Here is a situation that may be common to many of us: A woman joins a women’s ministry in order to grow in her faith. Throughout the small group discussion, there is a question about areas where we need prayer, or maybe she shares a prayer need. It could be time management or her job search or some health area, and then it happens. Advice. Instead of laying her need at God’s feet, the people in her group start giving their most helpful pointers.
We are living in an advice culture. We love to give our best tips. We love to share ‘helpful’ articles that tell our friends just how to fix all the problems in their life. What’s wrong with that? We just want to help, right? Maybe we do, but I think we need to be watchful of this tendency for a number of reasons, especially in the church.
Firstly, we need to be humble about our ability to fix a complex situation. Most of us aren’t doctors or psychologists, and even if we were, we wouldn’t be able pinpoint an easy solution based on the few sentences a woman shares about her problem. If a person has voiced a difficult need, she has probably considered some of the most obvious answers. For example: I know that with my infertility, it is very frustrating to have people throw in random ideas as though after several years of infertility, I have not at least given thought to just about any solution that exists. I understand that people want to feel helpful, but they aren’t my doctors, and usually the best thing they can do is to kneel in prayer with me and to walk this hard road by my side.
We often feel overwhelmed with the depths of other people’s need, and our first impulse is to try to find a solution. But the truth is that God is so much bigger than we are, and if we don’t offer our hardest situations to Him, we’re just spinning our wheels. This isn’t to say that there is never a time to offer a tidbit of advice, especially if the problem is something you can actually assist with. Let’s just be realistic about what we can actually offer.
Secondly, when we focus on fixing the immediate problem, we may be missing a much deeper need. Remember the woman at the well in John 4? When I studied that chapter recently, I was left wondering what would happen if that woman had wandered into a North American church’s women’s ministry. Would she have felt welcomed? If she had shared a piece of her life, would she have received a half dozen recommendations for relationship books and some tips on water usage? Jesus, however, did not fix her immediate problems. As the Creator and Son of God, He could have just said the word and she would have had her own well, so no need to walk out in the hot midday sun to get water by herself. He could have given her pointers on how to have healthier relationships. Yet Jesus knew that what she was seeking was something so much deeper: Acceptance. What she truly needed was a relationship with Himself.
Friends, when a hurting lady shares her relationships struggles, what if her real need isn’t a self-help book but to know that she is enough? What if that exhausted mom’s biggest problem isn’t finding time to read the Bible, but to know that God loves spending time with her? Maybe the middle aged woman with cancer does not need pointers on managing chemotherapy (because honestly, most of us don’t have anything useful to say on that subject); instead, she needs to experience the tangible compassion of her Christian sisters who empathize and are praying for her. When people open their hearts, we need to listen, both to the speaker and to the Holy Spirit.
This topic is dear to me because it’s something I’ve struggled with personally. In three years of infertility, I feel that I have gotten every weird and wonderful piece of fertility advice that exists, most of them multiple times. I appreciate that it comes out of a place of love, but often it also comes from a place of ignorance. What I desperately needed – and very rarely found – was someone to truly pray with me. I needed a chance to ask the hard questions: How do I find God in the hardest times? Why does He withhold good gifts from some of his children? I needed people to tell me it was okay to love God and be angry at Him at the same time. Yet most of the time, all I got was advice. Sadly, the lesson that I learned was that I should just keep quiet. So it is with love that I say to my sisters: When a person shares a deep personal need, let’s take a step back and just listen. Let’s make sure that each woman knows first that she is loved and cared for. Let’s be honest about what kind of advice we really have to offer, because the best thing we have to offer is always Jesus.