A Neglected Biblical Virtue
If you were asked to compile a list of Christian virtues, I suspect that rather far down on that list (or perhaps absent altogether) would be the virtue of shrewdness. I further suspect this is because shrewdness is often conflated with a kind of sly dishonesty and is therefore thought unable to bear the Christian name.
But this is not so. Shrewdness is, in fact, the power of good judgment. Shrewdness is a sieve to readily sift the evil chaff from the good kernel. It is marked by razor-sharp discernment and recognizable by a Spirit-wrought strategic execution that yields a peaceful fruit.
There are numerous examples, but perhaps no one in the Old Testament looms larger for her exemplary shrewdness than Queen Esther. Esther found herself promptly enrolled in the school of shrewdness when she became the trophy wife of the Persian King. The lessons only intensified when her uncle Mordercai attracted the ire of the King’s cunning right-hand man, Haman. Haman’s cunningness was further matched by his ability to dispose of his opponents. One does not rise to political prominence in the Persian Empire by way of imbecility or niceness. Here was a man who knew which levers to pull and which buttons to press. Above all, Haman was quite literally hell-bent on destroying the people of God.
Case in point, Haman craftily engineered a plot to have the Jews exterminated throughout the Persian empire. Haman convinced the King that it would be politically expedient to do so and opportunistically secured his endorsement by way of an irrevocable edict. It seemed that the Jews were clamped in the jaws of death… were it not for a small stroke of shrewdness.
Queen Esther, with the purity of a dove but the shrewdness of a snake, struck at the just right moment. Recall the story. After much wine-drinking and for the third time, the King offered Esther a blank-check, even up to half of his kingdom. Perhaps duller minds would have simply asked for Haman to be executed, plain and simple. Not so with Esther. First, Esther appeals to king’s desire for her: “O king, if I have found favor in your sight and if it please the King.” Second, in light of the king’s desire for her, she attempts to intertwine his interests with her own, revealing that both she and her people have been consigned to annihilation. Finally, Esther appeals to the King’s economic interest: “If we had been sold merely as slaves, your loss, O king, would not be so great.” Esther knows king Ahasuerus has his own tyrannical and selfish bent. Basic appeals to biblical justice would have proven ineffective. Instead, she implies that the King is on the losing end of a business deal and being swindled out of a cheap labor force.
Thus, with this great combination of wisdom and wit, she slowly brings the King’s wrath to a boil and unveils everything… everything that is, except for naming the culprit. Only once the traps are set, and with the King’s fury rapidly rising to a tipping point, does she unmask that this adversary is none other than his very own right-hand man. With great moral courage and without a trace of neutrality, she pronounces him to be “a foe and an enemy, the wicked Haman!” The episode concludes with an irony that would make Shakespeare proud as Haman is hung on the very gallows that he constructed for his enemies. The road is paved for peace.
We should recognize that Esther’s shrewdness is but an imatatio Christi. Just think of how many snares the Lord Jesus bested by his own shrewdness in his interactions with those who consistently sought to capture him in error so as to bring about his downfall:
Is the baptism of John of God or of man?
He who is without sin cast the first stone.
How is David’s son also David’s Lord?
Oh wise Pharisees, whose image and inscription is on this coin?
Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?
You have said that I am King of the Jews.
Not least of all, nearly every parable told by our Lord was a deft feat of incredible shrewdness that revealed (to those with eyes to see) just as much as it concealed (to those with blinded eyes).
It is little surprise then that the Lord Jesus commands his disciples not simply to be wise but to “be wise as serpents.” Of course, Haman checked this box in all his craftiness. But he failed to fulfill the second portion of Jesus’ command, the part that makes shrewdness a full-orbed Christian virtue. “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Unfortunately, we all too often choose only one. We’re often wise as serpents yet full of selfish ambition. Or we’re often innocent yet full of naivete and gullibility. But Esther possessed both and so must we. The great Puritan Thomas Watson said it well: “The godly man acts both the politician and the divine; he retains his ingenuity—yet he does not part with his integrity.”
Shrewdness, like any other virtue, does not suddenly materialize. As Hebrews says, our powers of discernment are to be exercised by constant practice in order to distinguish good from evil (Heb 5:14). Many would flatter themselves that identifying good over evil is as easy as reading the big “E” on the eye chart. But the world is not so simple, and our enemy is not so predictable. Indeed, he comes cloaked as an angel of light. Nothing less than diligent spiritual gymnastics will shape us for distinctively Christian shrewdness.
Unfortunately, the sons of this world often prove shrewder than the sons of light. I.e., Leveraging a pandemic to institute maddening mandates for profit… shrewd. Amping fear and mass neurosis to staggering heights, cured only by the State’s pervasive intrusions… shrewder still. But such shrewdness is recognizably twisted and is unjustified by its fruit.
But not all power is in vain. Take for example recent state laws that have moved to either require or allow doctors to show their patients ultrasound images, and in some cases to even describe the images, before performing an abortion. In other words, the laws are piercing through the façade of the exculpating medical language and confronting patients with images of the ineradicable Imago Dei. Some women have been compelled to reconsider. It is a shrewd move indeed as the law does not require the doctor to invoke moral arguments. In this case, the image itself is the moral argument.
One final comment. Shrewdness is not to be confused with trusting in one’s own wits for deliverance. That is the way of Haman. That is the wisdom of this world that God loves to confound and make foolish. As we plan, even shrewdly, it is none other than the Sovereign Lord who establishes our steps. Shrewdness is not a strategy to shore up deficiencies in God’s sovereignty. Just the reverse. Because God is all sovereign, therefore we are to plan diligently, assiduously, thoughtfully, and prayerfully. Nor is shrewdness a cover for cowardice. There are moments when, like Daniel with his windows open, obeying God entails defying man.
Christian, look about you. Perhaps your world is full of sound and fury. The latest newsfeed reads more and more like a tale told by an idiot. Perhaps each day seems more stocked with unrest and surreal absurdity. But what a great time to be a Christian! There is no greater storyteller than our Great God and clearly one of his favorite leitmotifs is irony. God would not have toppled the enemy of death with the death of his very own Son if it were not so. He would not have put the principalities and powers to shame by way of a shameful cross if it were not so. What a great time to sharpen your shrewdness, deepen your trust, and humble yourself before the God who makes foolish the wisdom of the world.
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