Advice columns are a guilty pleasure for me, when I see them in a magazine or website, I usually read them, and consider what my own response would be. Maybe something about it satisfies my inner busybody. I think we all feel sometimes like the world would have fewer problems if everyone else would just do things the way we think they should. This is an impulse that I think works both for good and for evil, and perhaps knowing which is which is what really demands wisdom. Sometimes giving advice is a way to help build community and share wisdom that may have been hard-won. Other times, giving advice can be judgmental or arrogant. I’m sure we’ve all gotten bad advice before.
I can think of a lot of times when advice-giving is a really good way to benefit from other people’s wisdom. For example, my parents have given me advice in a lot of aspects of my life, from how to manage my money to how to succeed in school. In my PhD program I’ve learned a lot from people who are more advanced than I am. In fact, we value those relationships so much that everyone has a faculty member who is their advisor. That’s like, official advice-giver.
The Bible tells us some things about good advice, too. I think of the book of proverbs mostly as a book of good advice. In the first chapter it says the teaching (or advice) of parents are like a garland around your head and a chain around your neck. I take that to mean it makes you look good. Certainly, heeding wisdom from others is something the bible advises.
On the other hand, sometimes I think we try to give advice when we should be sympathetic and listen to others and pray. What first got me thinking about this issue was an article that was on the Think Christian twitter feed from Christianity Today about decades of Christian Dating advice. What I think the CT editorial captures so beautifully is the way pat advice can really sting when you feel you’ve done everything you are supposed to and it hasn’t worked out the way you wanted. It reminded me of the friends in the book of Job, who spend a lot of time telling Job what he must have done wrong to be in such a terrible situation. They weren’t right, and they certainly weren’t helping.
So how do you know when you should offer advice, and when you should butt out? I don’t know if this is an area in which I’m qualified to give advice, but I started thinking about the best advice I’ve ever received and it was often framed in terms of personal experience. My mentors told me how they have managed situations that I might encounter, and what they learned and what they wished they had known. That kind of advice always feels like wisdom, even if I need to discern how my situation is different.
What’s the best and worst advice you’ve ever had? How do you know when it is the right time to give advice to others?