Innocent and Vulnerable
Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matthew 10:16)
What is important about contrasting these two concepts?
Is this a balancing of opposites, or is it something else?
Where might we find the original contrast of these two?
Let's go back to the very beginning and see what we might find there.
And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. Now the serpent was more crafty (shrewd) than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman.... (Genesis 2:25 – 3:1)
Do you see it there? I find the same kind of contrast in this passage as in the words of Jesus – shrewd and innocent. And I don't believe it is any coincidence either. Let me share a paraphrase I wrote from looking up the definitions of the words of Jesus from the Greek that provides some interesting insights.
Be very aware that I am sending you out like vulnerable sheep into the middle of wolves. Therefore you need to be keenly aware and cautious, in some ways like that original shrewd Serpent, yet at the same time remaining pure, innocent and harmless as a dove or pigeon. (Matthew 10:16 paraphrase)
As I continued to research these concept throughout Scripture I came across what I sense might be a parallel text in some respects from one of the books of wisdom.
Guard your steps as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil. (Ecclesiastes 5:1)
What is parallel about this to sending the innocent out among the shrewd?
Maybe I am wrong, but it seems to me that we often have two choices most of the time, for in the war in which we find ourselves there are only two sides contending for our attention, only two options. In this verse I see two competing principles I need to be aware of as the options to see: either I will humble myself to listen to the Spirit of God and follow on His ways, or I can do things my way – even practicing well the religious forms and ceremonies and traditions one might expect to find in church. Yet from heaven's viewpoint, if I choose the later what I may be doing is actually the sacrifice of fools, for fools do not even realize that what they are doing is not what God desires.
Here is another passage from a man who lived around a lot of religious fools who believed a great deal in sacrifices. Jeremiah spent most of his life grieving that God's favored people were so stubborn that they refused to listen to Him. As a result God was forced to progressively release them to suffer the tragic consequences of removing themselves from under His protection.
Disaster on disaster is proclaimed, for the whole land is devastated; suddenly my tents are devastated, my curtains in an instant. How long must I see the standard and hear the sound of the trumpet?
"For My people are foolish, they know Me not; they are stupid children and have no understanding. They are shrewd to do evil, but to do good they do not know." (Jeremiah 4:20-22)
I believe it is time here to ask some very important questions in order to begin grasping the vital truth that Jesus was seeking to get across to us. In light of this last message from Jeremiah let's try to go deeper.
What really is foolishness?
What is it that we don't understand?
Remember where we found the roots of this problem back in the garden? As a result of the choice of our first parents to believe lies about God from the biggest fool in the universe, we absorbed into our DNA the very nature of the great serpent and now our powers of perception are bent toward fulfilling our own selfish desires just as he does. This natural selfishness is the very essence of evil, yet we are seldom even aware of it because we are deceived by in terms of good and evil instead of purely life.
Danger in Independence
And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. Now the serpent was more crafty (shrewd) than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman.... (Genesis 2:25 - 3:1)
Did you notice how the serpent singled out the weakest one from the first pair to try to take them down? Why do I say that Eve was the weakest? Well, I am not suggesting that she had a design fault or that she was unequal to Adam before they suffered the terrible effects of sin in their relationship. But it is clear in the creation account that God designed for human to be co-reflectors of Himself so that without each other they would never be complete reflections of the One they were designed after.
Peter has something interesting to say about this that convicted me many years ago as I was seeking to draw closer to God. Notice his take on how pairing is matched up.
You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered. (1 Peter 3:7)
I realize this is a very controversial topic that is often abused today to bolster up all sorts of prejudice and mistreatment of women. But we must realize that weakness has nothing to do with importance or value or even sin necessarily. Jesus came to this earth and took on our weakness, yet He was ever without sin. And Jesus was a male if you hadn't noticed.
