Back when I was getting my Ph.D., I – and the other Ph.D. candidates – participated in a weekly colloquium where we discussed our teaching and any struggles we might be having. It was a good place to air out issues: what does an “A” essay look like? How do you handle a disruptive student?
But one of the teachers came every week with a new set of problems. Her students disrespected her. They openly challenged her during class. Some of them outright refused to do the assignments. Throughout the term she grew more and more irritated with them and the class grew less and less productive, until finally a supervising professor stepped in to see what, exactly, the problem was.
As it turned out, the teacher couldn’t stand being wrong.
If students asked a question and she didn’t know the answer, she’d make an incorrect one up – and the students, as a result, grew skeptical of every answer she gave. If she was challenged about an incorrect answer, she’d berate the students into submission rather than admit not knowing. Everyone else was wrong, and she was always right.
When one of the professors gently attempted to ask her about this during the colloquium, her response spoke volumes: “I don’t care if I’m wrong! I don’t care how wrong I am! It’s their job to sit and to listen because I’m the professor and that makes me right!”
Admitting you’re wrong is hard. Especially when everyone assumes you know the answers. And Christians are particularly susceptible to this.
That’s because admitting that you’re wrong is an act of vulnerability. It’s saying that you don’t know something, or that you were mistaken; that you’re not perfect; that your knowledge is not always reliable; that you are someone who requires correction. It is a naked admission of lack.
Being a Christian exacerbates all this because issues of right and wrong so often strike at the very heart of who we perceive ourselves to be and also, sometimes, at the heart of what we think we know about our faith. Admitting that we’re in the wrong in a dispute or a conflict is difficult for those who feel pressured to be, or who are perceived as, model Christians. Contemplating that we might not be correct about best Christian practices or how to “do” Christianity invites a level of self-reflection that makes people uncomfortable and that they might prefer to avoid.
And so a lot of believers go through life never questioning themselves about anything. They never confront the possibility that they might be wrong. Ever. I know pastors who have literally misread Scripture – literally misread what was on the page! – and then cut off any believers who dared to interject with a question, a clarification, or a challenge. I know Christians who somehow, magically, have never been in the wrong in any dispute they have ever had their entire lives. I know people who are so defensive of faith practices like godly courtship that they assume anyone who doesn’t practice them is wrong and ungodly to boot.
This is not the attitude God desires for us to have. Our self-reflection and willingness to question ourselves and our rightness is paramount. “Whoever hates correction is stupid,” Proverbs says bluntly (12:1). And it also advises that “whoever heeds discipline shows the way to life, but whoever ignores correction leads others astray” (10:17).
Friend, if you are on the “right” side of every dispute or conflict you’ve ever engaged in, if you have never wronged anyone, if you assume that your best practices are always right and everyone else’s are wrong, if you never question yourself or reflect on your behavior when the opportunity arises, you have a problem.
Admitting you are wrong does not lessen your authority in the church, if you have it – in fact, it enhances it, because you are demonstrating humility and submission to reproof. Admitting you are wrong doesn’t make you a lesser Christian. It makes you an honest one. And so what if you’re not always right? No one is perfect except for God alone – did you really imagine otherwise?
I understand the temptation to always be right. In one of my classes years ago, I accidentally printed out the wrong due date for an assignment on the syllabus. A student challenged me on it. “Did you really mean for this to be the due date?” she asked. We’d just completed another major assignment, and I blinked in surprise as soon as she said it and realized what I’d done. “It’s only a week away!”
Embarrassing? Yes. And I was a young teacher at the time, desperate to shore up authority and be taken seriously by my students. Like that other teacher I knew, I could’ve forced the issue, pushing my students – and myself – through the rigors of another major assignment in a third of the time they just received for the previous one. I didn’t. “That’s my fault,” I said after I read the syllabus. “The due date’s written wrong. Let me correct that.”
They cheered. And they didn’t rebel or attempt to overthrow my authority. They remained my students and I remained their teacher. Life went on smoothly for all of us. Being able to admit that you’re wrong, even and especially when you hold a position of power, suggests an openness, an authenticity, and an honesty that’s hard to replicate in any other way. It shows your confidence in God’s love for you just as you are: a flawed person who is trying to represent Him as best you can. It demonstrates humility and grace. And, I daresay, it allows others to feel a little more comfortable with you.
If you’re right about something and you are convinced of it and you’ve prayed over it and communicated with others about it and the Spirit of God isn’t telling you any differently, then great. But if the question comes up – am I wrong? – sit and think about it. Sit and really think about it. Pray. Solicit the opinions of trusted, godly folks. And if indeed you are wrong, just put it out there. Don’t try to hide it or excuse it or justify it or go on insisting you’re right regardless. Own being wrong, admit to it, and make whatever amends are necessary.
Life will go on. There’s really nothing to be afraid of.