I Will Give You Some Advice, and God Be With You

I’ve written about body, soul, and spirit. The Bible implies that each of our lives is comprised of these three realms. But the framework goes even farther. These three realms also account for the different priorities we follow and the different choices we make.

Here is what I mean:

1. We make emotional choices. We follow feelings or impulses founded on, say, increasing our pleasure or defending our turf. Or—this is the most common of all—we follow feelings or impulses aimed at maintaining our comfort. The emotions that arise within us tend to focus on the body.

2. We make rational choices. We choose actions and objectives based on what we think we would like to attain, and we make plans according to the best of our ability to analyze and anticipate. The thinking mind is the driver of the soul.

3. We seek to obey the will of God. Here, God makes the choice and we who believe seek to follow in it, even though what we follow is a mystery. God leads, because his knowledge and aims surpass our understanding. The means by which God moves us is through his Spirit animating our spirit.

This framework makes several things clear.

That second realm above is in tension between the other two. Rational thinking is both the saving grace and the impediment to the quality of our choices. It is a saving grace when rational thinking saves us from our emotion-driven course. It is an impediment when logic’s limited viewpoint stops us from pursuing what the Spirit would have us do. In following a leading from God, wrote Oswald Chambers, “there is no logical statement possible when anyone asks you what you are doing.”

Yet in this very tension, you can see the error we are prone to make in seeking God’s will—or at least the error I am prone to make. While the movement of the Spirit does defy logic, not everything that defies logic is a movement of the Spirit. Most of the time, the choice I have imagined to be “God’s will for me” was in fact just my own emotional bias or yearning dressed up in spiritual clothes.

Far from being emotional, in fact, the revealed will of God would actually be supra-logical. His plan would do logic one better. If you or I ever succeeded at following in his mystery without missteps, then we would see the Creator’s hand working through us to realize life, wholeness, and freedom along a surprisingly elegant path that was hidden from what our logic was able to foresee.

Along the same lines, good advice is also both a saving grace and an impediment. Sound advice from another can save me when feelings blind me, and logical advice from another can help me when I am formulating a logical plan. But advice can be dispiriting when the Spirit is advancing, because the well-intentioned giver of this advice invariably presumes to imagine what the outcome “ought” to be.

This explains the Bible’s seemingly conflicted perspective on seeking advice. According to Proverbs 15:22, plans go awry without counsel. But when Paul was trying to figure out the meaning of his conversion, he reports, “I did not immediately consult with anyone” (Galatians 1:16). Instead, he let the implications of his being called by Christ work through him for three years before he spoke with another apostle (1:18). Even in this meeting, the Bible does not record how much or how little Paul revealed.

How, then, do we give advice? How do we receive it?

I think I see a model in the way Jethro spoke to Moses in a scene out of Exodus. In this scene, Moses was wearing himself out by spending all day listening to his people’s complaints. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, thought he saw a better way.

“Now listen to me,” Jethro said in Exodus 18:19. “I will give you some advice, and God be with you.”

He then proceeded to teach Moses about delegating some of his responsibilities, to better preserve himself for the mission God had for him. It was the right counsel. In giving the advice, one man who was following God spoke out of the best of his judgment to another man who was following God, and divinely liberating instruction flowed through what was said.

God be with you. In the ways that you and I give advice, we should always be willing to say this. In the ways we hear advice, we should always submit to this expectation. As givers and receivers of good but limited human counsel, let us always hope that the best of our wisdom, and perhaps even something better than our own understanding, will find its way into what we hear and say.

Daniel 1:8

The objective of a culture is to draw everyone in and make everyone similar. This isn’t necessarily bad. The pressure to conform sometimes guides people onto a better path. But in many instances, that pressure is detrimental. We have to push back or stand firm in those cases, even when the culture doesn’t think it’s being harmful, even when the culture doesn’t understand.

An example appears in Daniel chapter 1. Daniel was an Israelite taken into the service of Babylon’s king after this nation had conquered Jerusalem. Daniel was given a new, Babylonian name. He was also given Babylonian food, and at this point he pushed back, asking to eat only vegetables instead.

Daniel’s reasoning is not explicitly stated, but we can infer it. The Israelites had been given special dietary rules by God. With Babylonian food, there would have been no way to know whether the food had been prepared in a way that was acceptable. For example, had the meat been an offering to an idol? By sticking to vegetables, Daniel would know he was in the clear.