What I see here is that God designed humanity as a binary species specifically created to collectively reflect His own glory and beauty and wholeness. It was not necessary to make them exactly the same; otherwise they would be redundant. Rather, by making one weaker than the other in certain respects and the other weaker than the first in other aspects, God designed that without the other neither of them were safe to live alone. Each of us needs others in order to thrive and grow and mature.
Remember that the first time God ever mentioned that something was not good was in regards to Adam's aloneness. So He arranged circumstances so that Adam himself could become keenly aware of his own vulnerability, to make him feel so desperate that when his complement finally appeared in front of him as he was waking up from a sound nap, he would have far greater appreciation for her.
The point I am starting to observe is that as humans we should be keenly aware of our vulnerability and incompleteness when we try to live life alone and independent from others. It is a big temptation for many including myself to sometimes think that all we need is God and we can dispense with having to get along with others when things get too uncomfortable. Yet God keeps coming back and reminding me that this was never His plan and that one of the most important parts of developing my character is learning how to be more dependent and interconnected with others. True religion never makes one more independent and aloof through cultivating an isolated relationship with God. It is still not good to be alone, whether we be male or female, for God created us to only be able to reflect Him (remember that God is neither male nor female) as we allow ourselves to live in intimate interdependence with others.
What kind of implications does this have for single people? I realize that many can feel offended when they hear such talk, but that is not my intention. We live in a far less than ideal world and God understands our situation and has ways of dealing with every problem. But while it is still true that it will never be good for any of us to be alone, God has promised to be a spouse to those who do not have one and needs one badly. But again, this does not imply that they are now exempt from His design for them to live in interdependence with other people. God's design is that we live as family, and family is not just husband and wife, it also has brothers and sisters. Notice how Jesus arranged his own disciples as He sent them out to begin announcing His new kingdom.
Now after this the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them in pairs ahead of Him to every city and place where He Himself was going to come. And He was saying to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest. Go; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves." (Luke 10:1-3)
Again we find this same theme showing up again – being sent out as lambs into the midst of dangerous wolves. But notice here that Jesus sends His disciples out specifically in pairs, not alone. Yet think about it, if Jesus wanted to be more efficient, at least the way we think of efficiency, He could have covered twice as much territory if He has sent them out singly.
But covering territory is not nearly so important to Jesus as revealing the truth about God and restoring His image in humanity. And for this reason He knows that it is vitally important that His followers learn to work in teams, even if those teams are not always paired up as male and female. I suspect that male/female pairs might be even more ideal given our original design from creation, but even without this advantage Jesus knows that we are never safe attempting to share God with a hostile world when we try to do it alone.
There is great danger in attempting to meet the enemy as solitary. We were never designed to go it alone for we need the objectiveness, support and encouragement of at least one other person. This is our design from the beginning and it will always continue to be that way.
It is important that we learn the lesson that we are always too vulnerable, even in a state of purity and innocence, to meet the enemy alone. This is one of the most important things to see in the story of our first parent's fall from innocence. Yet even surrounding ourselves with friends is not necessarily any guarantee of finding the right kind of wisdom. In fact it could actually become a subtle barrier to blind us to the true wisdom of God.
Job found himself the recipient of a lot of advice from elders who were very experienced and highly educated. And if we didn't already know the end of his story we too could easily be caught up into believing much of what they urged Job to embrace as religious truth. Indeed, that may be what this verse may be telling us:
Guard your steps as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil. (Ecclesiastes 5:1)
Job's advisers tried to get him to listen to their common sense, 'religiously sound' wisdom. They were very confident that they understood his problems and had the solution to solve them. And many of their arguments and assumptions are still very much alive and well today – which is why I am very wary of any quotations thrown out taken from the book of Job. Yet when it was all said and done and God showed up to give His version of wisdom, it became obvious that instead of sound advice, their opinions about what was really going on and how God felt about it were really the sacrifice of fools; they truly were unaware that what they were doing was evil.
Notice the irritation of one of them as he reacted strongly to Job's insistence of his innocence:
Would a wise man answer with empty notions or fill his belly with the hot east wind?
