As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
I love giving advice. It’s one of my spiritual gifts, my love language, my default mode when someone has anything off-kilter in their life. I relish offering movie referrals, love introducing people to like-minded others, enjoy sharing techniques that worked for me in parenting, bread-making, talking to difficult people, and falling asleep at a reasonable time at night (which I still often struggle to do).
And for what it’s worth, I often seek out advice. I should say, I like hearing advice. I might write it in my journal, sit on it for a while, and ask more people for advice on a decision I should have made a week earlier but am still deliberating about.
I am a chronic advice giver. It’s partly the teacher in me, partly the fixer-personality, partly the person who was trained in evangelism and leadership techniques and who wants to always be prepared with an answer.
It’s taken me a long time to realize that sometimes all my words and referrals and quotes from inspirational speakers or sitcoms are just too much for people. Sometimes it’s not advice people need, but rather wisdom, and wisdom just takes so much longer.
We live in a world where we are constantly being bombarded with advice. I can’t open a web browser or drive down the highway without being told what to buy and what to look like, and many of the ads on youTube or magazine racks scream clickbait titles like “10 Steps to Increase Your Happiness!” or “Stop Eating These Five Things if You Want to Lose Weight,” or “Do This if You Want to Enhance Your Love Life.”
I think of the kinds of Instagram accounts I am drawn to, accounts where someone talks to the camera and tells you what to do: how to parent your kids, how to make the best cookies you’ve ever had in your life, how to let go of the past and start living your best life. This is the kind of information we are attracted to, the kind of content we want to ingest. Straight forward, direct, clear cut. Social media posts that begin with phrases like, “I don’t know who needs to hear this right now, but—.” It’s the kind of lifestyle advice we want, the kind of sermon we want, the kind of teaching we want.
But it’s not the kind of Scripture we get. Scripture is imaginative, complicated, all over the place in terms of its scope. Even the book of Proverbs, full of sentence-length principles to live by and the kind of axioms we might want to print on tote bags, is full of paradoxes and oxymorons. Proverbs 26 for example famously seems to contradict itself in one breath as it instructs in verse 4, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly,” and immediately in verse 5 says to “Answer a fool according to his folly.” This is because Proverbs is not a handbook or a collection of rules for life. It’s wisdom literature, and it can’t simply be reduced to a soundbite and consumed while scrolling through material. It is meant to be chewed up, ruminated on, digested slowly, tasted on a platter of adages, and shared around a table with others.
In Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, Eugene Peterson explains, “Jesus wasn’t so much handing out information as reshaping imaginations.” In Jesus’ life and ministry he asked questions, told stories, breathed new life into ancient Scripture. He didn’t offer a lot of advice, but rather invited people to reconsider what the kingdom of God was and what it might look like to be part of it. Advice offers a to-do list. Wisdom reshapes the imagination.
Wisdom requires attention, consciousness, self-reflection, a deep and constant listening: to God’s word, to others, to the created world, to the voices of those who are drowned out and underrepresented, to the Spirit. It involves a deep and constant attention to Scripture, but one that recognizes the complexity of what we bring to our reading, to our invisible presuppositions and assumptions, to the attitudes and influences we don’t even know we have.
It’s not that advice is weak or that wisdom can’t be cultivated through learning from people on social media. But advice is limited, and simply scrolling through posts or watching videos of people who say interesting or feel-good things is not wisdom. Wisdom is not tangible or summarizable. Wisdom is what happens after you close the book or put down the device or walk out of church and weigh what you’ve read or heard, and then implement any value you’ve gained from it.
There is a place for advice, and we find examples of practical guidance throughout Scripture, in the Torah, in the Proverbs, in the occasional word from Jesus (who tells the resurrected girl to get something to eat), in the letters to the early churches. Advice plays an important role in the walk of faith. Mentorship, discipleship, pastoral relationships, and friendship all provide ample opportunities for direction. But they provide more opportunity for wisdom. Wisdom is a richer, stronger, more valuable biblical motif than that of personal opinion. And wisdom, I’ve realized, requires a lot of listening.
For many of us, particularly those of us drawn to ministry and teaching, the spiritual discipline of listening is just that: a discipline. It takes practice, it takes work. It might not be our default position to listen thoroughly and often. So I’m learning, slowly, to reserve my referrals and suggestions, and am trying to apply the advice I’m offering here.
It is so easy for our churches and ministries to absorb lifestyle language in our discipleship. Our default is to create sermons that evolve around advice, to design ministries programs that are strictly practical. But church can be a place where we take respite from the ever-growing list society throws at us of all the things we need to do to be better, happier, healthier. Instead, church is a place of grace, where we can come as we are, reflect, and rest in a community that steps away from a bustling world to sit at Christ’s feet.
About the Author
Melissa is a writer and CRC chaplain to Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ont.