Tell Me Exactly What To Do (And I Will Do the Opposite): A Brief History of Advice

What the Heart Wants, the Will Chooses, and the Mind Justifies

Sam Bush / 7.6.20

“How is it possible to expect that mankind will take advice, when they will not so much as take warning?” – Jonathan Swift

I‘ll always remember our wedding caterer telling me and my wife that, if we wanted to make sure our reception ran smoothly, we would assign a master of ceremonies. “People like to be told what to do,” she said. She was right. The night went smoothly as one of our trusted friends gently shepherded everyone from cocktail hour to dinner and from dinner to dancing without a hitch. If only it were so easy outside the world of wedding receptions.

Josh Billings, the 19th-century humorist, once said, “When a man comes to me for advice, I find out the kind of advice he wants, and I give it to him.” Billings clearly understood that advice is something that is profusely given, often requested, but never earnestly received. While all of us may need it, very rarely do we pay heed to it.

Such is the case when I ask others for guidance. While my tone is sincere, my actual response indicates that I’m looking less for advice and more for permission. In times of indecision, I will shake the Magic 8 ball enough times to hear what I want. If I’m told, “My Sources Say No,” I question the validity of the sources and give the ball another rattle. I shake it over and over again until it declares a clear, assertive “YES,” permitting me to do what I had wanted to do all along. The same goes for my own prayer life. Rarely do I instinctively pray for humility or wisdom. More often, what my heart asks of God is permission rather than wisdom.

Adam Grant verified this tendency in his New York Times article, “We Get, And Give, Lots of Bad Advice” back in April. “Although we say we want advice from people with relevant expertise and experience,” he writes, “we end up reaching out to the ones who are enthusiastic and approachable. In hospitals, my colleagues and I have found that when health care professionals need a second opinion, they turn to their most accessible colleagues instead of the most knowledgeable experts.” He goes on to say that the same applies in tech companies, the music industry and, well, everywhere. Especially when we find ourselves in times of indecision, when anxiety impairs our ability to choose, we fail to function on an objective level.

Grant goes on to point out that, while people are often wiser when giving advice to others than they are in making decisions for themselves, it doesn’t always work out well. In psychology, what’s known as Solomon’s Paradox is a natural result of having more distance from other people’s problems than one’s own and, therefore, having a clearer perspective. After all, Solomon’s words may contain eternal wisdom, but Lord knows he struggled following his own advice.

While our desperate need for guidance is strong, it is no match for the deeper cravings of the heart. Even when we receive good advice that will help us, we will often helplessly do the opposite. Reason, good as it is, is not strong enough to govern us. The Apostle Paul diagnoses our irrational state of mind, writing that we are either slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness (Rom 6:16). Or, as the famous Ashley Null proverb goes, “What the heart wants, the will chooses and the mind justifies.” Well, if the will is captive to the heart and if the heart is a rebel, what to do?

One may assume that Jesus, being familiar with the glitches of human nature, would have avoided giving advice. And yet, he dishes it out just the same. A man who, from his own perspective, has followed the commandments asks Jesus what good deed he must do to inherit eternal life. It is a classic example of how, nine times out of ten, when we ask for advice, we are angling for flattery. The man is giving Jesus honor, but only with the intention of Jesus giving it right back to him; he wants for Jesus to tell him, “Well, it sounds like you’re doing a great job! In fact, I think I might have a spot for you on my team of disciples.”

But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. Instead, he takes his interrogator seriously and, out of love, gives him what he unknowingly asked for: advice that he could never follow by his own willpower, advice that would lead to his undoing. “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” I don’t need to remind you that the man wasn’t exactly thrilled with Jesus’ advice (Mark 10:22). Here, Jesus is using advice for what it often is: a law that could never be fulfilled by man alone.

It’s a big assumption, that if God told you exactly what to do, that you would actually do it. Such a premise ignores the human story which, after all, is a story of rebellion, of continued disobedience, of constantly trying to control what is uncontrollable. The assumption that wisdom is simply knowing the difference between right and wrong is not based on reality, in your own life or the Bible.

And yet, Jesus doesn’t expect any more from the likes of you and me. He doesn’t see the rich young ruler as a threat, but a patient in dire need of treatment. As Francis Spufford puts it in Unapologetic, “When he offends a rich person by advising them to dump their possessions, he does not say it to push them away; it is his real prescription for what afflicts them, and when they do not take his remedy he is sorry, if unsurprised.” This man matters to Jesus, not as a means to an end, but in and of himself.

Rather than expecting you to choose wisely, Jesus chose you. He realized that your rational capacity is bound by your rebel heart and, mercifully, he took pity. He did not come into the world to advise it, but to save it, console it and free it. And the same applies to your own life. The next time you are in a quandary, Jesus may very well whisper in your ear. But rather than advice, he will more likely offer assurance: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isa 41:10). As for me, whenever I’m at a wedding reception, I still like to be told what to do. Anywhere else, however, the Gospel is a far sweeter gift to receive than any piece of good advice.

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One response to “Tell Me Exactly What To Do (And I Will Do the Opposite): A Brief History of Advice”

  1. david says:

    “Advice is offensive, not because it lays us open to unexpected regret or convicts us of any fault, which had escape our notice, but because it shows us that we are known to others as well as to ourselves; and the officious monitor is persecuted with hatred, not because his accusation is false, but because he assumes that superiority which we are not willing to grant him, and has dared to detect what we desired to conceal.”
    G. K. Chesterton

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