Would he argue with useless words, with speeches that have no value?
Indeed, you do away with reverence and hinder meditation before God.
For your guilt teaches your mouth, and you choose the language of the crafty.
Your own mouth condemns you, and not I; and your own lips testify against you.
Were you the first man to be born, or were you brought forth before the hills?
Do you hear the secret counsel of God, and limit wisdom to yourself?
What do you know that we do not know?
What do you understand that we do not?
Both the gray-haired and the aged are among us, older than your father.
Are the consolations of God too small for you, even the word spoken gently with you?
Why does your heart carry you away?
And why do your eyes flash, that you should turn your spirit against God and allow such words to go out of your mouth?
(Job 15:2-13 NIV, NAS95 spoken by Eliphaz, one of Job's 'friends' who was confident he knew God)
Salvation is Restoration to our Original Design
And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
I am starting to realize more and more the importance of appreciating this as the pristine condition of humanity as designed by God at creation. This is our template, the original condition toward which God is leading all who are willing to be salvaged and restored back to wholeness.
Is this an encouragement for establishing nudist communes? Not at all. But there is an element of truth that is often lost in our traditional negative reactions to such suggestions. We must realize that in the Bible the concept of nakedness has far more to do with a state of being vulnerable rather than having one's skin exposed. What is much more relevant here is that the word translated 'naked' is linked to a word in the next verse translated as 'cunning' or 'shrewd,' for both have connections back to the same Hebrew word. In the first instance the idea refers to a state of innocent vulnerability, a condition vitally necessary for love and joy to be able to thrive. In the second instance is described a perceptiveness and potential to exploit vulnerability, something all of us possess. Where evil comes in is when we misuse and abuse this perceptiveness. In essence, vulnerability is divine; exploitation is demonic.
Using this perspective we take another look at the situation Job found himself in after Satan wreaked havoc in his life and then sent three religious experts to convince him it was God's punishment on him. Job then finds himself both naked and ashamed. But interestingly his shame was coming from religious leaders, not from God. And although in the end both Job and his first three advisors can be found as having faulty views of reality, it was the self-proclaimed experts in theology that had the greatest reasons to be ashamed.
So what is our real problem? Or maybe better put, where is the problem? Do we need to change how God feels about us or how He treats us? Or is the problem of sin actually one of perceptions, or more accurately misperceptions about reality and God and what our situation really is?
Take a look at the entire chapter 59 from Isaiah and notice how this is answered and where the real problem lies.
See, the Lord's hand is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. Rather, your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.
For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness. No one brings suit justly, no one goes to law honestly; they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies, conceiving mischief and begetting iniquity. (sounds like a description of the world around us today)
They hatch adders' eggs, and weave the spider's web; whoever eats their eggs dies, and the crushed egg hatches out a viper. Their webs cannot serve as clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their works are works of iniquity, and deeds of violence are in their hands. Their feet run to evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, desolation and destruction are in their highways.
The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice (fairness) in their paths. Their roads they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace. Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead. We all growl like bears; like doves we moan mournfully. We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us.
For our transgressions before you are many, and our sins testify against us. Our transgressions indeed are with us, and we know our iniquities: transgressing, and denying the LORD, and turning away from following our God, talking oppression and revolt, conceiving lying words and uttering them from the heart. Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is despoiled.
The LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury (zeal) as in a mantle. According to their deeds, so will he repay; wrath to his adversaries, requital to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render requital.
So those in the west shall fear the name of the LORD, and those in the east, his glory; for he will come like a pent-up stream that the wind of the LORD drives on. And he will come to Zion as Redeemer, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression, says the LORD.
And as for me, this is my covenant with them, says the LORD: my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children's children, says the LORD, from now on and forever. (Isaiah 59:1-21 NRSV)
Notice the real truth here about how God requites His enemies: He allows people to receive the natural results of the spirit they have embraced. If they are full of anger and wrath, that is what they receive, even when it is not how God actually feels toward them.
