I’m sure you can relate to this experience. You’re in a discussion with someone, and they say something incorrect. It’s important enough that it should be set straight. So you begin to interact calmly, identifying their error and offering the correct understanding of the matter.
But it’s not that easy.
Your correction is resisted. A back-and-forth begins. And as the conversation progresses, you start to get heated. You’re frustrated because your clear presentation of facts is not persuasive.
What happens next?
In no time, you’re on the receiving end of correction. You’re being told you’re wrong for raising your voice or saying unkind things. This complicated and discouraging sequence plays out daily in the most intimate of relationships (like a marriage) or the most informal (like on social media).
Why does this happen?
At this risk of oversimplification, the answer is simple: we are sinners living in a fallen world. Sin doesn’t only affect our ability to know God, and it also affects our ability to know ourselves and one another. Theologians refer to the effect of sin on our minds as the “noetic effects of sin.” Everything gets warped and is prejudicial toward our own glory (Romans 1:20–22). Even after their conversion, believers struggle with this. Our indwelling sin rears its ugly head in our interpersonal relationships. We argue because of unmet desires (James 4:1ff). And where these selfish desires rage, “there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16).
Heated, frustrating arguments reveal fractures in our relationships with others. This comes to a fractured relationship with God. As long as sin remains, we will struggle in our relationships with others.
How does this happen?
It’s interesting to think about the dynamics at play here. As a neutral party, you can see how you could side with both parties or neither. On the one hand, person A is factually correct, while person B is wrong. But on the other hand, person B is right that they are being treated wrongly by person A. Tricky stuff.
So in this disagreement, you can have two people who think they are right. And, in one sense, they aren’t wrong. Person A can point to the facts and show the error. Person B can point to the words spoken in this conversation and do the same.
But in another sense, they are actually both wrong. One is wrong factually, and the other morally.
What makes this so tricky is when we are convinced we are correct then we tend to double down on the argument, refusing to listen to the other person and instead just keep trying to win. With the tailwind of confidence from our perception of being correct at our backs, we go for broke. One is convinced of their rightness and cannot sympathize with apparent folly. The other has been treated wrongly and cannot hear the logic of what’s being said. And as a result, neither person can listen to what the other is saying. Standing on our perception of the moral high ground, we can’t hear the cries of objection from the lowlands.
How can we prevent this?
If pride gets us into this trouble (and it does – see James 3 & 4 above), then humility gets us out. It’s nearly impossible to prevent arguments, but there is a way out once we find ourselves knee-deep in the swampy marsh of disagreements.
Many arguments could be avoided if we could remember an elusive truth: we can be right and wrong at the same time.
Humility sees the world (and ourselves) based on what God’s Word says. We know that we still have remaining sin that we must deal with (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5). And we know that sin is deceptive, affecting how we know and perceive reality (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 1:20ff). We have blind spots (aptly named because we can’t see them). So stop and listen at any time in an argument, especially when you believe you are right. Seek to understand what the other person is saying. Perhaps even say, “You might be right.” Listen. Think. Pray.
This pursuit of humility reflects an attempt to understand the other person’s situation. For person A, they are convinced of the truth of the matter, but it doesn’t give them the right to be rude. For person B, this objective truth is blurred through the tone and delivery from person A. Even though someone is wrong, it’s hard to see it when they are being wronged. Humility will remember this fact rather than just focusing on you being right.
This is where the gospel speaks a word of rebuke and refreshment. Jesus was right and yet was still wronged for us. He was sinless yet, due to his love, humbled himself to take our sins. Motivated by his humility, we can follow his model and consider others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3–11).
In the context of arguments, I have found that pride is like gas on a fire, while humility is like a bucket of water. Pride is an accelerant, while humility is an extinguisher. So pursue humility through listening, understanding, self-control, and peace-making. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter how right you are when you’re acting wrongly.
Many arguments could be avoided or shortened if we remembered an elusive truth: we can be right and wrong simultaneously.