Boy, that sounds like some instruction from a gangster or something. To be crafty or evil. That was my first thoughts as I read it as well, but then I realized that the word cunning in my life was always used as a negative. The question then arose, what does the word really mean?
The first challenge is to figure out how the word is used in context. It could be a noun, but in most uses I have experienced used as an adjective.
- showing or made with ingenuity
- artfully subtle or shrewd; crafty; sly.
- charming cute or appealing: like a cunning little boy
- skillful; expert
When I see those descriptions of the word, I could see where it would mean being smart, creative, thinking out of the box, on your toes. Which now the whole challenge of being cunning makes it a lot more appealing. Where did this whole thought come from? Would you believe from the bible. My fastest reaction to the bible and the word cunning automatically goes to the snake in the garden, which he was definitely the definitions above, with his actions with Eve. But in the God’s Word translation of the bible we get this English command:
“I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves. So be as cunning as snakes but as innocent as doves” – Matthew 10:16
This encouragement was to the disciples he was sending out, in authority to go out in the world and heal people, just like he did. He warns them about all the things to do and not do on their trip, then he gets real serious and says to them that they are going to be like sheep among wolves. If we understand the analogy, that means that it is dangerous, and you need to be quick, smart, crafty, sly and ingenious to survive; cunning.
Many times people believe that they are a follower of Jesus Christ and they are to be super nice, passive and always allowing others to take advantage of them. But it is clear in the instructions he gives his disciples to take on the opposition. To use your smarts, to not give in. He indicates that it will be difficult and the challenges are going to come.
Let’s not forget the last part of the instructions, innocent as doves. Realistically, you could not be evil and innocent at the same time. So we will have to go with the definition of crafty, skillful. Did you know that in the King James Version it actually uses the word cunning to describe David? Check this out:
“Then answered one of the servants, and said, Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, that is cunning in playing, and a mighty valiant man, and a man of war, and prudent in matters, and a comely person, and the LORD is with him.” – 1 Samuel 16:18
As we take courage in the words of Jesus about going into the wolf infested world, I think the character of David becomes very desirable. Did you see it in the reference? a mighty valiant man, a man of war, prudent in matters, cunning… When you go about your day, pay attention to the world around you. Be alert, don’t get taken out. We have a battle to fight and a life to live.
For those scholarly readers, I have researched the word used in Matthew back to the Greek word, which is the original language of the New Testament, and the word used is, phronimoi, and the use of it means wise. Not negative, not meaning ill harm. So I think it is safe to say, in our English language we are encouraged to be ready in the dangerous world and to be wise and innocent; cunning.