Graceless advice.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 November 2017
Questions? Comments? Email. But remember, my feedback policy means I can post it. Sometimes to share the advice with everyone… sometimes for yuks.

I don’t really have to remind people that TXAB has an email link. I get questions on a fairly regular basis about all sorts of stuff. Usually asking my opinion about various Christian practices and movements, which I often wind up turning into TXAB articles on the subject.

And sometimes people ask for personal advice, which I’m much less likely to turn into TXAB articles. ’Cause they’re dealing with particular specific things. If I just posted these emails for the whole of the internet to read, it feels like a huge invasion of privacy. Even if I heavily censored them. The rare times I’ve done it, I tend to rewrite them entirely, which is why they kinda sound like me.

Not that this stops the various advice ladies from doing this on a daily or weekly basis. But then again, the people who send them questions know precisely what they’re getting into. If you send “Dear Abby” a letter, it’s gonna get published. So, best you hide certain details, because you don’t want the neighbors to deduce who you are, or who your spouse is. Sometimes people hide too many details for fear of getting outed, which means “Abby” can’t give an accurate diagnosis, which is why professional therapists aren’t always happy with the advice ladies.

Whereas the people who send me stuff obviously don’t expect me to blab this stuff all over the internet. ’Cause they do share confidences, hoping I’ll keep them. Which I will, with some caveats.

But there are limits to my expertise. I get a lot of questions about depression. Not because I suffer from it myself, but because a lot of people just plain do suffer from it. And when they go to their fellow Christians, they’re often given the lousy advice to try and pray it away. I regularly remind these people they need to see a doctor. Depression is a legitimate medical condition, and I’m not a psychiatrist. (My graduate psych classes dealt with education, not mental illness.) Go talk with a doctor and get a proper diagnosis. Don’t just send an email to some blogger: Go get actual help.

And if you read the advice ladies, they’ll often advise the very same thing. There’s still a lot of stigma in our culture against seeing a psychiatrist. Too many people think a mental disorder isn’t an illness, but a moral failure, caused by sin, exacerbated by devils. Exactly like the people of Jesus’s day thought of physical disorders:

John 9.1-2 KWL
1 Passing by, Jesus saw a person who was blind since birth.
2 Questioning him, Jesus’s students said, “Rabbi, who sinned? He or his parents?”
because he was blind since birth.

Jesus had to state, “Neither,” then cure the guy. But to this day people still act as if a birth defect is an “act of God,” and still act as if depression is because of some unconfessed sin or something. We’re so quick to judge, and slow to help.

Judging—which we Christians are allowed to do with one another, 1Co 5.12 provided we don’t use double standards—is a fairly simple process when we have an easy-to-understand scripture. If you’re asking me about bible, most of the time the scriptures are cut-and-dried, and I can easily tell you about ’em. I can give as quick a decision as any small-claims court show, like Judge Judy, who wraps up those cases really fast when the law is clear. I’ll just quote the appropriate proof text, bang the gavel (metaphorically; I don’t actually own one, and I’m not using my hammer on my wooden desk), and we’re done.

But most of the questions I get aren’t black and white. If they were, most people woulda figured ’em out themselves. They’re about debatable interpretations of the bible, and people figure they need an expert to help ’em navigate, figure I sound like I know what I’m talking about, so they come to me. But unlike a know-it-all apologist or “bible answer man,” I’m slow to judge. I’ll tell you what I think it looks like. I’m not gonna condemn you if you honestly come to another conclusion. You gotta stay true to your conscience, Ro 14.1-4 as do I. I’ve no business declaring you wrong; what do I know?

So I’d likely make a really unentertaining advice lady. What people want are snap decisions, and I don’t always have one of those.

Snap decisions sell the show.

Back when I used to read the advice ladies in the newspaper (back when I used to actually get a newspaper; usually the local papers had Ann Landers or Amy Dickinson) my least-favorite columns would be where Landers or Dickinson would say, “You have a bigger problem than I can address long-distance in a column; you need to see a therapist.” Which is precisely the right answer, but come on: We readers wanted to know who was right, who was wrong, and that was that.

Bu as I said, it was the right answer. When a spouse is in the wrong, being able to wave “Dear Abby” in front of him and declare, “Abby agrees with me” isn’t necessarily gonna win him over. (In fact he might be outraged you aired your private business in the newspaper, and now his friends are gonna figure out he’s the guy who likes you to hit him with fish.) Sometimes it’s not for the advice lady to pick sides; it’s for both sides to go to a counselor and work out their issues.

That is, assuming you wanna keep the relationship together.

There’s an advice lady I still read from time to time. She’s relatively new; she took over an old column. And she has the habit, not of telling people they oughta see a therapist, but that they oughta straight-up break up. End the relationship. Because one partner or the other crossed the line, so they need to just be done. Break up now. Or divorce.

First time I saw her advise a woman to break up with her boyfriend immediately, my honest first reaction was, “Well duh they need to break up.” There are a lot of people who stay in an unhealthy relationship because they’ve invested a lot of time into it, and don’t want to feel it’s time wasted. That’s understandable. But if you’re waiting for your partner to reform, and your partner has no intention of ever reforming, it really is time wasted. Somebody needs to give these people a cold wet slap of reality, so the advice lady took it upon herself to do so.

Hey, it is the sort of snap decision the readers love.

Problem is, this particular advice lady doesn’t just give this advice to people who are dating the wrong people. She gives it to married couples: “That’s awful, and you need to talk to a divorce attorney.” Other advice ladies would at least try to salvage the marriage—and leave it to the marriage counselors to recommend divorce, or not. This advice lady skips them and recommends it herself. “You need to break up” isn’t slowed down at all by the marriage vows.

To some pagans, marriage is simply dating plus legal obligations. Get out of the obligations and you can go your separate ways. But Christians understand marriage is sacred. Heck, other pagans also recognize it as sacred; it’s why they won’t marry till they’re absolutely certain they never wanna undo the relationship. They have the right idea. This advice lady? Not so much. She just wants to pound the gavel on the relationship.

Other Christians are much the same way when they offer advice. They wanna judge, condemn, and end relationships. “That’s a sin; you’re a sinner; repent or go to hell.” It’s never about restoration and forgiveness. It’s about wrath and separation; it’s dark Christian territory, because these people don’t know Christ as well as they imagine.

For them, the bible’s nothing but quick answers—and it has all the answers. And yes, when it comes to salvation and God, the bible does have all the answers… well, all the answers God cares to give us at this time. As far as every other answer, for situations where God figured we were clever enough to figure it out for ourselves, he said nothing. The bible doesn’t offer answers, but at best, hints. Hints which Christians regularly extrapolate into answers. And judgments.

And that’d be wrong. God’s kingdom runs on grace. Our answers and advice should reflect his kingdom, and if they don’t, they’re not God’s answers, but our answers. They didn’t come from heaven, but humanity. If we try to pass them off as “Christian answers” or “biblical principles,” as if God came up with ’em instead of us, that’d be slander. Or to use the older Christianese word for it, blasphemy.

You can see why I’m super hesitant to go there. You might also notice plenty of Christians don’t hesitate at all; they’re so certain they’re right. We’re not, y’know, and the wisest course is to withhold judgment. Be like Jesus, who came into the world to save it, not condemn it. Jn 3.17 Be gracious.

There ya go. My unsolicited advice for the day.