Sometimes taking advice is easy.
If the CEO calls you into his office and says, “This is how you get a promotion at this company,” well, you start taking notes. When the payoff is obvious, and the source is both authoritative and trustworthy, it’s easy to take advice.
Of course, most of the advice we receive isn’t like that. We’ve all been in situations where someone completely unqualified waltzes up to offer “advice” that’s really just a set of polite criticisms. Or maybe we open up and share a personal struggle, and some well-meaning but tone-deaf friend immediately suggests all the things we should’ve done differently. When that’s the kind of advice we’re getting, it can be easy to tune it out, nod politely, and ignore.
But what if God doesn’t want us to do that? What if his view of receiving advice and instruction is different than the default reactions of our heart? Consider Proverbs 19:20:
Listen to advice and accept instruction,
that you may gain wisdom in the future.
God wants his people to be teachable, in order that they may be wise. This isn’t hard to understand, but it’s extremely hard to live out. For all we might affirm about the importance of teachability, when this truth arrives at the fortress of our hearts, we bar the gates. We don’t let it in.
Proverbs 19:20 is one of those verses we’d be really happy if everyone else took to heart. We love it when others listen to our advice. But are we as enthusiastic when we’re on the receiving end of things?
Following Jesus means being teachable, so we ought to cultivate that attitude ourselves. But what exactly does teachability look like in the life of a follower of Jesus? Here are two main ways it shows up.
1. Listen to advice, regardless of who it’s from or how it’s delivered.
The longer you live, the more you’re going to get advice from people who probably shouldn’t be giving it to you. Moms will get parenting advice from someone who doesn’t have any children. Leaders will get not-so-helpful suggestions from people who don’t realize how uninformed they are. We’ll all get recommendations for overcoming trials and obstacles from people who don’t have the first clue what we’re going through.
But you know what? If everyone waited until they were perfectly wise before speaking into each other’s lives, then nobody would ever give advice. Well, that sounds kind of nice, you might think. Yeah, maybe, but it doesn’t sound like God’s plan for his people. God wants every Christian to listen to advice and accept instruction, even though the only people around who can give it to you are flawed and sinful. He wants you to do this because it’s good for you and for your heart.
If everyone waited until they were perfectly wise before speaking into each other’s lives, then nobody would ever give advice.
It’s easy to elevate a few select people onto a pedestal and take only what they say to heart. When that happens, though, what inevitably follows is the pedestal gets smaller and smaller, and pretty soon we’ve given ourselves permission to completely dismiss anyone who’s not on it. Before too long, the only person left on that pedestal is you. You’ve made yourself, instead of God, arbiter of the kinds of things you’ll listen to.
Besides, it’s not like God hasn’t built in filters anyway. It’s called church membership. Think about it: what’s true of every one of your fellow church members, even if you don’t know them? You know they affirm the same foundational truths about God, Christ, and the Bible as you, because they affirm your church’s statement of faith. You know they’re sitting under the same authoritative preaching of God’s Word; they’re empowered by the same Holy Spirit; and they’re destined for the same glorious eternal inheritance.
That’s a pretty trustworthy set of controls. So, the next time someone speaks out of turn, or tries to fix you without understanding you, fight the defensiveness in your heart. Instead, listen. It may be that, however unqualified or clunky the messenger, the message is exactly what God wants you to hear.
Especially in the context of the local church, teachability means we listen to advice, regardless of who it’s from or how it’s delivered.
2. Proactively seek out advice, especially from elders and other wise people.
Despite the point above, our lives shouldn’t be at the mercy of any random subset of socially awkward advice-givers. In fact, if the only people giving us advice lack maturity and discretion, then the solution isn’t to have nobody give you advice; it’s to seek out advice from more mature, wiser believers.
Again, in the context of the local church, this begins most obviously with our church’s elders. We ought to make our lives available to their counsel. But of course, wisdom doesn’t stop there. Anywhere we see wisdom, we should be willing to seek it out.
I realize it might seem hard to do this. Life is busy, and relationships take time. If the prospect of approaching someone and soliciting advice seems daunting, you could start with something a bit easier. Listen attentively to the preaching of the Word at your church. If your pastor is doing his job well, he’ll be applying each passage with specific exhortations. If pursuing godly criticism seems difficult, start there.
Also consider other statements your pastors make. Perhaps they need more volunteers in the nursery, or they’re eager to see more people attend the Sunday-evening prayer gathering. When you hear direct, practical exhortations from your elders, what happens in your heart? Is your natural reaction to take that advice to heart and follow it? Or do you grumble at the friendly suggestions?
If on hearing specific exhortations your heart’s response is resentment, if your baseline assumption is that you are the exception, then let me suggest that you’re not very teachable and therefore not on the path to gaining wisdom.
Jesus Saved the Unwise
We all want wisdom—we just don’t always want to do what it takes to get it. Why? There are lots of reasons, but in the end it boils down to self-protection. We want to protect our reputation and credibility. We want to be seen as having our lives together, as not really needing any but the most peripheral tweaks on our otherwise godly, wise course.
That self-protective lie needs to be exposed to gospel truth. Jesus came to save people who are wrong, ignorant, and foolish. Jesus came to save people who are not capable, not together, not righteous.
We don’t have to pretend we’re the kind of people who are past the point of needing advice and instruction. Why? Because we’re Christians! Our whole lives are built on the premise that we desperately needed someone else’s wisdom, because our own was leading us straight to hell.
Let’s put down our weapons and open up the gates of our heart. God desires to disarm our defensive self-protection with the help of fellow redeemed fools. Let’s listen to advice, brothers and sisters, and accept instruction. It might not look smart, but in the end, we’ll be wiser for it.