The Problem with Advice

The Problem with Advice

The Problem with Advice

Ed Welch

Two friends. One will give you advice. Good advice. The other will pray for you right then and there and will keep praying for you.

Which one do you want to talk with?

“It depends.” Yes, it does. Sometimes you might want some good advice. If you want to buy a new car or find the best cheese steak in town you would seek advice. But for most everything else, especially if it has hardships attached, you call the other friend.

Biblical counsel is not the same as advice. If you ask for advice, biblical counselors might offer it, but advice is not the essence of what we do. Biblical counsel is closer to the intentions of the praying friend.

The distinction is tricky but important.

Here are some of my concerns about advice:

  • Advice talks more than it listens. It gives quick responses based on what the advice-giver would do in a situation more than it considers the giftedness and priorities of the other person. For example, everyone has advice for a depressed person. Get out of bed, get dressed, take a shower, exercise, read your Bible, look for a job, and so on. That all sounds good, but it is out of reach for the depressed person. If you were depressed and heard these things you would immediately run to your other friend who would pray for you.
  • Advice gives specific direction. “Do this.” “Put her in time-out, in a room with no toys, for five minutes.” I have no complaints about specific direction, but, in the case of parenting, counselors usually discover that it is more helpful to consider the goals of discipline (e.g., physical safety, spiritual safety) and the parental motives for it (loving, shepherding). Once these larger purposes come into view, applications are a creative and conjoint effort that is suited to a parent’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Advice is not known for compassion. It looks for problems and offers a solution. Usually, when a mother says, “my daughter is driving me crazy,” she is not looking for advice but for someone who will understand her unique parenting challenges. Most people are not really asking for advice! How many times have spouses spoken about a challenging time in their day only to have their mates break into advice? It happens all the time. The advice isn’t wrong, but usually the spouse just wanted a compassionate partner and listener. Having dispensed advice to my spouse before, I speak from experience.
  • Advice-givers rarely follow up with the person who received the advice. As such, they tend to assume that the person followed the advice and all went well, and confidently move on to advise the next person in the queue.
  • Different wise people can give different advice. Years ago my wife and I sought parenting advice from people in our church. We went to one couple and received advice. We went to another and received the opposite advice. Then we went to someone else to break the tie, which we implemented only to quickly discover that it was wrong for our family.
  • Advice can be right— but wrong. Job’s counselors were correct, in part. Sometimes bad things happen to people who need to repent. But their advice missed the mark. They reduced all bad events to personal sin and were blind to other features of God’s ways. Sometimes our advice is biblically true but doesn’t really address what is most important. For example, we can give someone decent advice on how to handle anger when the real problem is that the person is scared to death.

Most of these problems can be avoided with a few simple comments.

  • “Ugh. That is so hard. Is there any way I can help?”
  • “Let’s consider this one together. Your question is an important one and it sounds like you have thought a lot about it.”
  • Having said all this, it’s also true that advice can be a good thing. The book of Proverbs reminds us to heed it, but even Proverbs hints at two different kinds of advice. One kind of advice is not the “this is what I would do” kind, but it is moral discernment offered to someone whose moral path is not so clear. “Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise” (Pro. 19:20). The second kind is closer to advice as I am identifying it here. It tends to be, “based on my experience, this is what I would do.” For example, “Make plans by seeking advice; if you wage war, obtain guidance” (Pro. 20:18). In both cases Scripture reminds us that we are creatures who don’t have everything we need within ourselves, and we are wise to make decisions with the community’s input. We listen to both. We especially heed the wisdom that identifies the moral and godly path.

    I am pushing the distinction between a friend who prays and a friend who gives advice as a way to make a point. In actual practice, most friends lean to one side or another but don’t exclusively specialize in either. I am using the distinction to tease out some important differences in the way we minister to one another.

    And me, I would go to the person who prays.

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