The Well-Meaning, ‘Harmless’ Serpent

More than we might imagine, both the seeking and offering of advice can be a very tricky undertaking. The transfer of “life lessons” from one individual to another is something we all tend to do constantly – perhaps even unconsciously – and yet something we very much ought not to do unless someone actually asks for our opinion.

I’d even go a bit further and suggest that the act of advice-giving should be entered into far more cautiously than we tend to. After all, if another person heeds our advice only to subsequently suffer personal disaster as a result, we are implicated in the fallout of that bad decision.

Whenever we open our mouths to offer advice, we are actually speaking into someone else’s life from one kingdom or another. Certainly author and speaker Paul David Tripp would say so, as he has noted time and again, “You have never spoken a neutral word in your life! Everything you say either builds up or tears down.” In other words, our thoughts and words come either from the Kingdom of God…or the kingdom of darkness. If it’s true, as Tripp suggests, that we never speak a neutral word, we probably ought to take more care and spend at least a few seconds considering which kingdom we are serving, right?

If we accept, then, that our words of advice serve either the Kingdom of Christ or the camp of the enemy, we can cleanly categorize the advice we give and receive as either “godly wisdom” or “earthly wisdom.” One or the other…not both.

Genesis 3 is a marvelous narrative in the way that it depicts the introduction of hellish advice into the life of Eve and, tragically, all of humankind to follow. It seems very telling to me that the serpent, a.k.a. Satan, who only lives to kill and destroy (John 8:44; 10:10), does not show up in the garden of Eden with a five-point counter-argument against God’s goodness and His reign over all of creation. Even if Satan were to use PowerPoint and several four-color handouts to enhance his presentation, I doubt that directly taking on the manifestly-obvious goodness of God would have done much good. Instead, Satan appears to Eve as “a helpful friend,” offering a little advice to help Eve along with her self-actualization.

Genesis 3:1-5 (ESV)
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

As modern Christians, of course, we have likely heard this particular passage of Scripture many times, and yet it seems that (repetition notwithstanding) all too often we “forget” that the most hellish of advice can come packaged in an Individually-Designed-to-Help-You gift box. Clearly, Satan had nothing other than evil intent for Eve and the entire human race, but he was “crafty” enough to package his poison in such a way that it was received as good, sound wisdom. It is my observation – take it or leave it – that the vast majority of us are far too uncritical in examining the sources and intents of the advice we receive, especially when it comes from other people who clearly “mean well.” The people we prefer to listen to are often those who only tell us what they know we want to hear, or who will flatter our pride in ways that have “paid off” previously in one way or another, either for us or for them.

One recurring example that my wife and I run into over and over again during the course of facilitating DivorceCare at The Crossing has been the advice that people will very often give to friends suffering through the end of their marriage, which goes something like, “Get on with your life!” By this, of course, what is typically meant is that the recipient should completely abandon any hope of putting their marriage back together – which may or may not be a reflection of reality – and start looking around for someone else with which to begin a romance. Though this advice is often given by someone who genuinely cares about the divorcing person and hates to see him or her in pain, it could not be more hell-spawn; not only does God’s Word clearly hold marriage at a slightly higher value, but those having recently gone through divorce should stay as far away as possible from a new relationship until they are fully healed from the trauma.

I offer this example merely to show that many of the people who truly, deeply love and care for us will, from time to time, allow their emotions, pride, ignorance of Scripture and/or well-intended desire to help us put the pieces back together to serve up some “pointers” that, if followed, will lead us down from God’s holy mountain straight into the camp of the one would love to destroy even more of our relationships and undermine our faithfulness to Christ.

So how do we know what “trusted advisors” look like, and how do we become one?

By far and away the most important trait to look for in seeking solid, biblical advice is someone who spends much of his or her time reading God’s Word. Many of us do not know our Bibles nearly well enough to know where to go to seek the mind of God as it applies to the problems in our lives. When that’s the case, we need someone who does know God’s Word. Look for your advice-givers to tie their wisdom to the biblical account of God’s dealings with all of humanity.

Even someone who knows Scripture well may not interpret it accurately every time. Very often, we flawed, sinful human beings are dead wrong about our “preferred” interpretation of the Bible. Eve certainly went sideways with the issue of what God actually said. To combat this possibility, it’s a good idea to take bigger issues in particular to two or three trusted, Bible-steeped advisors. If the advice they give all points you in the same direction, you stand a much better chance of having just received solid, biblical advice.

Of course, both of these recommendations assume that you trust God’s Word as the final authority for all things in life, no matter how big or small. Seeking godly advice will not be a priority unless or until you trust that God’s Word speaks to our human condition with ultimate finality.

Lastly, though all of us need others to speak into our lives regularly, it is not enough to “just” identify several godly, Bible-steeped advisors for ourselves. We too must regularly “marinate” our brains and our hearts with the Truth of Scripture, or we really have no reliable means for discerning good, God-honoring advice from the massive piles of hellish dreck that passes for wisdom in our day. Neither will we be confident that any advice we are giving is pointing our listener to God’s will for their lives.

At the very least, one question you might intentionally ask yourself every time you start to give advice is the deceptively simple, “Whose kingdom will be served should this advice be acted upon?” If you can’t answer that question…close your mouth. Similarly, if when receiving advice you cannot answer that same question, look elsewhere for direction.

We all need advisors to help us through the harder issues of life. It’s one of the many reasons why God’s Word calls us into community. We can’t do life on our own. But if we are not discerning about where we look for advice, we can very easily find ourselves only going deeper into pain and confusion that cannot hope to serve any redemptive purpose in our lives. Pain is not necessarily the enemy; it can serve to refine and strengthen us. The real enemy is thinking we are serving God even as we are quietly led astray to serve ourselves…and worse.

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