A couple of weeks ago, I flew halfway across the country to attend a Christian conference. At these sorts of events, emotions and passions run high, people who have leadership skills finally commit to being in the ministry, people who lack leadership skills finally commit to being in the ministry, challenges are made, couples break up, women find their Prince Charmings, and men find their Proverbs 31 wives. Basically, big decisions and new realizations are made – perfect fodder for a blog post. One particularly emotional night, I sat down with a girl I barely knew and poured out my heart to her regarding a big decision that’s been on my mind. She said to me, “You’ve said a lot of about what you think, so it seems like you might be relying a bit too much on your own thinking and understanding. What sort of advice did you get?” I didn’t know what to tell her exactly – the advice I’d gotten hadn’t been extremely specific. That’s not to say it wasn’t helpful, quite the contrary, but that the conclusion wasn’t necessarily more clear after I’d asked for advice. It was a difficult decision and the right answer wasn’t clear. This made me realize that there are two ways to give advice.
The first way is to simply tell someone what to do. The adviser listens and comes to a conclusion on what the other person should do, and then says it. This sort of advice can be helpful at times, and is probably the most common advice. This is the type of advice that Eliphaz the Temanite gives in Job 22:21, “Submit to God and be at peace with him; in this way prosperity will come to you. Accept instruction from his mouth and lay up his words in your heart. If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored….”
Who wouldn’t give that advice? Submitting to God seems like a fine thing to do! Yet then in Job 42:7 God says, “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Eliphaz and his friends are missing something important, even though much of their advice seems sound.
Sometimes sort of advice isn’t that helpful anyway: it might work when everybody gives you the same answer, but that’s rarely the case. A few of the people you talk to will say, “yes” and others will say “no,” so you can’t please everybody all at once. More importantly, no two situations are identical – what was successful in the life of the adviser might not work for someone else. Christianity is not a one-size fits all system; we follow the spirit not the letter of the law. Yet there is a danger in presuming to know what is the best path for someone else.
This is why it is often better to take the second approach to advice. Rather than telling someone specifically what to do, one can suggest certain facts or perspectives to consider. That’s the sort of advice that I received about my big decision: people asked, “have you considered this? ” or they told me “you should remember that.” This type of advice is helpful because it reveals the thought process behind a decision. It gently reminds someone of important considerations that might sway their decision, without trying to decide for them. It acknowledges and trusts the good judgment of the one asking the advice.
Most importantly, giving advice this way leaves open the opportunity for consideration without condemnation. In the first case, if a person ends up not taking the advice (which is invariably bound to happen because often advisers offer conflicting opinions), the adviser can feel offended, wondering why they were even asked for their opinion. Of course, an adviser may not know of other circumstances that have arisen or be aware of what suggestions other counselors gave. There is less room for offense with the second method.
We must always remember to ask others for guidance, for “a wise man listens to advice” (Proverbs 12:15). Yet we should also be mindful of how we give that advice. As J.R.R. Tolkien put it, through the mouth of the elf Gildor, “Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.” Then again, maybe we shouldn’t listen; Tolkien also told us, “Do not go to the elves for counsel, for they will say both yes and no.”