When Good Advice Boomerangs

Over the last month or so, I have heard of, witnessed, and (sadly) perpetrated several damaging acts of offering advice, examples where the counsel backfired and the recipient was worse off than before.

Boomeraning behaviors

And I’m talking about examples of good, sound, wise, practical advice. Instead of strengthening the listeners, the guidance pulled the rug out from beneath them; instead of encouraging, it discouraged:

  • A grown man told me how his father’s advice on how to handle school bullies made him feel like a lifelong coward;
  • I saw a man offer his wife excellent principles for dealing with her incompetent boss, and his advice shriveled her spirit;
  • I suggested to a friend three guidelines for strengthening a daily prayer habit, and the man’s prayer time went from ten minutes to two.

How many times have you received unsolicited advice and you wonder, Do I really look that stupid to you? Why does advice—and I’m talk about good, practical guidance—so often boomerang?

What is our instinct?

Steven Covey once observed: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. Most people listen with the intent to reply.” In other words, our instinct is to prescribe behavior.

When Scripture claims we are saved by faith and not by works, it also claims that faith without works is dead. True belief always results in changed behavior. But the opposite doesn’t work: smart action won’t change our hearts. Faith and works have a cause and effect relationship.

Even secular thinkers grasp the causative nature of belief. Henry Ford once observed, “One man thinks he can and one man thinks he cannot. And they are both right.”

I recently heard a sermon that claimed Christianity’s two thousand year prioritization of orthodoxy (right belief) was a mistake, and the time has arrived (the preacher asserted) for an emphasis on orthopraxy (right conduct).

He is wrong, but we guidance-givers act as though his advice contains manna from heaven.

Why does advice so often backfire?

My friend was bullied in school shortly after hearing a Sunday school lesson on turning the other cheek. He was looking for deeper spiritual truth, but his father told him to “stand up for himself” and then gave him boxing lessons. All my friend “heard” was that his father considered him a coward. And then he began to think the same of himself.

The woman with the incompetent boss (and an incompetent husband!) already had ideas for handling her boss. She simply shared her humiliation. When her husband offered her pointers, she felt unheard, alone with her humiliation, and that her husband considered her stupid.

In both cases, the counsel-recipients did receive information that changed their lives; but it was the life-changing belief that they were inadequate, misunderstood, stupid, and alone.

And it gets worse

Orthopraxy (right action) asks, “What works?” Our western world is obsessed with this pursuit: just give me (or, better yet, let me give you!) some sensible, sage, functional tips and techniques. Advice that works!

But consider the life of John the Baptist. He lived a better life than any of us. Look what happened to him. Or consider other martyrs through the centuries. Did life “work” for them? Is success in this land the real promise of Jesus? Was his life primarily about tips and techniques?

Besides, who are we to determine, “What works”? When can we declare “success”? Right now, or over the course of the next year, or perhaps in two decades?

It’s only discovered in the life to come.

Orthodoxy, on the other hand, asks, “What is truth?” Belief in God-revealed reality—his Lordship and his goodness—is the only beacon we can trust life. Even when it doesn’t seem to work in the moment. Because right belief (in the final analysis) is the only eminently practical solution.

Orthodoxy (right belief) will always lead to orthopraxy (right action), but orthopraxy leads to heterodoxy (anything goes), as long as it seems to work: modern people think it’s highly practical to live together before marriage to see if “it works.” Right belief says, “It may not make sense to me, but I believe in God’s plans even when my plans seems more practical.”

Does this mean we never give advice?

Of course we all need to learn practical skills. Your children will appreciate learning to ride a bike and tie their shoes. Your friend might benefit from learning to listen to his wife’s heart before plunging into pompous instruction. (His wife will especially appreciate his learning it.)

But before prescribing actions, let’s diagnose beliefs. Why is our son mis-handling bullies; why is our friend missing time with God; and why are we so quick to advise instead of looking deeper?

As Blaise Pascal commented: “Man’s sensitivity to little things and insensitivity to the greatest things are marks of a strange disorder.” Our obsession with best practices is a sickness.

At least … that’s my advice.


P. S. I posted this article yesterday (July 14, 2015) and today I received an email with the following Dilbert cartoon:

Dilbert - Advice( DILBERT © 2015 Scott Adams. Used By permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights


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What do YOU think?

6 thoughts on “When Good Advice Boomerangs

  1. Sam, I love that listening starts with understanding, not prescription. I was told once that “It is not advice unless the other person asked for it.” I want to take your words to heart and avoid having mine return to clobber me. / Jerry

    • I struggled writing this one. We need good advice, and many of us have great words of wisdom for others.

      I think Pascal’s closing words are what hit home for me the best, about our tarnished sensitivity to what is most important. Yes, people can benefit from good tips; but our world now focuses on tips and techniques more than deep understanding of what is going on inside us all.

      It’s almost like a modern form of Pharisaic life: we clean the outside of the cup more than the inside.

      • I get that, and God’s always about the heart over actions. His advice to me is chill out and listen to what I’m telling you inside. I have learned it’s more important to keep in a state of prayer all day, I try not to leave Him in the garden alone.

  2. My grandmother always said, “Advice is like snow, the lighter it falls the deeper it sinks in.”
    This post has very well put advice to chew on. Thanks Sam

    I just read the story about Naaman in II Samuel 5:1-15 (Message)
    He didn’t want to listen to the simple advice of a servant girl of how he should be healed (she was turned in to God’s advice). He wanted the advice to fit his version of how he should be healed.
    I get a kick in the pants from God’s way of delivering advice quite often. It’s sort of like, “You don’t know what you’re talking about God. This person has written a ton of books about advice. He knows what he’s talking about. Or…I know what I’m talking about.” Blah, blah, blah…is what God must hear.

  3. Your posts never fail to inspire.. Thanks. I always like to give two choices when I am giving advice.. One orthopraxy and one orthodoxy.. That way you live the person with the final decision and it reduces the boomeranging tendencies