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Shrewd As Serpents

Shrewd as Serpents

The life of a creative requires not only talent and skill, but it also requires you to be shrewd as a serpent. Over the last 20 years, I don’t know how many times I have coached creatives on the need to be shrewd as serpents. It isn’t your typical sermon content, or part of an 8-part discipleship plan, but it comes directly from the lips of Jesus for a reason. God calls us to be just, to do what is right, and to flee from evil, but He never calls us to be naïve in our work or relationships.

The Call to be Shrewd

Naturally, Jesus was specifically addressing the danger that Christians would face in the Roman Empire. Jesus was not unaware of the struggles they would face, but He never directed them to let others take advantage of them. Jesus stated,

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves,
so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
– The words of Jesus, Matt 10:16 (ESV)

Reality Check

In the last week I have spoken with two people who created wonderful works of art with their talent, and then allowed patrons, investors or distributors to ‘hold’ that work for at least a year without any compensation. One of them had a film producer option their novels to make into a movie. The other had created a series of 400 educational videos which they allowed an “up and coming” streaming platform to hold on to until they figured out how to utilize it. One year later, neither of these artists had seen a dime from these opportunities. Each of them should have received some form of compensation for their talents and their creative assets, but they did not. They both felt taken advantage of, but the question arises, how is a follower of Christ supposed to approach these issues?

First, Get Wisdom

Proverbs challenges us over and over to get wisdom. We are to seek it out, to treasure it as choice silver, and to teach it to our children. It guards our heart, protects our conscience and guides our decisions toward godly actions, relationships, and business choices. Consider the beginning of Proverbs, starting in the first chapter:

The Beginning of Knowledge
The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:

To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Proverbs 1:1-7 (ESV)

Wisdom like Solomon

Solomon’s wisdom was beyond a scholar giving a singular TED talk. He could have presented an entire conference of TED talks. Why? It wasn’t genetics, training or Mensa society brain teasers. It was because God granted him the one request he asked for in 1 Kings chapter 3 – He asked for wisdom. We can run to the self-help section of any bookstore, or the entrepreneurial section of the library and spend years reading the latest and greatest. But we must be wise enough to resist the ‘shiny object syndrome.’ God’s wisdom is above all, and Solomon was the one man through whom we have been shown the wisdom from God. Consider the depth and breadth of his wisdom as described by the author of 1 & 2 Kings:

“And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, 30 so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 For he was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol, and his fame was in all the surrounding nations.
– 1 Kings 4:29-31(ESV)

Wisdom like Bezalel

This may seem like a passage unrelated to the arts, but there is a direct correlation with the artist Bezalel, who was the first person “filled with the spirit of God” in the Bible. Bezalel was commissioned by God to create the Tabernacle, the incense, anointing oil, the ark of the covenant and all the extravagant elements created for the Tabernacle. He was uniquely called by God and gifted by God. What is curious is that Solomon makes this statement:

“For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”
– Proverbs 2:6

And Solomon used the exact same Hebrew words in Proverbs 2:6 as Moses used in Exodus 31, where it was said of the artist, he possessed these exact three qualifications:

“See, I have called by name Bezalel … and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, and understanding and knowledge and craftsmanship”
– Exodus 31:2-3

When I stumbled upon this, I sought out Old Testament scholars to verify this connection and to ask if this is clear that Solomon must have had Bezalel in mind. They confirmed that it makes sense that Solomon was referring to the only other person in the Bible who had such wisdom, understanding and knowledge: Bezalel. This demonstrates, once again, artists have a special place in God’s economy and that Artists called by God are supposed to be wise and sharp in their understanding of the world and their craft. We cover this connection in more detail and depth in our Arts and Entertainment Institute.

Innocent vs Naïve

God calls us to do what is right and to avoid evil. God called us to forgive and be patient. But He never calls us to be naïve. He charges us to be wise, and to be aware of the schemes of the evil one. (Eph 6:11) Peter charges us to be aware of the evil in the world and the Evil One:

Be sober-minded; be watchful.
Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
– 1 Peter 5:8 (ESV)

We must never confuse innocence with ignorance, or righteousness with naivete. Innocent refers to our intention to avoid evil, not being unaware of evil. Naivete is the evidence of a lack of wisdom. God’s people are never called to be gullible. We must strive to be innocent and shrewd.

Opposing Theft and Fraud

From films to art forgery, fraud and theft of creatives is everywhere. Forgery of artworks in recent years has been epidemic, costing museums and patrons millions of dollars. You can get a glimpse into the mind of an art forger in this documentary about Beltracchi.

