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How to Give Advice

By November 19, 2009No Comments

Woman giving advice Some of you who know me and my husband know this has been a really stressful time for us. Ike is in the throes of applying to PhD programs. He wants to study theology so we’ve been looking at schools all over the country and the world.

Now let me begin by saying that I totally underestimated this process. The other day I ran into a friend who’s going through the same thing, and she confessed that she’s irritable all the time, snaps at her mom and roommate regularly, and cries once a week. Yikes! But I can see where she’s coming from. In a sense, this next step judges the quality and value of her last 3 years of work. You’re essentially putting yourself out there to be judged by really important people. It’s no wonder Ike’s been grumpy.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been the most supportive wife. I keep giving him great advice like, “You wanna study theology, don’t you? Then why don’t you just trust God!” Not super helpful. Or encouraging. Or sensitive.

We’ve continued to butt heads over this matter–him being stressed, me responding with super-spiritual advice–and then I came upon an insight that was just the kick in the pants I needed. I was reading Wendy Alsup’s blog “Practical Theology for Women,” and she drew a parallel between joblessness and infertility that opened my eyes to what Ike is feeling. She wrote:

First of all, have you personally struggled with infertility or miscarriage? If so, you are uniquely equipped now to better understand your husband’s burdens with his job. If you haven’t struggled with child bearing issues, try to think about how you would feel if you had — if all your friends were easily getting pregnant and telling you what worked for them but none of it worked for you. If your vision for your future involved raising children but you realized your powerlessness to accomplish that on your own. In my own experience, I found very clear parallels between my struggles with fears and insecurities when I confronted the fact I may not be able to have children and my husband’s emotional struggles when faced with unemployment and job insecurity.

First, I internalized my fears with infertility in a very different way than my husband. He does the same with his job concerns. If he lectured me on why I shouldn’t be so concerned about having children, that God is good, and His timing is perfect, it would seem slightly hollow to me as he didn’t struggle with it with the way I did. Similarly, I needed to respect the fact that my husband internalized job insecurities differently than me and THAT WAS OK. Lectures for him to come around to my way of thinking on it just weren’t fair. Instead, I needed to listen to(not lecture) him when he felt like talking and respect his silence when he didn’t.

One thing I noted when I was struggling with infertility was that advice on what to do and things to try was helpful at times. At other times, it just added a weight to an already overtaxing burden. Similarly, during the near year my husband was unemployed, he was glad to try most any and everything anyone suggested. More on his resume. Less on his resume. Try this company. Try that company. But there came a point when every good suggestion he was given didn’t produce any fruit. And he needed a definite break from well meaning advice on what to try next.

To read the whole blog click here.

Wendy’s words were kind of an epiphany for me. First, it helped me to conceptualize my husband’s struggles in a way I hadn’t before. Though the circumstances are different from losing a job, the pressures are essentially the same. He’s trying to get into school, and our future hinges on it. That is a pressure he feels very uniquely from me. Thinking of it in terms of my own “source of meaning” was helpful.

But more importantly, her words are a template on how to give advice, and how not to. Most Christians, and most people for that matter, are terrible at giving advice. We approach it from a “here’s how to fix it” kind of perspective. Even when that perspective is clothed in language about God, you’re doing the same thing. Wendy’s words reminded me that before giving advice, I need to enter into the person’s space. Imagine what they’re feeling and thinking, and respond accordingly. I need to be quick to listen and slow to speak. I need to let them define the terms of what they need, instead of me.

So while her words were specific to marriage, the underlying approach is prescriptive for all Christians.

Giving advice is an art. We have to study it before we can really get good at it. Clearly I have a lot of learning to do. So as I learn how to be a better wife, as well as a better bringer of wisdom and comfort, I think I’ll use Proverbs 10:19 as my guide:

“When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.”

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