A mark of good character is to say when you are wrong. Not denying things, not pretending you are right when the rest of the world knows you are not. But like most of you, I find it so hard to admit it when I’m wrong. Ask my daughters if that is so, or my wife. I love to be right, do you? When I was younger (not so long ago, right?) I would fight obnoxiously to win, whether a game or an argument. One time when I was a young teenager, I lost a chess match and swept all the pieces off the board in my anger at losing.
We are living in such unusual and difficult days, with the losses mounting of lives and livelihoods. There are some encouraging signs of Covid-19 lessening in its ferocity, at least in some parts of the world. But what has not changed is the arrogance and pride of our hearts. What continues as normal is how hard it is to say when we are wrong. In the United States as in other nations, the blame game with who did what or not related to the virus has started in intensity. There is so much blame to go around, as there always is in a crisis of this magnitude. But how refreshing it is when a leader of any party or church rises above partisan loyalties and says, I was wrong.
In 1996, a book came out titled I was wrong, by disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker. He and his wife Tammi led a large Christian TV ministry in the 1980’s. In 1987, moral failure by Bakker led to a financial investigation of the ministry and resulting conviction, with him going to prison for several years. He wrote this book as a reflection on his wrongdoings and subsequent repentance. Having recently seen him again on TV, I do have some questions as to whether the changes in his character were permanent, but that is for another discussion.
The reason I bring Bakker up is the way the book title grabbed me when I first saw it in a bookstore. The I was wrong stood out to me like a neon sign in Times Square, New York. The fact that an evangelical celebrity in the United States would so openly admit to wrong was certainly, and sadly, an aberration. I bought the book as a result, and appreciated his humility at least to some degree.
How many of us would write so openly about where we have been wrong? When we admit our wrong, it may mean we lose money or celebrity. Or our standing in an organization or political party. Or we may lose a campaign. Humility is not a treasured attribute in 21st century USA. How wonderful it would be if our present President would even once acknowledge a mistake or failure. I admire and respect the office of the President, but not this man’s character. And his bullying and refusal to face his own ‘fake news’ has had a trickle down effect on so many other politicians and even our national discourse in social media.
But he is not the only one that can’t admit he was wrong. It happens on both sides of the political aisle. And not only in the United States, but in India, in Brazil, in the UK, in Nigeria. And on and on. It happens in churches, in missions, in companies, in families. It seems to be more of an issue for men with our macho pride. But that doesn’t mean women find it easy either. By the way, wouldn’t you love to see more women leading nations? One reason (of many) being it does seem a bit easier for women to admit a certain amount of nuanced perspective than men.
What kinds of things should we admit to being wrong about? Here’s a few, and I’m sure you can think of more from your life:
1) When we have passed on something on social media that we find out later was wrong, we need to say ‘I was wrong’. And to the level and audience we sent it out to.
2) When we have given or passed on a prophetic ‘word’ that turns out not to be true, we should come back and say ‘I was wrong’. Perhaps there was some truth in it, some seeds for the future, even if other parts were wrong. If so, we still should communicate that partial sense of wrong while emphasizing also the right part.
3) In our personal and family lives, when we are wrong in an argument, we should clearly say ‘I am wrong’. I am still learning this!
4) When we have grown in an area of belief or conviction, it is good to say ‘I was wrong’ while emphasizing that we are all in a continual learning mode throughout our lives.
5) Declare war on denial in your life and organization. Learn to say as a group ‘I am wrong’. Being positive does not mean to live in denial. We are learning that again as we confront this deadly virus.
6) If you have passed on a conspiracy theory, and you come to believe it was wrong, say ‘I was wrong’. Again, to the level and audience you said it to or passed it on to.
There are many others. You can make your own list.
Maybe we need to stand in front of a mirror today and say… I am wrong. Just to practice until we can actually get the words out of our mouths. Don’t follow the example of your political or religious leader, unless you are blessed with a leader who knows how to admit their failures and mistakes.
Set an example yourself for a new generation, whether you are 18 or 80.
Admitting you were wrong may be one of the most important things you’ve ever done.