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This article has been prompted by a specific situation which has required us to be as wise as serpents but as harmless as doves.

This (wise dove) description could, however, relate to many of our dealings with people outside our community who do not share our "extreme" commitment to Christ. There is something of a paradox in our relationship with these people, in that our true self and our outward self are both the same, even though between the two is a "self" which can be very hard, wise, and almost ruthless. I will explain.

We genuinely want to have good relations with everyone... relatives, governments, neighbours, people we do business with, etc. More than that, we want to be fair to these people, and to seriously consider their feelings, etc. This is our true self.

It is also important that we outwardly project this positive, friendly image. This is our outward self.

Our reasons for wanting to project a friendly image are not the same as those of your average systemite, however. The average systemite is a "wolf in sheep's clothing". They may not actually think of themselves as wolves; but their ultimate desires are selfish, even when they are doing nice things, because they are still looking for the praises of others.

This secret self that is compared to a wolf is most strong when it comes to the teachings of Jesus and the demands that those teachings make on their lives. Then they very definitely become wolves, or, to mix our metaphors, "serpents". They hate what we stand for, and they will go to great lengths to fight it if necessary. We need to recognise this, and take it into consideration in our dealings with these people. But if we are to be as wise as the serpents themselves, then we must also be wise about hiding (or at least cushioning) some of the more unpopular things that we may have to do.

I will give an example which happens every day to thousands of couples. The couple decide to split up; but usually there is one person who makes the final decision and initiates the split. Two people who have, for some time, shared everything together, vowed to love one another, trust one another, and help one another, are suddenly thrust into a completely different relationship. Even the person who initiates the split would usually like to do so in such a way as to maintain what was good and beautiful in the relationship. But it is a rare couple who can make such a break without some feelings of bitterness. If anything can be said for the secret nature of bitterness, at least it makes it easier for the other party to maintain the false belief that all is well.

But even secret hatred reveals itself at some stage, and that triggers off reactions. In almost no time, the beautiful relationship can turn into a war zone. Both parties are shocked by the behaviour of the other party, and that same behaviour is seen as justification for further recriminations. It would be nice to be able to avoid all this, but life isn't always so nice. Jesus tells us to be "wise as serpents", which seems to indicate that he wants us to be aware of such things before they catch us off-guard. It basically means being able to see the "serpent" even in our closest friends, especially with regard to the teachings of Jesus.

Now let's go back to the three layers of our "self". The inner, true self genuinely wants peace. The outer, visible self smiles and offers peace. But in between is the wise old serpent, that knows enough to expect trouble under certain circumstances. It takes a great deal of wisdom indeed to get the true picture... one that is neither too black nor too rosy. Inwardly, it is safer to brace for the worst; but outwardly it is better to give people the benefit of the doubt.

In order to maintain these two apparently opposite dispositions, we need to develop ways of covering up our suspicions for as long as possible.

When a couple splits up, for example, there is usually a quiet desperate race to the bank to close out the joint bank account. The first one there gets all the cash; but the very act in itself is like a kick in the groin to the other party... a declaration of war. Similar problems occur if the first move is to disappear with the children or to move all the furniture out of the house. Such an action cannot help but offend the other party.

But warning the other party of your intentions to do such a thing only gives the other party the opportunity to take the first move, i.e. to change all the locks, grab the kids for himself or herself, clean out the bank account, etc. It happens in the best of marriages when they come to an end.

And in one way or another it will happen with all of our dealings with systemites when the penny finally drops and they realise that our commitment to Christ is stronger than our commitment to their friendship. We don't have to make a big deal about it in advance; but we are stupid not to be at least a little braced for the turn when it comes. We also need to be prepared to look bad in the eyes of the people that we have had to leave for Christ. It's why Jesus used the word "hate" when he called on us to forsake those who are closest to us. If we keep trying to be popular with them, it will end up taking us away from God and his plan for our lives.

Obviously if we must choose between being stupid doves or harmful snakes, it is better to be stupid doves. But Jesus seems to want us to be very wise doves, so that we can make the first move, get the upper hand, and then use it to help others rather than to cause harm.

(See also Media Interviews.)

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