering can, watering the first basket was uneventful. But when I poked the long neck of the watering can into the second basket, I startled the nesting dove, which promptly left with a great flutter of wings.

I was just as startled as she was, since I had not seen her amidst the foliage. She did not attack me or harm me. Her quick departure only startled me such that water went everywhere as I jumped back.

We developed a nice working relationship until her chicks flew from the nest. She watched me cautiously but allowed me to water the roots of the flowers, and I was very careful not to poke her again. And you know what? That hanging basket bloomed much better than the other one. She truly was harmless and inoffensive.

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.

Don’t get these instructions backward!

We want to get this in the right order—do not be wise as doves and harmless as serpents! Doves are not known for being wise, and serpents are not known for being harmless.

Doves are not the sharpest knives in the drawer. Take, for example, their nesting habits: They either do not build nests or build them very poorly. They may even lay their eggs on a windowsill!

Snakes have a reputation of being harmful, even though few serpents are truly deadly. Poisonous venom is found in only 1 percent of the serpent population, delivered by biting or spitting. Other harmful serpents are constrictors like anacondas, boas and pythons. And the Bible records the example of the most harmful serpent of all—Satan the devil (Genesis 3:1-5; Revelation 12:9).

We need to heed Jesus’ instruction to His disciples: “Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Detect and avoid danger, while giving no provocation or offense. Be wise and harmless—always.

When taken together, these instructions are a wonderful and balanced package of prudence and purity.

For further reading on this subject, see the article “Wise Advice for Wise Decisions” from our sister magazine The Good News, on the Web at http://gnmagazine.org/issues/gn29/wisedecision.htm.