Theft is one of the most obvious forms of evil. The Ten Commandments make it clear we should not steal. Yet we often read this commandment as speaking to us about the temptation to steal. In so doing, we avoid recognizing that this law was for life within the Israelite Nation. Therefore, it was also telling people implicitly, you should never allow someone else to steal from you or your neighbor.

Notice this: allowing someone to steal from you is enabling them to sin. It does not glorify God. It refuses to show the sinner his/her sin. It also fails to see that all sin and all theft is an affront not primarily against you as the artist but against God as the one who told us how we are to live and love one another. You should never allow others to steal from you, or refuse to recognize and compensate you for gaining exclusive access to your work.

Forgiveness and Charity

Naturally, there is a time to give of your time and talents. There is a place for pro bono work. You may offer your art or performance to a nonprofit fundraiser or offer your talents for free in service of your school or church. These are wonderful ways to celebrate others through your talents. However, this easily becomes a slippery slope. Some artists feel obligated to help every noble organization and end up never getting back to making the art that generates income for their livelihood. They allow the good intentions of others to take advantage of them and their talents. This may sound loving and godly, but it is foolish.

We know from Scripture that a worker is worthy of his/her wages. (1 Tim 5:18) And though this verse is about pastors, we don’t ask lawyers, dentists, or plumbers to do their job for free every time we call them. Neither should anyone do that to artists. It is dismissive of the artist’s talent at minimum and abusive toward the artist’s time and talent at maximum. My wife covers this in her Catalyst Course thoroughly, helping artists learn how to treat their art as a business, teaching creatives how to price their talent and time, and how to handle people always asking for freebies. Naturally, part of this is adopting an entrepreneurial mindset instead.

Wrestling With God

Jacob wrestled with God, and was rewarded for it. Was it easy? No. Was it painful? Yes. But, he didn’t give up. Even after he was wounded, he would not let go until God blessed him. It seems that in our culture where convenience and comfort are so prevalent, we begin to assume that all good things must also be convenient and comfortable. This is not an idea we find in Scripture. In fact, after Jacob is immobilized by God, Jacob is given a new name – “Israel.”

Most Christians don’t speak Hebrew and have heard the name so many times we have forgotten what it really means and where it came from. The word, “Israel” means “to wrestle with God.” That was part of the identity of all Israelites, and it is part of your identity as a Christian today.

We don’t learn a few dos and don’ts and then call it a day. No, we wrestle with God. We seek to be wise and innocent. We bring our passion and fears to God, and seek to know His will for our art and our life. We long to be righteous, humble, and confident in what God is calling us to do. It is a lifelong, mysterious journey. It is not for the naïve, the faint of heart or the ignorant. It is the life of the shrewd, the ones seeking to learn wisdom from God, and the ones who refuse to become complacent.

Caution and the Counsel of Many

There is a considerable caveat here: you are not Solomon, and even Solomon knew wisdom requires advisors, coaches and counselors. As he wrote, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” (Prov. 15:22) Just because you became a Christian doesn’t mean you gained the strategy and wisdom of a WestPoint Grad. It doesn’t mean you will hear God’s voice at every turn and you don’t have to think it through carefully. You are still a work in progress, who can be deceived, and you lack the experience to handle every new situation and challenge.

This is part of why successful creatives and entrepreneurs have coaches. It is also why my wife created her online coaching program for creatives called, Catalyst. if you are looking for a coach or mentor, check it out. Go to this link so you are the first to hear of the next time we open up registration.

Conclusion

God has called you to be wise. He has called you to be shrewd. So don’t let others take advantage of you. If it is required, hire an excellent and shrewd attorney. Negotiate to protect your investment in your craft and your livelihood. You still need to guard your heart, to make sure you are approaching this out of a heart of stewardship, not due to greed.

But as you seek to honor God with your talent, be wise in your negotiation. My friends who didn’t get paid for their creative assets have learned a lesson many of us have to learn. We are worthy of our wages. Our time and talent should be respected. This is not selfishness or vanity. It is wisdom. We should honor God by neither stealing from others nor letting them steal from us or our neighbor. This is part of what God intended, when He gave us the Law and showed us what a healthy and beautiful society should look like.

The real challenge is this: How are you being gracious and wise in the business side of your creative work? How have you learned throughout your career to be shrewd as a serpent in the art world, the media complex, or the entertainment industry? What shrewd advice do you wish someone had given you when you were starting out? Share your experiences down below and lets continue the conversation!