This is the principle that someone pointed out recently that helps to explain a lot of what we find in Scripture that can seem so confusing. Consider this passage from the book of Revelation.
The nations were angry; and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great-- and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (Revelation 11:18 NIV)
The first two phrases here are actually a parallelism; they reiterate or explain each other. Since the definition of God's kind of wrath is to release us to experience the natural consequences of our choices, when the nations of earth become full of anger, God will at last release the restraining powers in place preventing that anger from being fully unleashed. When that happens the world will be filled with wrath – human wrath – that will engulf the entire planet in unprecedented violence and rage.
In Jeremiah's time a similar situation was present in the attitude of those living in Jerusalem. Remember how gracious God was when Abraham bargained with Him about whether or not God will allow Sodom and Gomorrah to be destroyed. God promised that if there were even ten righteous people found there that He would spare those cities. Compare that with what God said to Jeremiah in his time.
Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look around and take note! Search its squares and see if you can find one person who acts justly and seeks truth-- so that I may pardon Jerusalem. Although they say, "As the LORD lives," yet they swear falsely.
O LORD, do your eyes not look for truth? You have struck them, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to turn back. Then I said, "These are only the poor, they have no sense; for they do not know the way of the LORD, the law of their God. Let me go to the rich and speak to them; surely they know the way of the LORD, the law of their God." But they all alike had broken the yoke, they had burst the bonds. (Jeremiah 5:1-5 NRSV)
God Leads Us into a New Path
I will lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them. (Isaiah 42:16 NRSV)
Remember the condition of the people in Isaiah's day? We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead. Compare that with what God offers as His answer to our blindness. God says that He will lead us even while blind, and in ways that are unfamiliar to us. That sounds like out-of-the-box, uncomfortable living to me. God is not saying He will take away our blindness right away like we would prefer. Rather, He asks us to trust Him to lead us even while we are still incapable of seeing clearly, trusting that the new ways He is taking us in will lead us to life even though we can't see how.
And the really good news in this verse sounds a great deal like the words of Jesus. I will never leave you or forsake you.
Thus says the LORD who made the earth, the LORD who formed it to establish it, the LORD is His name, 'Call to Me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know.' (Jeremiah 33:2-3)
This is the invitation of God to each one of us. He challenges us to come to Him, talk to Him and ask questions and expect answers from Him. He is excited and eager to interact with us as He leads us in our darkness toward the light of the real truth about Himself. But keep in mind that the paths of God all lead back not just to innocence but also to radical vulnerability. The kingdom of heaven that Jesus came to bring to us is a kingdom where everyone is willing to be totally vulnerable. But in this kingdom are found only those who have learned to abstain from exploiting others making it safe for all to enjoy the benefits of that kingdom. This is one of the lessons we learn from Job's experience.
As I think about these things of God that sometimes seem too wonderful to wrap my mind around, I start to resonate with the response that Job felt after God switched his whole way of perceiving reality.
Then Job answered the LORD, "I know that you can do everything and that your plans are unstoppable. You said, 'Who is this that belittles my advice without having any knowledge about it?' Yes, I have stated things I didn't understand, things too mysterious for me to know.
You said, 'Listen now, and I will speak. I will ask you, and you will teach me.'
I had heard about you with my own ears, but now I have seen you with my own eyes. That is why I take back what I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show that I am sorry." (Job 42:1-6 GW)
We speak of things that we only faintly perceive. We stumble around like blind men groping in the dark thinking we have a grasp on reality. Yet God is always gracious and faithful and leads all those who are humble and teachable back toward the garden where we can live both naked and unashamed.
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:12-13 NIV)
This is where true joy is discovered, by learning to become fully vulnerable while at the same time respecting and loving each other in our vulnerabilities. This is how we were originally designed to live and indeed is the very atmosphere of heaven. This is what it means to live in true love.