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Words as Lifelines: The Practice of Giving and Receiving Wise Counsel

Ancient Wisdom | Modern Minds

Exploring Psychology in the Bible, Week Five

Exodus 18:13-24

February 4, 2024

Rev. David Collins




Words can be lifelines for us. The right word at the right time? Nothing can beat it.


I’ve had many so many times in my life when I’ve needed advice that I’ve lost count. Luckily, I live with a very wise person, and she gives great advice. You all seem to know it too. I always appreciate it when you wave at me, when you walk past my office to go to hers!


But sometimes, she doesn’t know the right answer, and neither do I, and that’s why we go see Rick. Rick is our therapist and since he was a pastor for 40 years or so, he is also our coach. I think we’re better at this whole pastoring thing now than we were 8 years ago, largely because of him.


Thanks Rick! And thank you to those of you who made us have to go talk to Rick!


I know that those of you who have found a good counselor are so grateful you did. And we’ll talk about how important that can be today. We’ll also talk about how each of us might need to give wise counsel and not just receive it.


Many of us often hesitate to offer advice, even when someone reaches out for it. Maybe we’re worried we don’t know enough about the specific situation they're dealing with.We think we need to be experts or have all the facts straight before we can say anything helpful. We fear giving the wrong advice because we don’t have the full picture, and who wants to be the one who steered a friend wrong because they didn’t know chapter and verse of their life?


Or maybe we think we’re not eloquent enough. We get this idea that advice needs to be perfectly phrased, almost poetic, to be of any value. So we don’t speak up, even when our hearts are urging us to share our thoughts.


Or maybe we think that advice is only worth giving if it's groundbreaking or solves all problems in one go. This fear of not being profound enough can silence us, keeping us from sharing potentially helpful perspectives just because they seem too simple or obvious to us.


If any of those things sounds like you, then you need to meet Jethro!


Jethro

Jethro was Moses’ father-in-law. During his war with Pharaoh, Moses sent his wife and two sons away to live with Jethro. When the war was done, Jethro brought them back to the camp of the Israelites. And while he was there, he observed Moses, his life and work, the way that he dealt with people, the way any father in law would.


And then he gives Moses wise counsel. And it was not just good advice for Moses then and there. It’s good advice for us, and it’s a model of what wise counsel is like: how to give it and how to know you’re getting it, whether it’s from a therapist, a friend, or even a pastor.


We’re going to pick up in Exodus 18 at verse 13.


It says that

Exodus 18:13 The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. 14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, ‘What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?’


And notice here that Jethro didn’t just trust his eyes and assume that he got an accurate picture. He asked that most important clarifying question: Why?


Why?

Why are you doing what you’re doing?  I'm really interested in knowing what's driving you to do this, what's the story or the goal behind it all?

I know that I’m not really excited to hear someone’s advice when I don’t feel like they have taken the time to understand my situation. I’ll bet you feel the same way.

Jethro took the time to observe Moses, and then he asked some good questions to make sure that what he saw was the way it really was.


15 Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16 When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.’ 17 Moses father-in-law said to him, ‘What you are doing is not good.


"What you are doing is not good!"

That probably hit Moses right between the eyes. Good advice usually does.


Sometimes we think that in order to give advice we need to be eloquent or smarter than we are. But honestly, that's just not how it works. We don't need to dress up our words in fancy language or pretend to be something we're not just to help someone out. The truth is, all that really matters is that we're genuine, that we speak plainly and straight from the heart. When we do that, our words carry a lot more weight and warmth. It's about being real with someone, sharing our thoughts and feelings in a straightforward way. Even if all we have to say is “What you are doing is not good!” Because sometimes that’s what people need to hear.


Sometimes it’s what we need to hear, too. And it’s not something our friends will always tell us when we really need to hear it. Don’t get me wrong, friends are great, but as much as they love us and want the best for us, their support can sometimes come with blinders on.

They're on our team, which means they might automatically take our side or encourage paths that might not challenge us to grow or truly reflect on our actions and decisions. It's not because they don't care; it's just that their priority is often to keep the peace or make us feel better, rather than pushing us to confront hard truths or explore deeper issues that could lead to real change. Because that’s what they want us to do for them.


On the flip side, therapists are trained to help us navigate our feelings and thoughts in a more structured and objective way. They don't have a personal stake in our lives, which means they can offer insights and guidance that's unbiased and professional. Therapy provides a safe space to dig into our behaviors, patterns, and emotions without judgment, which allows us to understand ourselves better and make wiser decisions. Plus, therapists can equip us with tools and strategies to handle challenges more effectively, something well-meaning friends might not always be able to offer.


