There’s a ton of Christianese literature out there, and some of it’s bad, bad, bad advice.
In my best movie trailer voice: In a world of Christian bestsellers, blogs, podcasts, and instagrams with Bible verses on ocean wallpaper, who are all coincidentally on an “authentic relevant struggling faith journey,” one ESV-carrying Christian millennial rises above the handlettering and “I’m not like those Pharisees” YouTube channels to authentically struggle with discerning what’s theologically sound and really works in the mess of real life.
But seriously: witty snark and pretty prose in bite-sized blog posts (like this one) don’t ever mean credibility. We really do need to know what “works in the mess of real life.” And it’s not going to be stitched-up quotes and here’s-what-I-would-do sort of fluff that sounds ideal but doesn’t work down here in the dirt.
I don’t claim to know any better on this. In fact, please don’t trust me, because I will let you down and inevitably disappoint you. Bloggers are not your counselors, no matter how flowery and fluffy their words. And your favorite “Christian celebrity” with the million followers might not be as inspirational as his tweets and t-shirts in his Etsy store.
Christians are called to discern everything we read, especially from sources that claim they’re fellow Christians. Here are a few questions to consider when we run into any kind of advice.
1) Where is it coming from? Says who?
It’s easy to start a blog and start preaching way further than our lives have actually lived. So much of Christian advice is idealistic guess-work that hasn’t been field-tested or approved by experience, much less cited or researched. In fact, a lot of it’s packaged to get hits and go viral, instead of actually caring about the real person it claims to help.
This will sound mean, but a lot of the shrill imperatives we see in blogs and books are from well-intentioned, untested upstarts who vicariously uphold an image that isn’t really them, either to compensate for their own shortcomings or to grab those precious followers. I only know this because I started that way, and I regress easily. Social media, for all its benefits, has made pedestal preachers of us all. I’d much rather someone tell me how it really is, with candid humble honesty, instead of how it “should be,” and to learn from their mistakes rather than get imprisoned by an impossible parameter—a paremeter, by the way, which is hardly practiced by the ones preaching it.
A suggestion: Check their bio. This isn’t to judge them or to assign value, but to see what they’ve actually been through. This also doesn’t mean that “youth” can’t say wise things, or that only experienced elders have knowledge. But rather, it’s to ask: What makes this person credible in this particular subject? What have they seen and who have they been around? How have their experiences informed their faith? And certainly there are those who have hardly been through much but can still write wonderful things, beyond their years, and it’s worth celebrating the exceptionally rare gift of youthful wisdom.
2) Is it reactionary?
I love snark and sass, but some advice is just a childish temper tantrum that caters to pseudo-outrage and preaches to a choir in an ivory tower. I call it Popular Discontent: find something wrong, multiply the fear and anger, call out some names, and you’re instantly viral. Also include, “I’m not like them, we’re like us, I’m protecting you, and everything is terrible and evil and I miss the good old days and these young people don’t even know.” Hashtag: Get off my lawn.
Another thing is that contrary to the cool postmodern professor, Christianity always challenges you to think for yourself. Discernment also means investigating every voice and giving it a fair hearing, no matter how dissenting, unpopular, or critical. But a church steeped in reactionary backlash tends to say, “My way is better than theirs and it’s the only way,” which becomes an echo-chamber cult of self-congratulatory chest-bumps.
A suggestion: This one’s tricky, because we do need to call out things that are obviously harmful, and I definitely sympathize with people who have been extremely hurt and must react as loudly as possible. The problem is building an entire platform on what you’re against instead of what you’re for. We go too far the other way, and it’s not hard to find something wrong with everything. Cynicism is easy mode. And everyone can tell when someone is secretly barking at a bone to pick or beating a dead hobby-horse. It’s a constant “throwing them under-the-bus.” I have to catch myself on that all the time (and I’m trying my darn hardest to balance that here). If the tone is passive-aggressive instead of pro-active, I let myself out. It’s a balancing act to be fair and firm, which leads us to—
3) Does it balance grace and truth?
Advice that lets you off the hook can only enable. Advice that sets you on fire with brimstone can only condemn.
A suggestion: Jesus himself was full of grace and truth (John 1:14). And here’s the wise G.K. Chesterton (literary mentor to C.S. Lewis) to sum it all up: “The more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”
4) Does it really work?
A lot of Christian bestsellers and blogs are primarily for a narrow demographic: the highest spending group from 18-30, moderately attractive, possibly with 1.5 kids, with a mortgage, mostly serving their church or on staff, and giving no second thoughts about dropping a twenty on a good dinner. This leaves out the homeless, the prostitutes, the politicians, the artists, the medical field, the scientists, police officers and lawyers, infertile women, abused women, the mentally ill, people like me who deal with dying and grief in their work, and the neglected elderly. So basically, everyone who Jesus hung out with.
A suggestion: Does the advice actually work for many different walks of life? If we gave a bestseller or shared a blog with a homeless person, would it apply?
5) Where’s the Jesus?
The thing about Christian advice is that unless it points to Christ and what he’s already done, it’s just another burden about what you have to do. Then it’s back to the contradictory comfort of religion: I did enough to meet my quota, but I’m under the choke-hold of never doing enough.
The worst symptom here is that “advice” can 1) breed a culture of burden that never measures up, and 2) be weaponized against other people. This is partially what Christians call worldliness, a consumer cycle of self-satisfaction that unwittingly uses God and people to squeeze ego. Once you get a hold of “22 Things To Do Before You’re 22″ or “Five Sure-Fire Ways to a Better Marriage,” it’s easy to think, I got the secret goods on this here, and you’re totally not in-the-know.
Only fixating on what-to-do and how-to creates an insider superiority that is entirely against the very purpose of the Gospel, in which Jesus didn’t come to make us “good,” but to rescue us from death and bring us to a very real life. In this way, Jesus also broke through our metric categories so that no one could hold their medals over someone else, so that no one by better technique would be more “worthy” than the unaccomplished and underprivleged. It is truly by grace we have been saved, and not by works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2). Grace effortlessly punctures these walls of competitive conceit by acknowledging we’re all equally flawed and equally in need of rescue beyond our own meager ability.
Good Christian advice has a way of setting us free and lifting the burden. It feels less like work and more like a way forward. It doesn’t wield consequences as motivation, but highlights the tenderizing, galvanizing, captivating love of Christ and all that he’s already done for you. The Gospel says that our sin had to cost Jesus the cross, but we’re also given the free gift of a resurrection. Sin was paid for, but a resurrecting grace was freely given. This is the amazing thing about grace: it’s a surprise party that we can’t throw for ourselves. All advice flows from such grace, and not for it. The Gospel takes the burden off first, so that we can begin to follow God and His commands to their fullest. It is always rescue before resolve.
This is how I know when a fellow Christian really cares: that their advice is filled with love and grief and restoration, not cathartic ranting and barely veiled blame. The heart of God is about both the rest and resolution to somehow be humble and righteous, at the very same time, with a transcendent kind of peace that doesn’t keep score, but is an abundance of the reward we continually have in Christ.
A suggestion: Pray it through, soak in Scripture, ask around, and see if it all lines up with the red letters. I always go back to 1 John 4 and ask, What would God say about this? Where does Jesus fit in here? How does this lead back to Him? Because advice without Christ is simply living without life.