John Ames' Advice Against Defensiveness
Good advice is gold. That is, it’s as rare as it is precious. Unfortunately, the church is often a sanctuary for bad advice. In the same way that fugitives of the law could once seek shelter within its holy walls, much bad advice has enjoyed similar privilegeswithin the church. As a rule, therefore, I believe we should be slow to offer advice—especially the recycled kind. That being said, invaluable advice exists, even of the second-hand variety, which is what I want to share in this post. They are a few words written by John Ames to his son, regarding defensiveness, in Gilead.
Ames writes, “I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith. As I have said, the worst eventualities can have great value as experience. And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer. I know this, I have seen the truth of it with my own eyes, though I have not myself always managed to live by it, the Good Lord knows. I truly doubt I would know how to live by it for even a day, or an hour. That is a remarkable thing to consider.”
The Reasons We Withold or Resist Advice
Let’s start where John Ames finishes: his own inadequacy in the face of this advice. Many Christians love labelling people hypocrites. This tendency is very likely little more than a weak diversion, the desire to fix attention anywhere other than on our own inconsistencies. But not John Ames. Even while giving his advice about defensiveness, he humbly admits that he’s failed to always hear and heed it. And that admission isn’t trite or contrived, but genuinely regretful—as anyone who has read Gilead will testify. Does this make him a hypocrite? No. Should we offer up counsel or advice despite shortcomings in those very areas? I think so, yes.
This point has two immediate implications, one for those offering advice and another for those receiving it.
Firstly, you aren’t forbidden from giving advice in an area where you yourself are imperfect. If that were the case none of us would qualify for Christian counsel. In fact, I’d go further. Counsel tinged with humility and self-awareness is more appealing than self-assured pontification. Give me someone who honestly wrestles with truth, rather than the person who readily administers it without serious introspection.
Secondly, there’s something here for all of us, as those who hear advice. And it’s this: you don’t get to dismiss the truth because you believe the person speaking it is inconsistent. All of us are. Now I’m not defending hypocrisy or fruitless faith. Simultaneously, however, beware being overly selective in terms of who you listen to. It might be discernment, but it could just as much be pride, partiality, and a preference for the kind of advice you want. It’s also indicative of defensiveness, which I advise against, together with Ames.
The Problem With Defensiveness Is Presumption and Pride
So let’s turn back to the quote from Gilead. Ames cautions against defensiveness because “it precludes the best eventualities along with the worst.” And that might sound like a fair trade-off. Sure, through defensiveness we guard ourselves against the worst eventualities—when our vulnerability leads to hurt and betrayal. Only, at the same time we forfeit the best eventualities and positive outcomes, like change and deeper community. This is why Ames says overly cautious defensiveness “expresses a lack of faith,” rather than being wise or calculated.
There are two reasons Ames says this. Firstly, defensiveness demonstrates a lack of faith because it is proportionate with assured self-confidence. As Ames puts it, “often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.” Faith is open—even empty—handed. It looks beyond the self, planting the roots of confidence elsewhere. But defensiveness is presumptuous, embedded in pride, when all of us know that faith grows in the soil of humility.
Secondly, like any good Calvinist, Ames recognises the providence of God in the economy of our lives. That’s why he says “the worst eventualities can have great value as experience.” Defensiveness precludes such outcomes, in its insistence on knowing better. Only it doesn’t, of course, know better. Rather it merely believes that it does. And Ames adds that even when the eventualities are undesirable, experience is nevertheless an invaluable teacher. The defensive person cuts herself off from these opportunities, avoiding them on the grounds of faith in oneself.
Don’t Deny Yourself the Goods Offered by Others
Defensiveness takes on many forms, which is partly why I’ve resisted defining it. In the context of Gilead, Ames is ruminating on a cagey debate with the prodigal Jack. The old man spies insincerity in the other, perhaps even veiled mockery. So he instinctively takes the offensive instead of graciously listening to the Jack’s questions and pensive points. Thus when he later reflects on the exchange he admits to not always managing to live by his own advice against defensiveness.
It’s very likely that the shape of our own defensiveness will be different to Ames’. We might say nothing to contradict another without any intention of considering what they’ve said. Maybe you deflect. I tend to dilute sober counsel with humour. Many of you reject others on the basis of self-preservation, warranted or otherwise. But, as Ames notes, faith shouldn’t be self-assured but rather persuaded of the goods possessed by others. Defensiveness denies itself these benefits.