History is filled with poor decisions—decisions that leave the world shaking its head, wishing things could have somehow just gone a bit differently. The following are several of the worst.
The Beatles were turned down by Decca Records in 1962 because one person at the label thought guitar groups were falling from favor. As it turns out, that guy was wrong. It is believed that one helmsman on the Titanic made a small steering error, and correction wasn’t made in time. Less than three hours later, the Titanic rested on the floor of the icy Atlantic. In June of 1812, an overconfident Napoleon Bonaparte sent his troops into Russia for certain victory which, according to Bonaparte’s calculations, would take no more than 20 days. Napoleon forgot to calculate supplies, freezing temperatures... and the entire Russian army. Napoleon lost half a million French soldiers on this quick and easy expedition.
It is hard not to stop and wonder, what “could have been” if these people had just stopped and sought the counsel of another? What if Napoleon had just stopped and made sure they had enough supplies to make such an expedition? Or if he asked what the weather was like in Russia? What if the helmsman had double checked his steering with another helmsman?
The world might be a different place if these people had been just a bit more teachable. And just like history, our own lives are filled with (hopefully smaller, less catastrophic) poor decisions that could have benefitted from greater wisdom.
If you want to be wise, you must chase after counsel
Chasing after counsel is at the core of what it means to be teachable. And teachability is one of the main themes in the book of Proverbs; it runs throughout the entire book. Here are just several examples: “Where there is no guidance the people fall, but in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Prov 11:14); “Without consultation plans are frustrated, but with many counselors, they succeed” (Prov. 15:22); “Prepare plans by consultation, counsel and make war by wise guidance” (Prov 20:18); and “For by wise guidance, you will wage war and in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Prov 24:6).
The references could go on. But it should be obvious after this short list that the Scriptures praise the chasing of counsel, the asking of questions, and the seeking of advice.
But we might ask the question why. Why is chasing counsel so highly praised? What are the benefits of asking for advice?
Sometimes we are just too close to a matter to make a wise decision.
Often in confusing and complicated situations, our heart is just too involved in the matter to be able to clearly see the issue for what it is. The over involvement of the human heart is rarely a good thing. Just listen to what the prophet Jeremiah has to say about the human heart: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick. Who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). When we are too emotionally invested in a situation, our hearts have not only the potential, but the likelihood, of deceiving us. And the consequences can be daunting.
Solomon again writes, “He who trusts in his own heart is the fool, but he who walks wisely will be delivered” (Prov 28:26). Solomon understands the danger of overinvestment.
This is where an outside perspective—someone whose heart is not overly attached to the issue—can be beneficial. He or she will bring a level of objectivity that would otherwise not be present in the situation.
When we chase counsel, we expose ourselves to others and their own wisdom in applying God’s word to their lives.
By seeking the counsel of those around us, we learn to get outside of ourselves. It teaches us to see our issues from another perspective. “Wisdom rests in the heart of one who has understanding, But in the hearts of fools it is made known” (Prov 14:33). It gives us a tangible picture of how other godly men and women wade through the complications of life, and it just might encourage us to follow in their footsteps as they follow Christ (1 Cor 11:1).
Seeking advices teaches our hearts humility.
It requires humility to open yourself up to another person, to give another person the opportunity to say something that could potentially change our plans or challenge our pride. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But a wise man is he who listens to counsel” (Prov 12:15). There is humility in placing yourself beneath the counsel of another, even for a period, and just listening and learning from them.
In order to do this, we should proactively let others know that they have the right to speak into our lives. We should ask, and not just wait for people to offer us unsolicited counsel, which could be seen as prideful and unwelcome. We should strive to be known as someone who would be easy to advise. Far better to be a poor but wise young man, than even a king who cannot be advised (Ecc 4:13)... much less a pastor or elder, who is not to be self-willed (Tit 1:7).
But there are also dangers involved if counsel is sought incorrectly or unwisely. Here are some warnings on how to go about seeking advice:
Don’t seek counsel after the fact.
There is a common phenomenon where we can seek affirmation in the form of “counsel” after we have already taken action, rather than asking for advice before the fact. Sometimes this can be a genuine attempt to see if we did something right or how we could have done better. But often this is not the case. Often this later form of counsel-seeking is done in an attempt to get a pat on the back of approval. This can put others in an awkward position, because you’ve already done whatever it is you’re now asking for advice or approval for. Oh, you blew it there is not an easy thing for anyone to say, but it might be the correct response. Try to not put those around you in this challenging position—if you have any time at all, the right time to ask for counsel on important decisions is beforehand. “A man has joy in an apt answer, And how delightful is a timely word” (Prov 15:23).
