Updated: Jun 16
Jesus recognized the need for blending opposites. He knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world, where they would confront the recalcitrance of political officials and the intransigence of the protectors of the old order. He knew that they would meet cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism. So he said to them, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the mist of wolves.” And he gave them a formula for action, “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects. We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.
--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his sermon A Tough Mind and Tender Heart
Observing the current state of the world, it's easy to see that the church still needs this prophetic word from Dr. King today. It reminds me of a similar word God gave through another prophet, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge..." (Hosea 4:6). The paranoia, illiteracy, conspiracies, and down right ignorance running rampant in many churches are leading many down a destructive path. However, I thank God for the blueprint Jesus left us in the red words to navigate seasons such as this, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." And I thank God that Martin Luther King walked out this posture in recent history. We could all learn a lot from this strategy.
Even though he’s one of the most famous men in history. Our government, school curricula, and media over-simplify his legacy. They water down his genius for public consumption. They gloss over how his Christian faith anchored his revolution. They attempt to freeze him in the I have a dream moment. I implore everyone to read that speech in its entirety, because it's beautifully written. However, I also want more people to read his other speeches, letters, and sermons. While reading Dr. King's book of sermons, Strength to Love, I was blown away by the amount of Biblical and extra-Biblical knowledge King acquired throughout his 39 years on earth. I was inspired by his ability to discern God's Truth in secular texts and tie history, philosophy, science, current events, and literature in with sound Biblical teaching. I believe his vast study life helped him have a "tough mind and tender heart." Which helped him function as an effective, prophet, priest, and king while on earth.
There are some corners of the Christian community that ignore the importance of the mind. Whether they disregard the importance of mental health or discourage people from studying anything outside of the Bible; this approach stagnates many Christians in the natural and spiritual. While I agree that the Bible should be one of our first sources for answers. I also believe God is still speaking today and can use all types of people to convey His will. This is where being "wise/shrewd" comes into play.
And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light (Luke 16:8).
Where would we be if Dr. King turned his nose up at non-violent resistance because Gandhi, a Hindu man, brought it to the forefront? What would Dr. King's activism look like if he never took the time to study black liberation theology from Howard Thurman? How would Dr. King's preaching and writing sound if he didn't spend so much time reading the classics? God used all of these extra-biblical sources to teach Dr. King how to walk out his calling.
We shouldn't limit the voice of the Holy Spirit, because making a habit of study strengthens our witness and helps us navigate the world systems. Still be DISCERNING. I don't recommend running to sources God clearly says stay away from (diviners, astrologers, other gods, etc.). However, don't forfeit WISDOM and STRATEGY because you didn't hear it in your church. For example, it's great to study what the Bible has to say about money and finance, but also consult financial experts. It's great to pray to have the mind of Christ and cast your cares onto the Lord, but it also helps to take advice from mental health experts. We should absolutely learn from the people and nations in the Bible, but also take the time to study the history and nations that came after that. Whatever passions God has given you or the field of influence He's placed you in, study to show yourself approved. God is the Alpha and Omega. The same yesterday, today, and forever. It doesn't make sense to put a cap on His voice at the end of the 66 books.
I love asking God directly, consulting with other Christians, and reading my Bible. I know as a minister and man of God, Dr. King did the same. However, I also like searching for Biblical parallels in other places. I enjoy studying to show myself approved not only in Biblical understanding but political and historical knowledge as well. Many "soft minded Christians" (in the words of Dr. King) are so used to receiving second-hand revelation that we've become lazy about true study and superstitious about voices outside of pulpits. Yes, God can deliver you on the altar, but I believe God can also deliver you through a book or article. Sure, God can illuminate strategy to you through a prophet, but God can also advise you through a class, webinar, or consultation. Absolutely, God can give you a dream or vision, but God will also send human voices to supplement and support in what He's revealed to you--just like He did for Dr. King. When we over spiritualize everything, it's easy to miss the practical steps God has on our path. So, think it not strange Jesus encouraged His disciples to be "wise as serpents" while in this world. Wisdom is applied knowledge. Application requires action. Not just faith. Not just prayer. Not just revelation. Action.
Yet, Jesus balances out this advice by telling us to be "harmless as doves." Because we know that, "knowledge puffs up while love builds up" (1 Corinthians 8:1). Even if he didn't call himself one, Dr. King was an apologist with a strong grasp of compassionate correction. It was evident while reading his sermons. I imagined him patiently walking his congregation through each illustration, anecdote, and allusion. I smiled at how thoroughly he breaks down each idea before moving on to another. From what I can tell in his writing, King didn't weaponize his vast knowledge but rather used it to edify. Continually citing his sources and making complex topics sound simple, King lovingly invites his listeners to a life of study for themselves. He makes education appetizing and knowledge accessible. When God gives us a platform to teach, it's crucial that we exemplify His character while doing so. Woe to shepherds who discourage their flocks from studying on their own or make them feel bad for not having a certain level of knowledge. Dr. King was not one of them.
And we know Dr. King didn't only talk about this love ethic, but walked it out. In the face of criticism from all sides, he committed to being "harmless as [a] dove" in public. This posture helped him and others in the Civil Rights Movement stay on the right side of history and protected their Christian witness.
I challenge everyone (including myself) to ask God how we can be more like Christ, Dr. King, serpents, and doves in our lives. In what ways could we be more shrewd/wise? In what ways could we be more innocent/wise? What is God calling you to study? What is God calling you to act on?