What is explicitly stated is Daniel’s aim, and this is surprising. Daniel’s priority might be a surprise even to many who know the story.

Daniel 1:8 says: “Daniel determined that he would not defile himself with the king's food or with the wine he drank. So he asked permission from the chief official not to defile himself.”

Consider what that verse doesn’t say. It does NOT say, “Daniel determined that God would be angry if he ate the wrong food.”

It does NOT say, “Daniel determined that rules are rules, and to break them would bring dishonor.”

What it does say is that Daniel determined that he would not defile himself. Daniel was thinking about himself. There was something special about him, something worth preserving. Specifically, he was part of a special people. That people was now conquered, dispersed, and being absorbed, making it all the more important to hold to the ways that God had made this people distinct. If Daniel didn’t stick up for this specialness he shared in, then it might be lost.

How significant was that specialness? Listen: When the Israelites had carried the Arc of the Covenant, they carried a picture of themselves. The Arc was a vessel that had the word of God inside. As described in the Book of Exodus, the Arc carried the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. Similarly, the Israelites were a vessel that had the “Word” of God inside. They were a vessel through history that would carry a line of descent all the way to the birth of Jesus Christ.

Daniel lived before Christ; he didn’t know this much. The Babylonians around him certainly understood even less. All Daniel knew is that God had made him special by choosing for him to be born into a special people, and that part of living out that specialness was to obey a set of rules that (by design) set the Israelites apart from other peoples.

Is all of this still relevant today? Arguably, Daniel’s example is more broadly relevant now than it was in his own time. We are all vessels. Each of us who believes has God inside (Romans 8:11), and because each of us is unique, it must be that each of us has some unique expression of God manifesting through us. What is the specialness that you are given to protect?

The answer is written on your life or your nature. It might involve the interest you want to follow or the talent you can cultivate. It might involve the area of sensitivity you have to keep safe, or the need to which you ought to attend. It might involve the pain that is a part of you. It might involve the love you don’t wish to have to explain to others.

These things can be awkward to the point of feeling shameful. These things can seem downright weird. But in fact, an appearance of weirdness is the turbulence surrounding specialness. “Looking weird” is what happens when the culture applies its pressure.

There is so much of this pressure that we can’t resist it all. Nor should we. Again, sometimes the culture is right.

But then there are times when even loved ones are pushing us to yield something that we should not yield. The problem in these cases is that the point often seems small. Protecting that particular iota of specialness in that moment seems not worth the trouble. Yielding on this one point seems like a small-enough concession that we expect we can recover the lost ground later.

However, if God has woven something dear into the self he gave you, then likely the stakes are higher than that. What if your specialness is valuable? What if, like Daniel, the worth of what sets you apart and makes you distinct is actually much greater than you are able to understand?

A La Carte

You will never break through if you keep on seeing spirituality as an à la carte menu or a custom-tailored suit. People frequently assert a claim that goes something like this: Rather than being a part of any established faith, I have found my own faith by choosing what works from many different sources.

Two problems with this:

1. What is the doctrine of your modular religion? What is its scripture? The claim of a self-assembled spirituality leaves you with nowhere to go and no means to grow. What is the body of sustenance that would enable you to pursue even deeper understanding than the pieces of belief you have chosen so far?

Even if you pursue a church’s teaching and find yourself discovering the limitations of that teaching, or the reasons why it does not answer your searching, then that outcome would still be more fruitful than simply refusing to engage, or refusing to seek after a faith that goes beyond what you know.

2. Who has the final say? If you have the capacity to identify which elements of this or that spiritual teaching are good—which elements really and truly represent what God would have us believe—then it must be that you have a pre-existing understanding of these matters that is on par with God’s. Moreover, in exercising this capacity, you claim an authority that is greater than God’s, because you are the judge his stuff has to go through before it can be certified as valid.

God began the Ten Commandments with this one: “Have no other gods before me.” One’s own uplifted self can be the “other god” that this command refers to. God did not give this command for his own sake. (He’s doing fine.) Rather, the reason we find our other gods and lower them down is not because those other gods get in God’s way, but because they get in our way. My self-selected spirituality, this choice that seems to make me distinct, is actually a self-imposed curtailment that keeps me small.