Right Advice, Wrong TimeBy Nathan Mates
As Christians graduate from being new infants in Christ to knowing more, opportunities to minister to others typically increase. That is normally a good thing, as those Christians are not simply being ministered to, but can help others.
However, there are many points at which we can know enough to be dangerous-- to others and ourselves. One of these areas where this can happen is in the field of giving advice to others. In the slippery field of human interactions, we can experience one successful delivery of a message, and conclude that that message can be always transferred to another time and place.
There are a fair number of messages that cannot and should not be varied: that Jesus is the son of God, died for our sins, and was raised from the dead to show the pathway for those who believe in him. The core message of the gospel is the same to everyone in every culture, language, and situation. It is our obligation to evangelize the world and give people the opportunity to receive eternal salvation.
However, there are other issues, less cut-and-dried than salvation. And in them, there is the opportunity to step on toes by giving right advice at the wrong time. One of the classic examples of this in the Bible is Job-- he suffered greatly as Satan was allowed to take almost everything from him except his life and his wife. Job's friends, in many words and speeches, said that this calamity was because Job had sinned. In his first speech, Eliphaz said "As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it." [Job 4:8] Much of the book of Job goes back and forth between Job's friends accusing him of sinning to cause this, and Job's denials.
Job's friends have gotten a bad rap over their continual bad advice. Or, was it really bad advice? They did not have the omniscient viewpoint that we, the readers have. They did not know that God had allowed Satan to torment Job, and that Job would emerge from this experience with even greater knowledge of God, and be even more blessed.
In another time, to another person, Job's friends' advice would have been correct. God can and does discipline those who sin. David notes that "If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened;" [Psalm 66:18] The author of Hebrews encourages us to "Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?" [Hebrews 12:7] God's discipline can also be applied to nonbelievers: "Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died." [Acts 12:23] In all these cases, Job's friends advice of "You are in trouble because you have sinned" would have been appropriate.
Even in the New Testament, there are examples of people giving advice at the wrong time. One example is Martha, who complained to Jesus that "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" [Luke 10:40b] She was reproved for her complaints. However, it is not necessarily the substance of her request that was in error, but that of her attitude.
Jesus himself had very similar words to Martha's earlier: "Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field."" [Matthew 9:37-38] Both Jesus and Martha asked for more people out doing work. All sorts of pastors and ministry leaders these days say the same thing: we sure wouldn't mind a little more help getting things done. What was the difference between Martha's and Jesus's words, if one is appropriate, and the other not?
Part of the difference between Jesus and Martha was their motives and reasons for asking. God could unilaterally get work done if he wanted to, but that's not his style. God prefers to use us imperfect vessels to work his plan and confound the world. Martha, on the other hand, was selfish and whining in her asking. Her request to Jesus, while quite similar in content to Jesus's call for more workers, was asked with the wrong motives, which is a sin. [James 4:1-3]
In modern examples, we can act like Job's friends if we assume too much about those we talk to. Quoting Romans 8:28 at someone who's just gone through a tragedy can be the wrong thing to say. In such circumstances, it can be far better to empathize with them in the loss, and save such things until later. In other cases, giving the first piece of advice that springs to mind without praying over the situation and ensure that it's relevant can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
In all of our dealings with others, we need to make sure that what we say is is Biblical in basis, relevant to their situation, and tempered by love. Failing to do any of those three can lead to hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and divisions within the church. As we are to remain a unified body in Christ, we are to avoid such problems as much as possible.