Jesus prepares his apostles before sending them out to preach: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves”(Matt 10:16). This is a high calling. It is hard to balance these two attributes—wise and innocent.
Jesus wants us to be wise and careful. Some people are dogs and pigs. “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you”(Matt 7:6). They will take your kindness, love, and even the message of peace you preach and trample them—then come after you. Some people are pretenders, wearing “sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves”(Matt 7:15). The danger here is obvious. When we are “sheep in the midst of wolves,” caution is essential.
Jesus also wants us to be innocent, trusting, and childlike. A child is his vision of the greatest in the kingdom: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”(Matt 18:4). He wants his disciples to respond with kindness when others hurt them (Matt 5:38-42). We forgive when our brother sins against us seven times in a day (Luke 17:4). These verses speak to a deliberate optimism. He does not want our familiarity with the danger of the world to keep us from being “innocent as doves.”
My observation is that most people tend to emphasize one of these attributes and neglect the other. We live enough of life that we gain lots of wisdom—yet struggle to believe the best of others, give of ourselves, or even to continue to trust God to answer prayers of faith. Or we grow hopelessly naïve—blindly ignoring negatives, putting ourselves (and others) in positions to be hurt needlessly, and offering prayers that ignore God’s answers of no. Jesus wants us to be both “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
A few questions to help us with the balance:
We continue to live in a world that is dangerous for us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We are sheep in the midst of wolves. Are we wise AND innocent?