An Online Advice Column on How to Approach Online Advice
About the Author: Staff
November 16th, 2023
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Every morning I go through my social media feeds seeking to catch up on what’s happening within the realms of culture which interest me and the lives of people that I care about. Increasingly, this daily ritual has become more and more difficult as I wade through article upon article from every perspective touching upon every issue known to man. Each new day unleashes a fresh outbreak of advice for Christians: “5 Steps” to this and “10 Keys” to that. And while there seems to be no remote possibility of this tide of “expert” opinion slowing down anytime soon, I think there are some things that thinking Christians ought to consider.
In Jonathan Haidt’s brilliant (though flawed) book The Righteous Mind, Haidt explains the findings of social psychologist Tom Gilovich:
His simple formulation is that when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, ‘Can I believe it?’ Then, we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have justification, in case anyone asks.
In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, ‘Must I believe it?’ Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it. You only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must (98).
Haidt then gives a few examples:
When subjects are told that an intelligence test gave them a low score, they choose to read articles criticizing (rather than supporting) the validity of IQ tests. When people read a (fictitious) scientific study that reports a link between caffeine consumption and breast cancer, women who are heavy coffee drinkers find more flaws in the study than do men and less caffeinated women (ibid.).
Haidt’s findings should not surprise Christians, we who believe that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). The problem is that our hearts are so deceitful that we are often unaware of when we are deceiving ourselves. Haidt points out that we go to the Internet not to be informed and challenged but, more often, to find support for the positions that we already want to hold. And there are so many opinions out there on every conceivable issue that it’s quite easy to find someone writing the opinion we have already decided to believe.
If I can’t trust myself, where do I turn?
Who is more qualified to give you advice: the person writing the blog post who lives totally removed from any connection to your life or the wise Christians that God has sovereignly placed around you? Because it’s so easy to be deceived, we need other people in our lives—people we respect and trust—who will speak truthfully to us. These people are the true experts because they don’t only have a lot of God-given wisdom, but they also know us personally. They know our blind spots and our past mistakes. They can actually see when we may be going down a dangerous path. God in his divine wisdom has providentially given us all parents, mentors, pastors, teachers, wise friends, and small group leaders to guide us when we need help. The online writer may be very wise, but he or she cannot properly apply the truth to the specific details of your life. The true experts are always the wise saints who actually know you.
No one writes in a vacuum. Every article out there is responding to specific things and is seeking to further a specific agenda. Do your homework and read wisely. Seek to gather information on the writer. Is he or she a Christian? Does he or she uphold the authority of the Bible? What websites does he or she write for? What organizations does he or she belong to? Is he or she a member of a church? These questions can usually be answered with just a little effort, and the answers almost always help me understand what I am reading better.
On a related note, it is always helpful to ask whether or not the author is qualified to be writing on a given topic. We wouldn’t go to a serial adulterer for marriage advice. People who have forsaken the church are certainly not qualified to be advising the rest of us on how the church should be run. A self-professed “expert” on discipleship should certainly be in the trenches discipling others. Make sure the person has actually lived out the advice they are giving. Abstract knowledge that isn’t lived is never helpful. We grow in understanding and wisdom only as we seek to live at the crossroads of God’s revelation in Christ and our own unique circumstances. An article on the Internet does not an expert make; anyone can post anything on the Internet.
In conclusion, I want to be very clear that I am a huge proponent of reading and benefiting from articles online. I am, after all, writing an article that I hope will be read online. I find many helpful things on the Web on a daily basis. However, the dangers above are very real. I see my own heart struggle to search only for things that will justify how I already want to think about an issue. I find it much easier to do a google search for advice rather than asking the people who know me best. I have found myself naively taking things to heart while ignoring the driving agenda of the author. In all things may Christ’s people “test everything” and “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).