Is Advice a Vice?

In reading Emerson’s Lecture to Divinity Students, I’m struck by several thoughts, the first concerns how often we seek advice.

(For noobs, I’ve been reading my way through Harvard slow and steady. So welcome all).

Anyways, something that nailed me between my eyes was Emerson’s aversion to advice and counsel. A buddy of mine recently said, “I think we overvalue counsel and direction. Direction can be a vice.” I hated his words at first because I truly believe that with many counselors the plan of the king succeeds and all of that, but a vice?

How is advice a vice?

As much as I’d love to link those two words etymologically, that would be dishonest. They come from separate streams, saltwater and fresh. Advice and vice are different words with different roots.

However, it is possible for advice to smother us, it is possible for us to grow our list of living citations to the extent that our life becomes nothing but one long footnote after another — our actual content found lacking. We spend all the time asking opinions, little time moving forward. All talk, no writing for instance.

All study, no craft.

Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.

— William Faulkner, in Paris Review’s The Art of Fiction

Few of you know this because I’ve had few reasons to bring it up until now, until this moment telling this particular story, but I’m an ordained pastor moving to Brooklyn in the next year or so to work with a new church plant. The evening I was ordained, I invited elders from my local congregation and from other local congregations to come over to our country house. We packed out the place with elders, family, pastors, and friends. I left little paper slips at the front and asked everyone to write down what they thought I should do, where they thought I should go.

Directions, please.

Every. Single. Paper didn’t answer the questions of “where?” or “when?” or “how?” or any question resembling the doubts and uncertainties Kiddo and I felt. All of them pointed to a “who,” to following Jesus and staying close to those who follow Jesus.

I’m not preaching, just telling you about where I landed after looking at all of those papers…

We call him “doubting Thomas,”

but maybe that’s the wrong name. Maybe it should be Jaunting Thomas, Wandering Thomas, Traveling Thomas, Experiential-Learner-Thomas. He, like most existentialists who live life in the midst of doubt, thought his best learning came from an experience. He wanted to touch the holes in Jesus’ hands, to put his hand in the side where the spear went. He was the one who, when Lazarus died, said “Let us go so we can die with him.” Solidarity, bro. He felt things deeper than the others because of the experiential nature of his learning. He would have been the one backpacking across Europe, the one who enrolled in culinary school for a semester just to improve his cooking, who would have gone to a refugee camp just to sit with the poor for a time.

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To this Thomas, this wandering Aramean like Abraham, Jesus says, “You know the way to the place where I am going.”

And Thomas says, “Lord we don’t know the way, show us the way.”

Thom, like the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years, wants a destination, a plane ticket, an address he can plug into his map app. He’s like me — asking for suggestions about the next leg of the journey, about the next thing that would make all of the old ladies sigh and say, “what a great experience for you.”

Where to, Jesus?

This is even a Promised Land question, a question Israelites asked Moses often Where to? Show us the way. Even the messiah would even redeem the land itself, would fix the destination.

Torah was also an arrow, a compass, the thing that lights the way. It was a way of aiming yourself, a trajectory.

Thomas said, “Lord we don’t know the way, show us the way.”

Jesus responds, “I am the way.”

He claims to be the embodiment of journey, of direction, of journey’s end, of navigation, of promised land. The Israelites wandered for forty years and if you plot out their journey, it’s a winding mess of a path.


They wanted to get to a land, but the way was right in front of them in the form of cloud an a pillar of fire. He was the destination. He was the source of both the manna that came down as well as the milk and honey (grapes and olives) to come.

And Jesus claimed the same – to be both promised land and Torah in the flesh.

Which explains why he follows “I am the way” with “the truth” (Torah) and “the life” (promised land). He was both the trajectory and the bullseye, the compass and the north pole, the ancient map handed down through generations and the treasure hidden in a field.

At my ordination I wanted advice about where and when and how. The men in my life asked a different question: who?

From whom does my help come? This pointing to a person has affected my character over time more than any advice, any directive, any precept or principle.

From Emerson’s lecture:

“Courage, piety, love, wisdom, can teach; and every man can open his door to these angels, and they shall bring him the gift of tongues. But the man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods use, as the fashion guides, and as interest commands, babbles. Let him hush.

…What life the public worship retains, it owes to the scattered company of pious men who minister here and there in the churches and who, sometimes accepting with too great tenderness the tenet of the elders, have not accepted from others, but from their own heart, the genuine impulses of virtue, and so still command our love and awe, to the sanctity of character.”

So, tell me, is advice a vice?


ps: > To the regular literators: I haven’t posted in 4 weeks partially because I’ve been busy with work and Brooklyn stuff, but the other main reason is I’m working on a very long, very thought-out, very refined poem for all of you. It’s the most ambitious poem I’ve ever taken on, so I’ll probably post it and give you another 3 weeks to digest it.

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pps:> There’s also another Ask the Experts in the works, this time with a Peruvian Painter.

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