“Your home must be so beautiful.” My Taiwanese neighbor gushed these words with a smile. “You must have such a knack for decorating.”
Flattered and a little confused, I invited her inside. After all, she had never actually been inside our apartment.
“No,” Mrs. Li hesitated. “I’m busy at the moment, but I’d love to come by later in the week. How about Thursday afternoon at 1:00?”
When the doorbell rang on Thursday, I noticed that two other guests accompanied Mrs. Li. The Shieh’s had just “dropped by,” she explained, and of course, she invited them to come with her.
While she continued to rave, the Shieh’s seemed intent upon every detail of our apartment. They asked questions about the curtains and the furniture, wanting to know whether they were ours or the landlords. A little taken aback, my discomfort increased as they opened cabinets and checked out closets.
About a month after the odd visit, the truth began to dawn. Not only had I been flattered and deceived by Mrs. Li, she and her husband had also swindled our landlord. Through a series of fraudulent lies, they seduced our landlord into a money scam, resulting in his loss of our apartment. Within two days of discovering this truth, we were scrambling to move.
“Wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove.”
In the weeks that followed, I found this verse repeating in my thoughts. I had been innocent, yielding, and kind with Mrs. Li, but I had not blended my naïveté with prudence. I had the innocence of a dove but none of the serpent’s wisdom. Evidently, there was a need for both.
My childhood teaching emphasized the need for kindness and gentleness. In adulthood, I spent little time considering the need for discernment, for I felt the need to be amiable at all costs. Experience taught me that simple kindness is easily duped, but how could I guard against cynicism?
Being wise as a serpent seemed repulsive merely because of its mention of the snake. I’d stumbled across plenty of rattlers in the prairie grass of West Texas. Unlike wild boars, which are also dangerous in our area, I’d almost always heard a rattlesnake before seeing it. A rattler’s mottled camouflage allows them to blend into these dusty surroundings. Before they rattle to attack, they already know their escape route, hiding places and are ready for battle.
How often have I assumed my best Christian stance is loud and conspicuous? Yet this isn’t the wisdom of the snake. Like the serpent, Jesus encourages us to have a quick awareness of danger and swiftness to flee from it. The understanding of the serpent is one of adaptability and preparation. Where other predators face extinction, the viper has prevailed and prospered. He prudently pays attention to his changing environment, makes adjustments, and endures.
Like Mrs. Li, there are many today who “by their smooth and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (Romans 16:18). We need a balance of the serpent’s insight and the dove’s innocence. “Be on guard,” says Jesus, “that your hearts may not be weighted down with…the worries of life” (Luke 21:34-36). It is as if He is saying, “Think ahead, make a quiet game plan, and don’t get bogged down with today’s details.“
So I agree in prayer: “Keep me alert, Father. I feel like a ewe in a pack of wolves. Teach me to be as cautious as a snake and yet as gentle as a dove. Protect Your people from those who flatter and mislead” (Matthew 10:16 GNT; Romans 16:18).