Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Purpose of Advice, and How to Receive It

God teaches us to receive and use advice from others, when possible, before making an important decision (Proverbs 11:14, 15:22, 24:6).

But if we have an important decision to make and want to receive advice and counsel, who should we go to for advice, and how should we use the advice once we receive it? How can advice help us?

Suppose you were thinking of leaving your job to start your own business. You want advice before making a decision. One person you know left his job to start a business, and his business became a success. Another person you know left a job to start a business, and his business failed and he went bankrupt. Which one should you go to for advice?

God does not just say, in couselors there is safety. God puts an adjective before "counselors". He could have used any one of several adjectives. He could have said, in experienced counselors there is safety. Or he could have said, in wise couselors there is safety. Or how about, in righteous counselors there is safety, or "God-fearing" counselors?

But God didn't use those adjectives. He said, "in the multitude of counselors there is safety" (Proverbs 11:14), and "Without counsel, plans go awry, But in the multitude of counselors they are established" (Proverbs 15:22), and again, "And in a multitude of counselors there is safety" (Proverbs 24:6).

So the best answer is, go to both persons for advice about your decision, and others also. Each person, the one who succeeded in business and the one who failed, can contribute information you do not know or perspectives you have not thought of. The one who succeeded can tell you how he succeeded, but that by itself may not be enough. He might have had more favorable circumstances than you, and also consider, how much did he learn from his success? But the one who failed can tell you why he failed, the mistakes he made, and the lessons he learned from his mistakes, and that can be valuable advice too.

We should certainly look to those who are experienced, wise, and righteous for advice. The problem is, we are not always the best judge of who is really wise or righteous. And age and experience alone is not always the best qualification. When Job was going through his trial, it was a younger man who spoke more wisely than Job's three older and more experienced friends (Job 32:1-9, 42:7-9). "Great men are not always wise, Nor do the aged always understand justice" (Job 32:9).

The fact that God encourages us to seek a multitude of counsel teaches us something about how we are to use that counsel and advice in making a decision.

When we receive advice, that advice does not relieve us from the responsibility for making the decision ourselves. There may be times when we should follow advice and times when we should not follow the advice and counsel others give us. But we should consider the advice in our thinking and planning. We should examine the decision in light of the advice given to us and see how that advice "holds up" compared to other advice and compared to the things we already know.

Different people have different opinions. The fact that God encourages us to listen to a multitude of counselors implies that we will be given different, and sometimes contradictory, advice, but we still have to make the decision.

Advice can be useful to us for several reasons. The person advising us may know facts and information we do not know ourselves, and that information may help us make a better decision. Advice from professionals such as doctors, accountants, lawyers, etc. can be useful that way. Perhaps that is why lawyers are sometimes called "counselors". But also, an advisor, even if he is not a specialist who has facts and information we do not have, sometimes can give us a perspective, a point of view, based on facts we already have, which we have not thought of, but can be important. An advisor, even if he gives us no new information, can examine our logic and sometimes point out mistakes or inconsistancies in our thinking that we have been blind to, because we are too close to the problem perhaps, or too emotionally involved with the problem to think clearly.

But in any case, the authority for making the decision is ours, not our advisors and counselors. And God wants that responsibility to be ours. Listening to advice does not take that decision-making authority and responsibility from us. There are times when we should follow advice and there are times when we should not follow the advice given to us. The purpose of advice is to improve and add to our thinking, not to make the decision for us.

Obviously, if we come to a fork in the road (figuratively speaking), and five people advise us, "go to the left", and five people advise us, "go to the right", we have to make the choice ourselves. But even if everyone we ask advises the same thing, that is not necessarily the best course. We have to examine WHY they advise a course of action and see if their thinking is sound. Sometimes it is not.

Look at the example of David when he was fleeing from Saul and learned that the Philistines were attacking Keilah, a city in Israel. His men advised him not to fight the Philistines, but that was not good advice. David ignored that advice and made the right decision (1 Samuel 23:1-5). Likewise, David did not follow the advice of those who told him to kill King Saul (1 Samuel 24:1-7, 26:7-12). So sometimes advice and opinion can be bad, and we have to make the right decision even in the face of bad advice. God holds us responsible for our decisions.

Rehoboam, son of Solomon, sought advice on how to answer the people who asked him to lighten their burdens. His older advisors told him to go one way and the younger ones told him to go another way. He followed the advice of his young men, and it was a bad decision (1 Kings 12:1-20). Yet, wisdom is not always with the older people, as the account in Job makes clear (Job 32:1-9, 42:7-9). The answer? The older and younger advisors to Rehoboam must have given detailed reasons for their advice, and Rohoboam had the responsibility to take those reasons into consideration in making a decision. And if the correct answer as to what the reaction of the people would be was a matter of "gut feel", based on experience, of how the people would react, Rehoboam should have considered that his older advisors probably had a better feel for how the people would react than his younger men, just based on experience.

But also, wisdom comes from God (1 Kings 3:5-12, Psalm 111:10, 1 Corinthians 12:7-8, James 1:5, 3:17), and it was God's decision to withhold the wisdom for making the right decision from Rehoboam because God had already decided to tear ten tribes from the house of David because of Solomon's sin, and God used Rehoboam's mistake in judgment to accomplish this (1 Kings 11:9-13, 29-39, 12:15, 18-24).

Before making an important decision, if possible, we should try to get advice from a multitude of people, even with a variety of perspectives, and consider, not just what they advise, but WHY they advise a course of action, and examine the logic and soundness of their thinking and reasoning. We should also look to God for wisdom and guidence in making the decision (James 1:5-7).

And of course, though I have not mentioned it to this point, the decision should be made in accordance with God's will according to God's word in the Bible.

Then we have the responsibility before God to make the best decision we can. And that is our responsibility, not our advisors'. Like David, there are times when we must make the decision contrary to the advice we receive if it is bad advice. And only we can make that decision.

Here are links to related chapters or sections in Preaching the Gospel:

Faith, Chapter 8

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