We all tend to turn the debatable into the dogmatic. Be it politics, education options, or whether good Christians should drink alcohol or watch TV or read Harry Potter or cheer for the New England Patriots—you can be sure we have opinions and are sure of them. Herein lies much of our current crisis.
We need to learn better how to coexist humbly and teachably. To do this we need to be more willing to admit that in most disagreements, we may very well be wrong. By “wrong,” I don’t mean totally wrong; I mean wrong in some way—in opinion, attitude, word choice, emphasis, tone, grasp of the relevant information, or timing. We should enter every dispute confident there will be something for us to learn, something to confess, or something we didn’t know as we ought to have known it.
That I am not all-knowing should be more than a statement of the obvious; it should be a conscious, functioning conviction that humbles me at all times. Consistently practiced self-awareness (that we may be at least partly wrong) can diffuse a lot of potentially combustible discourse. After all, if we assume we’re wrong, then we don’t have to be right. And if we don’t have to be right, then we won’t need to fight.
Scripture teaches us to doubt ourselves. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” (Prov. 12:15). “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov. 26:12). “Never be wise in your own sight” (Rom. 12:16).
That I am not all-knowing should be more than a statement of the obvious; it should be a conscious, functioning conviction that humbles me at all times.
Fools have no self-doubt, while the wise are always learning. If I disagree with you, I should assume the presence of ignorance—not in you, but in me. The wisdom that is “from above” is “open to reason” (James 3:17). This means that if I’m wise, I can be persuaded—which means I’m teachable, which means I know I have to learn, which means I assume I’m at least partly wrong.
To Battle or to Learn?
Soong-Chan Rah suggests each disagreement can be either a “battle of messages” or a “learning conversation.” In a battle of messages, I aim to prove my point and persuade you that I am right. In a learning conversation, I assume there are important things I don’t know. “In a battle of messages, we fight over who gets to be right,” Rah writes, while “a learning conversation places a higher value on learning than scoring points and proving yourself correct.”
Consider the effect that getting this right would have on the tone, intensity, and frequency of our conflicts.
But it will be no easy change. The humility necessary to assume we are wrong can face two potent obstacles.
Isolation and Power
First, isolation undermines humility. We need to come out of isolation and widen our conversational circle—including people who are unlike us in various ways—if we are to see our errors, sharpen our faith, test our assumptions, enlighten our hearts, and nurture our relationships.
God’s design is not to negate authority, but to humble and sanctify it.
Power is another barrier to humility. “Learning conversations” are especially hard for people in power. I know this well, since in every role and position I occupy that includes advantage and/or authority (e.g., father, husband, pastor, sometimes even white male), I have often assumed myself to be right when I was wrong.
We have all assumed ourselves to be right when in authority or advantage. Dads and moms do it. Rich people do it. Bosses do it. Babysitters do it. Older siblings do it. Coaches do it. Sunday school teachers do it. Nations do it. Cultures do it.
Such power advantages need to be neutralized by humility, without undermining God’s ordained leadership roles in the home, the church, and the world. God’s design is not to negate authority, but to humble and sanctify it.
How the Gospel Frees Us
At the heart of the gospel is the promise that, even though sinners are often wrong, we are treated by God as if we have never done wrong and have always been right(eous). Christ’s imputed righteousness justifies us before God (Rom. 3:23–26; 5:18–21; Titus 3:4–7), and positions us so that even if we’re wrong, we cannot be condemned (Rom. 5:1; 8:1, 31–34).
The gospel frees us from the proud assumption that we have to be right, and from the paralyzing fear that we never are.
This good news creates space for fearless conversations. It frees us from the proud assumption that we have to be right, and from the paralyzing fear that we never are. It enables us to assume we have something to learn and something to say—and that if we are wrong in the process, it’s going to be OK.
Here is a climate change we all need: the infusion of humble relational air into every single sphere of life. If each of us, secure in God’s justifying grace, dared to assume we might be wrong, much of today’s rancorous diss-course would come to a swift and powerful end.