What We Really Need for Father's Day: The Wisdom of Serpents
I don't know which is worse: When Sunday services fail to acknowledge Father's Day. Or when they do.
When it is acknowledged, it tends to done in one of two ways. It's treated like a line-item in most church bulletins (right below "Needed: More Diapers in Nursery"). When this Rodney Dangerfield of days becomes the subject of a three-point sermon, it's used to "fix" men, who we've been told are the more crooked gender that needs to soften and sweeten up, like the nice-but-fictitious Jesus of countless Sunday homilies.
This day is a powerful reminder about social norms, traditions, and yes, prejudice. We see just how uncomfortable parts of the church are when it comes to a man's nature, how often they are compared to a woman's nature, and how men are deemed more sinful.
On this day, many men will be given the wrong medicine for what really ails them. They will be admonished to become like the Nice Nazarene. This invented Jesus is always patience, never inappropriate, dangerously nice, never says an unkind word, doesn't argue with or question the motives of others, incapable of anger, and was the most pleasant fellow who ever hush-puppied across Planet Earth. Jesus as Eternal Folk Singer and Surfing Bud.
I was told for decades to emulate this naïve and Gumby-like Jesus. And unfortunately for me and others, I succeeded. My life and ability to bless and lead my family suffered for lack of insight, power, and wisdom, among other profound virtues. I was what others might call a pliable "nice guy" but not what most would call a strong and wise "good guy." I needed to change and unfortunately I didn't find the help I needed from church or men's ministry.
That's why this Father's Day I'm encouraging ministers across the globe to give guys what we really need so we can really follow God into the dark corners of their hearts and the mysterious land of their faith: The shrewdness of serpents and all this ominous phrase represents.
For those unfamiliar with this somewhat cryptic statement, it's what Jesus told his original twelve disciples to acquire. "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matt. 10:16).
Jesus commends shrewd behavior as found in the Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:8). The Message provides a clearer insight into this challenging parable: "Now here's a surprise: the master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way — but for what is right — using every adversity to stimulate you in creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you'll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior" (emphasis added).
Almost sounds blasphemous, doesn't it, not just getting by on good behavior? Isn't that what being a Christian is all about? According to Jesus, in his own words, no.
Why do I emphasize the virtue of shrewdness and related ones such as wisdom, ingenuity, and the right kind of cunning? Because Christian men are continually preached to about the importance of personal piety, or what Jesus referred to as the innocence of doves. But when I ask during my workshops to Christian men how many have ever heard a sermon based upon the wisdom of serpents, no Christian man to date has raised his hand.
And the need for wisdom is greater than most realize. Of the thirteen character traits that the Barna Group tested for among more than 1,300 Christian leaders, wisdom came in dead last.
We are out of balance — a dangerous place to be. Christian men have been given the false message that personal piety alone will pave the way toward an abundant, God-glorifying life, to happy wives and healthy kids. But Jesus never said this. He wants us to marry virtuous living to wise living.
The problem for many of us is that wise living isn't always nice and pleasant. A wise man is sometimes hard to get along with. A wise parent sometimes appears mean. Writes Marilyn Chandler McEntyre: "One of my husband's finer moments in parenting came one day when, after he had uttered an unwelcome word of correction to a disgruntled child, he leaned down, looked her in the eye, and said, ‘Honey, this is what love looks like.' Love, in that case, must have seemed to her a far cry from nice."
Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today, writes in his excellent and upcoming book Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of An Untamable God, "We are assaulted with messages about grace and love, sweetness and light, freedom and peace… And all of this is true in some respects, thank God. But we risk lying to others, we risk lying to ourselves, if we don't fill out this picture."
That's what we need to do this Father's Day and many more to come: fill in the picture, the way Jesus did when he told us we can't just get by on moral fiber. More is required in order to be his fruitful disciple.
Here's what I mean about completing the picture and in the process bring needed balance to men. We often preach about the virtue of generosity without telling our congregations that there's an end to wise generosity. More so, there's a time when generosity with valuable things (God's holy word, our resources, energy, and talents) is sinful as found in Jesus' own words. "No not give dogs what is holy and do not throw pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you" (Matt. 7:6). How can one tell the difference between genuine generosity and stupid generosity? You guessed it: the wisdom of serpents, which we aren't born with. We need to learn more about it this Sunday and many more to come.
Why is wisdom so valuable but rare? I don't know all the answers, but I know a few of them. Wisdom, like humility, helps us see life more clearly than before. And with this clarity comes inevitable decisions: continue down the same sinful path, or repent by turning away from lies and related deceit and move in a better and more God-glorifiying direction. The choice seems easy, until you count the cost. For many of us, wisdom is too demanding because it often requires change. We prefer our comfortable but dark illusions.
Like the good parent mentioned earlier, we know that wisdom requires tough decisions and with them, varies degrees of conflict. We would rather concentrate on piety, which is innately personal, than exercise wisdom, which is innately social, involving conflict with others.
Virtuous living without wise living is not only wasteful, as found in Jesus' words regarding pearls before swine, it may well make you an accomplice to evil, as drug counselors will tell you when well-meaning people enable others to continue their destructive lifestyles. Personal piety by itself may give the impression that we're doing good works when we really aren't. Marry virtue to wisdom in sermons and in your life, and then you'll find your life being blessed as never before, increasing your ability to bless others as well.
I write all of this knowing that the majority of ministers will ignore it, not because it's unbiblical (though some will cry it is), but because this message is not part of the script they rigidly follow. We just don't encourage Christian men to be shrewd, which to contemporary ears is synonymous with criminal behavior. It just doesn't sound "Christian," and so the unnecessary suffering continues. Also, as the Barna study shows, it's hard to teach something that you don't possess.
We can be grateful that C.S. Lewis did not think he needed to be nice when writing Mere Christianity and instead decided to be wise and good when he critiqued the worldview of Sigmund Freud, referring to him as an "amateur." If your minister is one of the many who refuses to fill in the picture on Father's Day, do it yourself. Keep a journal of the wise and tough teachings of Jesus. Study Proverbs each day. Graft into your personality the kind of wisdom that brings clarity and blessings to you and others as it helps you conform to the image of the real Christ. But be warned: you will become a prophetic agent of change.
And change has its enemies.
Paul Coughlin is a former newspaper editor and is the author of eight books. He is the Founder of The Protectors, which provides values-based and faith-based solutions to the cruelty of adolescent bullying.
As a popular speaker at men's, women's, parenting and anti-bullying conferences, he has appeared on Good Morning America, Nightline, 700 Club, Focus on the Family, C-SPAN, The LA Times, The New York Times, Newsweek and other media outlets. His anti-bullying curriculum is used throughout North America as well as England, Canada, Australia, Uganda and South Africa. He is a frequent radio guest in Cork, Ireland.
He is the Boys Varsity Soccer Coach at St. Mary's, where he was voted Coach of the Year, and where he is also a member of the Board of Directors. He is a member of the Southern Oregon Leadership Team for SMART: Start Making A Reader Today. He and his wife Sandy have three teenagers and live in Southern Oregon. Paulcoughlin.net