Copyright © 2022 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

4 comments on “Shrewd As Serpents”

  1. Kathy Free Reply

    I now have to really filter how to utilize my gifts at my church. It’s such a painful discouraging story I hardly dare go into it.
    My churches children’s committee decided to paint over some murals I had done without hardly talking to me. They were all things that the church had asked me to do over a period of years. I did them pro bono though they paid for some of the materials. It was the fact that they voted to paint over ALL of them not just one, if you want to cause an artist to doubt a whole lot of her life that’s a good way to do it. A pastor thought it was funny because he couldn’t figure out why I had a problem. There were elements that got worked into sermons, it was my quiet nightmare.

    Mostly it signaled some issues in the church, I sensed that no one really knew what they were doing. They did want me to help with the new murals which consisted of “simple backgrounds” and cartoon vinyl wall decal animals. They look more like Disney characters. It’s as if they didn’t even know me. The worst part is thinking that no one cared for me as a person. I had to get counseling because what happened brought up older wounds. Not a single person in leadership has ever done any follow up to ask how I was doing since.

    When I started out as an artist I hoped that one day God would use some small interest I had in art for his glory. I have been coordinating a few other art projects over the years with other artists, now it just seems like it wont ever be the same!
    Don’t ever give your art away for free, unless you’re also prepared to know that other people probably won’t appreciate what it took for you to create it. They can’t know your history or your story about what went into creating the first murals, let alone how you were going to process having them all painted over with three weeks notice. It is much harder to create something beautiful than it is to destroy it.

    I am not a perfect artist, but I am pretty good at what I do and I have always sought to be responsible with whatever talent God gave me.
    It maybe has been this situation that has caused me to value it more. As in evaluate why and what you choose to do or how to give wisely. My last name is Free literally, this doesn’t mean I want to be taken for granted.

    I do not need to be guilted into saying yes to a request because its supposed to prove that the matter is forgiven. It’s about trust, and knowing the reality of the pain. God is teaching me a lot through this, but I’m still waiting to be healed. I never saw this coming from my church, but most people in the church aren’t perfect I guess, including me.

    I have really appreciated your articles, I pass them along to my artist friends. If you have any resources for discussion groups would be among Christian Creatives would be interesting. I tried doing the catalyst class but couldn’t participate live because of my work schedule.
    Thank you for this article!

    • Joel Pelsue Reply

      Kathy,

      Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’m sorry to hear this, but sadly not surprised. I agree with your statement, “Don’t ever give your art away for free, unless you’re also prepared to know that other people probably won’t appreciate what it took for you to create it.” The whole idea of pro bono work is exactly what you should do, and what we teach in the Catalyst Course. Sadly, people who are not artists don’t often appreciate how personal our work is, and therefore don’t understand how covering up your murals would feel personal. They may think it is like a stage prop or a backdrop that was intended only for one show/season. So much goes unsaid in these interactions that open the door for misunderstanding and offense.

      If you charge money, you can say, “Fine, you paid for it, do what you want.”
      If you did it for free as a gift you need to remember it is a ‘gift’. Then you can say, “It is a gift. You can do with it as you want.”
      The hard part is when a church or school asks you to contribute, and you contribute out of a desire in your heart to meaningfully add to their experience and community. Then when they cover it over, it is as if they are saying, “Your heartfelt, meaningful contribution isn’t meaningful anymore.” Maybe this reflects your experience.
      Then it wasn’t the pro bono issue. It was the distinct difference between how you valued your contribution and how others did not value it in a like manner.

      I remember being asked by a church to play some Christmas music on the clarinet before the Christmas Eve Service. I practiced in preparation but in interacting with the worship director it was clear they saw my playing as a form of musak. They didn’t really value my talent or ability (though I’d started playing professionally decades ago). I let them know I wasn’t interested in playing. Then, at the service, I saw they put on some background music of various pop Christmas tunes. It was the opposite of what I wanted to do, and I was relieved I didn’t waste my time. It was clear they wouldn’t have valued my contribution. They only really wanted the latest commercial worship style – not anything like I would want…some great classical or great jazz arrangements. It felt like I avoided putting pearls before swine. Not that I’m the best player in the world, but I don’t need to offer my talents where they are not valued. They were happy with Muzak, and I was happy not putting in the time and the creative investment. Maybe this helps you feel like you are not alone. Because, trust me. You are not alone!

      Thank you again for sharing your story. I’m sure it will be an encouragement to others that they are not alone!

      And one last thing –
      GOD SEES WHAT YOU OFFER TO OTHERS WITH YOUR TALENT! He sees what is in your heart, and knows the investment you made.
      He loves you, and enjoys seeing you use the talents He gave you to bless others.

      In His Beautiful Grace,

      Joel

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