For the past 20 years, I’ve been in the business of giving advice. Whether I’m teaching at a retreat, on the radio, or sitting one-on-one with a woman, my job is to help people figure out what to do with tough situations in their lives. Sometimes, a woman will tell me that the advice I gave helped her in her marriage or healing journey. Other times, I get frustrated emails or letters telling me that what I suggested didn’t work.
I understand and have been there. I’ve read books and met with counselors who had some good things to say, but the advice didn’t hit the “bull's-eye” with my specific situation. The truth is, even the best advice will not work 100 percent of the time. Why? Because people don’t operate on formulas.
Seek Wisdom, Not Formulas
God created the world with certain scientific principles. These principles make life semi-predictable. When you were in school, you took classes in math and science that taught you principles in the physical world. We are often less intentional about studying the relational and moral principles with which God created us.
What do you think would happen if you gave a two-year-old everything she wants? Whenever she cried or whined, you catered to her demands. You let her eat whatever and whenever she insisted. Instead of setting a bedtime for her, you let her go to bed when she was tired (or when she passed out from exhaustion). Can you imagine what that little girl would be like? Words like demanding, miserable, and spoiled come to mind. What would happen if you raised that same little girl with loving boundaries and discipline?
In parenting, we apply moral and interpersonal “laws” of wisdom to the best of our ability because we want to raise well-adjusted, moral children. Similar “laws” apply to our other relationships. Solomon noted some of these principles in his book of Proverbs:
A soft answer turns away wrath, but harsh words stir up anger.
Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.
Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers all wrongs.
Wisdom means we do our best to live by the moral and interpersonal laws embedded in God’s creation. If I’m wise, I’m going to try to respond with a “soft answer” rather than with “harsh words.” Very often, these principles of wisdom work but not always. God wants us to seek wisdom but never to turn our wisdom into formulas.
I’m sure you’ve met people who live by formulas. They believe that everyone should ____ (you fill in the blank: homeschool your children, date three years before getting married, always say yes to sex with your husband, and so on). While these may be wise principles to live by, they don’t work the same in every situation. Two children raised the same way will turn out differently because people are not robots. We have unique personalities and the ability to make choices.
Why Formulas Don’t Work
While God wants us to seek wisdom, he doesn’t want us to live by formulas. Our formulas usually result in prideful independence. If you think you've found the secret to being the perfect wife, the Bible has some advice: “If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). We need to humbly admit that we still have a lot to learn!
Formulas can also result in bitter disappointment. Interacting with people is not a math equation. I’ve met women who are angry with God because they believe they’ve done everything right (prayed, stayed pure, gone to church, and so on), but God hasn’t brought the Prince Charming they believe they were promised.
Formulas turn God and the people we interact with into “vending machines.” We put in the right amount of money and demand to get what we think we deserve. If you recently read a book on marriage and are trying hard to love and affirm your husband, you probably have a “demand” attached with those actions. If he doesn’t start showing you love within a few months, you’ll feel angry and give up on your efforts to be a better wife.
Jesus hinted at this kind of formula approach to relationships and called us to live beyond it:
But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much.If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:44–48)
If God wanted us to have formulas to make life work, he would have given them to us. Instead of a formula, God has invited us into a relationship. True wisdom means recognizing that we are desperately dependent upon God. While we can learn skills to build intimacy in relationships, we can never “fix” people or manipulate them into being who we want them to be. We have to seek the Lord every day for his wisdom to live well, and his grace and mercy when people don’t respond the way we hoped they would.
If we do even the right things because of a formula mentality, we will be superficial followers of God. The true test is how we respond when wisdom doesn’t seem to be working. We will still be faithful, loving, and devoted to God?
If the advice you are getting hasn’t worked in your relationships, remember that God is more concerned with your heart than with your relationships. He wants you to seek him and trust him even when life gets messy.