The Importance of Being Wrong

In Christianity, getting it wrong is the only admissions requirement.

Sam Bush / 5.25.22

A few days ago, I was accosted by a grandmother at a playground. While playing a feverish game of tag with a group of toddlers, I bumped into a two year old girl who fell to the ground, unharmed but visibly upset. To be clear, the fault was clearly all mine. I should have been looking where I was going; I should have considered the high density of helpless youngsters around me. But what happened next was alarming. “It’s all your fault!” screamed the grandmother. “She fell down because of you! You should look where you’re going! You should go!” I apologized profusely, mostly out of fear of being banished from the playground. Albeit, her accusation was less than gracious, but I was impressed that anyone would be so forthright. Playgrounds are rife territory for judging other people’s parenting styles, but nothing is ever expressed openly. And here was this woman, calling me out to my face, pointed finger and all.

The encounter reminded me of James Parker’s “Ode to Getting Yelled At,” in which he argues that all of us could use a good berating once in a while. “To start with, you probably deserve it,” he writes. “Not for this — not for whatever it is you’re being yelled at about — but for the other stuff. You know what I’m talking about. The innumerable tiny offenses. All the evasions, hedgings, dodgings, half-assings, bloodless ill-doings, accumulated in darkness … In general, yes, you should be denounced. By the blow of a ram’s horn in a beam of biblical light.” With a helpful dose of humor, Patterson uncovers how our defenses are constantly on high alert. Criticism and condemnation are not constructive tools as much as they are common weapons of choice in the culture wars of our time. They are rarely implemented to improve, but, rather, to wound. For that reason, our natural response is not to admit our wrongdoing but to defend ourselves at all costs.

In daily life, we often live in limbo between right and wrong, in a murky middle-ground of uncertainty. We pad our offenses with excuses – we were angry because we hadn’t slept well the night before; we lied, but only because we didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Pluralism has made it difficult to say that anything is objectively right or wrong. Whenever we hit a moral roadblock, ethics committees are tasked with peering through the glass darkly to decide on our behalf. Every once in a while, however, we are ripped out of this ambiguity and thrust into the clear light of day. Unfortunately, the light of day is usually unflattering. It doesn’t obscure our blemishes but highlights them. When it finds us, it often finds us in the wrong.

And yet, despite our fears, being wrong can be a gateway to the truth that sets us free. To be left without any excuses with which to defend ourselves, we just may be open to a surprising thought we hadn’t considered before. As Emerson once said, “A man in the wrong may more easily be convinced than one half right.” In his book How to Think, Alan Jacobs argues that every responsible thinker needs to experience being “broken on the floor.” The term comes from Yale’s debate society for whenever someone is forced to admit that they are wrong during a debate. While being broken on the floor might seem like a death sentence, Yale’s debate society considers it a right of passage. It shows that a debater is not simply arguing to win, but pursuing what is actually true, even at the cost of their ego.

Jacobs notes how a willingness to lay down one’s arguments allows one to think more clearly. He once attended a philosophy conference during which a philosopher was publicly critiqued after giving a paper and responded by saying, “You’ve shown some real problems with my argument; I need to go back and think this over again, with your criticisms in mind. So thank you.” For Jacobs, it felt like a miracle. In a field where there is no room for such a public mea culpa, this philosopher risked losing the esteem of everyone in the room. And yet, the opposite came true. From that point on, Jacobs aimed to imitate the kind of humility required to publicly change one’s mind. “It’s tremendously liberating to be freed from the obligation to defend your every statement as though it’s a matter of life and death,” he said in an interview. It’s a controversial idea, that our identities are not based on what we think or believe, but it’s an idea that sounds more and more like good news once we’ve been proven wrong enough times.

I can relate. I’ve said things with such heartfelt conviction that I have later recanted. I have even written things for this very website that I’d like to take back. (Please don’t ask me which ones; I’ll never tell). I wish I could say that I’ve learned my lesson, that I’ve been humbled enough times to think before I speak, but Lord knows it’s only a matter of time until it happens again.

In Christianity, getting it wrong is the only admissions requirement. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was never that interested in the people who were always right, but in those on the wrong side of history — the lost sheep, the lost coins, the lost sons. The ones who go home justified at the end of the day are not the ones who win every argument but those who cry out “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Lk 18:9-14). When our self-righteousness has been laid in the grave, God’s grace raises us as new creations. In other words, we need to know we are wrong before things can be made right.

A minister I know once met with a man who was recklessly driving a golf-cart with a friend while slightly intoxicated, tragically resulting in his friend’s death. In the aftermath, family members had attempted to comfort the man by saying that it wasn’t his fault or that such a tragic accident could have happened to anyone. Months later, the man was still racked with guilt. He couldn’t sleep. His hand had developed a nervous tick. After listening to him intently, the minister said, “Well, it sounds like you feel responsible for what happened.” Shortly after being given a chance to come clean, the man’s nervous tick stopped. Now that he no longer had to run from the guilt that had been hounding him, he was free to feel remorse. The man’s friends and family had tried in vain to offer him absolution by putting lipstick on his shame rather than taking it seriously. Before anything – before he could hear of God’s grace and accept that he had been forgiven – the man needed to hear he was guilty.

What if the Christian witness was a quick admission of being wrong? To freely confess when we are in the wrong, to admit that we’ve been wrong before and that we’ll be wrong again? Whenever the world points its finger at us, there is solace in knowing that we have already been rescued from a wrath far more righteous and severe. It is not our Christian duty to be right, nor is it our duty to find the wrong in others. After all, our hope is not in righting our own wrongs, but in the God who makes every wrong right.

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2 responses to “The Importance of Being Wrong”

  1. Mike Ferraguti says:

    Hey Sam, you make a great point. But I think it was Sarah who wrote that we don’t have to blame Satan for being A-holes. We can be A-holes all by ourselves. And that applies to that grandma.

  2. mark mcculley says:

    John 8:33 We are already free, we have never been slaves

    John 8: 37 I know you are children of Abraham, but you are TRYING TO KILL ME

    John 8: 40 You are trying to KILL ME, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did NOT DO THIS.

    John 8: 59 They picked up stones to throw at Him. But Jesus was hidden and went out of the temple complex

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