Don’t shop for counsel.
This can be so deceptive—because it can seem to smell so strongly of humility. But it’s not always humility. Those who shop for counsel are often those who know that seeking advice is the wise thing to do, but whether they admit it to themselves or not, these people often already know exactly what it is they want to do. They are just looking for someone to rubber stamp their solidified plan.
This is what often happens: the shopper begins to ask for advice. The responses are consistently opposed to what he has in mind as his desired course of action. So, he keeps asking. And he keeps asking. And he keeps asking. Until he finds someone who backhandedly suggests that it is permissible, or even just fails to strongly oppose the thing the shopper wants to do.
Many have done (and will continue to) do this in the area of dating. It is common among young Christians to struggle with the impulse to date an unbeliever—after all, we’re not going to get married or anything; it’s just fun getting to know her. Nine people in a row might tell this smitten young believer, Yep, don’t do it. That’s just foolish. It too often results in disaster. But then there is the tenth person. This is the one who says, You know what? I actually dated my wife when she was an unbeliever, and she ended up getting saved.
Sir, you have wisdom from above!
Our shopper is done shopping for counsel. He’s found what he was looking for. This is the danger of shopping for counsel. It is one of the most toxic forms of selective hearing, because it completely fails to listen. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel” (Prov 12:15).
Be careful of the quality of your counselors.
If we are people who value the word of God, we need to seek advice from those who know and love the word of God. This will generally (but not always) be found in older, more mature believers. It should be those whose Christian walks we respect.
It is so important to find those who earnestly want to please God more than they want to please us. It can be our tendency to run to those whom we know will support us no matter what, but we need to find those who would be willing to tell us things we might not be eager to hear. “Better is open rebuke than love that is concealed. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov 27:5-6).
It would typically be a benefit to include people who are in authority in some way over you in this group, whether that be parents, mentors, or pastors. This can help to honor and strengthen that relationship, and it can also allow those who are responsible for you before God to be able to give an account (Heb 13:17).
Keep numbers small.
Unless you are considering waging war, you will probably want to keep your number of counselors relatively small. “A man of too many friends comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov 18:24). Remember this: quality of counselors is by far more important than quantity. If you have one wise person in your life who knows and understands you, go to that person. “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov 13:20). He or she will be more valuable than half a dozen pieces of advice from those who may not know you or your situation as well.
Be sure to provide quality information.
The counsel you receive is only as good as the accuracy and completeness of the information you provide. You will skew the quality of the counsel you receive by the quality of the information you share. If you paint a picture that everything is great when it is not, no matter how skilled the counselor, he or she won’t be able to care for you in an informed manner. In the same way, if you only ever cry on someone’s shoulder and never share the good, the counsel you receive will not be as helpful as it could be. If you are seeking counsel about your marriage, but you neglect to mention the weekly screaming matches, you will likely receive poor counsel. The mantra of garbage in, garbage out applies well to counsel. Remember the wisdom of multiple viewpoints to get to the truth of a matter, “The first to plead his case seems right, Until another comes and examines him” (Prov 18:17). And if you’re the only one “pleading the case” when you seek counsel, as is often the case, you have a greater burden to represent the entire matter as objectively as you can, as a matter of integrity. “The integrity of the upright will guide them, But the crookedness of the treacherous will destroy them” (Prov 11:3).
If pursuing counsel is so clearly and consistently praised in Scripture, why is it that so few Christians seem to seek it?
There might be a host of reasons why believers don’t often turn to others for advice. But sadly, it can often be because we are too wrapped in pride and self-sufficiency. I got this is the anthem of many Christians, but Scripture simply refuses to agree with that bold assertion. Solomon again writes, “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov 26:12). The Scripture readily calls a fool anyone who insists upon his own way and refuses to seek advice. I would earnestly plead with you, don’t do that. Don’t be a fool.
Develop a habit in your life of leaning upon those God has placed around you for advice. You don’t need to ask a friend every day what you should eat for lunch. But develop that habit in the more important things of life, whether that be job changes or matters of parenting or issues in marriage. You will teach your heart humility, and God esteems and gives greater grace to the humble (Jas 4:6).