That’s what Jethro did for Moses. He went on…


18 You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.


Honestly, that’s often the best advice you can ever get. You cannot do it alone. It's perfectly okay not to have all the answers or be able to tackle everything on your own. The truth is, nobody can do it all by themselves, and that's totally fine. Reaching out for help isn't a sign of weakness. It’s a real strength.


19 Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God;

20 teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do.


Moses’ problem was that he was over-functioning.


Over-Functioning

He was doing things for people that they ought to be doing for themselves. In his case, it was probably more of a consequence of the state of emergency that he and his people had been living in, and of the fact that he literally spoke to God. When we do over-function, it’s usually not for the same reasons.


People often over-function due to a mix of wanting to feel needed, control issues, and societal pressures that equate busyness with worth. If you always have to be the caretaker or problem-solver, if you hate uncertainty and have a strong fear of failure, this compulsion to take charge and ensure things are done 'right' might be your way to avoid rejection.


This is a good place to mention that since this sermon is about giving and receiving wise counsel, that some listening who think of themselves more as the givers of wisdom and advice might need to hear what Jethro is saying here about trusting other people with their own lives.


Sometimes the right thing to say is nothing.


Or to ask good questions, or how you can help.


I’ll bet that as Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro had lots of opinions about how Moses should live his life. But the only thing he actually said was about a very important problem he saw for which he also had a concrete solution.


That solution was to equip other people to figure it out. Jethro said,


21 You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.

22 Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.’

24 So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said.


Part of the reason I chose this story from Moses’ life for our scripture this week is because it shows us something about therapy, even though it predates psychology by several thousand years. One of the reasons we’re doing this series is that we want every person here to feel like therapy is viable option for them. But the truth is that there are many misconceptions about what therapy really is.


The stereotypical scene of therapy is almost always someone laying on a couch, relating their current fears or behaviors to their childhood or traumatic memories. But much more regularly, our difficulties relate more to skill deficits than to deep, obscure, or complicated motives. Most of the meaningful parts of our lives—relationship, work, love, parenting, money—require a measure of skill. At the end of the day, we can only do what we know how to do, and we do it only as well as we know how.


Therapy boils down to mastering the skills for life’s various hurdles. It's not always about dissecting every memory or our personality under a microscope.


Say you had a fear of driving. You could explore every inch of your past, your personality, or even the state of your car, but sometimes, the answer is as straightforward as not having confidence behind the wheel.


Just like with Jethro and Moses, sometimes the most important thing is to pinpoint and polish essential skills, whether it’s managing stress, forming meaningful relationships, or simply navigating day-to-day life with a bit more ease. The practicalities often make the most significant difference. Research backs this up, and highlights the importance of social, emotional, and behavioral competencies in our overall well-being. Therapy is a space not just for reflection but for action—practicing new behaviors that steer us closer to the version of ourselves we aspire to be.


As we wrap up today's exploration of wise counsel through the story of Jethro and Moses, let’s remember the power our words have and the responsibility we carry in offering guidance. Jethro's model teaches us the importance of genuine understanding, asking the right questions, and the courage to speak truthfully yet gently. Sometimes, we are called to offer solutions, and others we just need to empower others to find their own path.


Let ’s be more mindful in how we give and seek advice.


Let’s approach each other with empathy and intention, understanding that our words can be lifelines or barriers.


We're not meant to go it alone. Seeking wise counsel, whether from friends, family, or professionals like therapists, is not a sign of weakness, but a step towards growth and resilience. We can be both seekers of wisdom and givers of guidance. We can be a community where every word we share lifts up, supports, and encourages. Let's be each other's Jethro.


Just as we share that support with each other through words, we also support our church. Through our prayers, through what we say, and through how we give. Kind of like how only Jethro could have given Moses good advice, we are the ones that support the work of this church. So please give generously.


After that, we get to gather around the communion table, at least in spirit. Communion is more than just a ritual; it’s like coming together for a family dinner, where everyone is welcome, those we know well, and those we’ve just met.


Regardless of our journeys, we come to share in something that binds us. Just as we lean on the wise words of those who understand us, communion is where we lean into the wisdom and love that Jesus offers us.


So, as we move towards the communion table today, let's see it as it truly is. A place where advice, support, and love are passed around like the bread and cup. It’s where we're nourished not just in spirit but in community too. We look to Jesus, of course, but notice as he points our attention to one another.


We’re all connected. We are all a part of one another. Jesus’ words, and our words too, create and nurture our community together.

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