Clever isn’t always bad.
The 1828 Webster’s Dictionary defines “guile” as “Craft; cunning; artifice; duplicity; deceit,” and then it adds, “usually in a bad sense.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as “Sly or cunning intelligence.”
The word only appears once in the Book of Mormon, in a decidedly positive sense.
After Ammon singlehandedly defeated a gang of marauders attempting to scatter King Lamoni’s flocks, the king was dumbfounded. How could this foreigner, who had only recently begun his service, succeed so emphatically where others had failed?
When Ammon returned, the king sat silently for an hour, not knowing what to say.
Finally, the king asked him to explain how he was able to accomplish this miracle. Ammon began his response with a question: “Wilt thou hearken unto my words, if I tell thee by what power I do these things?” The king answered, “Yea, I will believe all thy words.” Mormon then tells us that, with that exchange of words, the king “was caught with guile” (Alma 18:22-23).
Why did Mormon use the word “guile” to describe this incident? I think he was admiring Ammon’s cleverness in winning over the king. After all, when Ammon had first arrived in the land, he had been captured, bound, and carried to the king as a prisoner. He had volunteered to be a servant, refused an offer to marry the king’s daughter, and expressed a desire to live in the kingdom indefinitely (Alma 17:20-25). Now, when he was given the opportunity to teach, he wanted the king’s commitment to take the message seriously before he began.
Ammon was shrewd. He knew a thing or two about people, and he was able to interact with the king in a way that maximized his probability of success in sharing the gospel.
Ammon was not guilty of deceit or duplicity (two possible meanings of the word “guile”). Mormon clarifies that Ammon was “wise, yet harmless” (Alma 18:22), which echoes the Savior’s admonition that his apostles be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Why? Because they were going out “as sheep in the midst of wolves.” You can be kind without being naive. Sincerity doesn’t require you to turn off your brain or to trust the untrustworthy.
Nearly every time the word “guile” appears in the King James Version of the Bible, it is portrayed as something negative, something to be avoided. For example, when Jesus saw Nathanael for the first time, He paid him the following compliment: “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” (John 1:47).
However, in one passage, the meaning of the word is somewhat ambiguous. In Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians, as he strives to defend his record as a missionary, he reminds the people that he didn’t “burden” them when he was among them. “Nevertheless, being crafty,” he writes, “I caught you with guile” (2 Corinthians 12:16).
The context of this passage strongly suggests that he was speaking ironically: paraphrasing his detractors, who thought he had tricked his converts into joining the church.
But it is also possible to find in Paul’s missionary service the same cleverness and shrewdness that we saw in Ammon. It was Paul, for example, who used the Athenians’ anxiety about a possible missing diety as the launching point for a speech about the true God (Acts 17:22-31). It was Paul who escaped the judgment of the Sanhedrin by pitting the Pharisees against the Sadducees (Acts 23:6-10). And it was Paul who, in Greek, asked the chief captain to allow him to speak to the people of Jerusalem, whom he immediately addressed in Aramaic (Acts 21:37-40). Paul wanted only the best for the people he served, but he was astute and thoughtful about interacting with other people in a way that helped him accomplish his goals.
Today, I will remember that God expects me to use all of my resources, including my intellect, as I contribute to His work. I will interact with others sincerely, without any hidden motives. But I will also strive to be persuasive: to serve them and to speak with them in a way that resonates with them and motivates them to take actions that will lead them closer to God.