Being Wrong

My Favorite Peanuts Cartoon

Most Christians struggle with admitting the possibility of being wrong. After all, Jesus told us that “we shall know the the truth, and the truth will set us free Jn. 8:32),” right? So naturally, we have trouble distinguishing our perception of “truth” from the reality of “truth.” Thus, making our own understand of God’s word the only understanding. I can remember being told in my early education, “if two people disagree with each other, they may both be wrong; but they can’t both be right.” Sounds logical, but in the area of theology there are plenty of other things to consider.

To begin with, is it ever a good idea to completely dismiss the possibility of being wrong? I think not. Being convinced we are right does not make us right. In fact, it just makes us closed minded, arrogant, and unwilling to process new information. Knowledge is an ongoing process, and when we think we have arrived at complete truth without the possibility of being mistaken we actually cut off the process of learning.

Kathryn Schulz in her book titled, “Being Wrong”  brings up a very relevant point:

Kathryn Shulz book

A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything: about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs, our assessment of other people, our memories, our grasp of facts. As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.

The Bible tells us, “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know (1 Cor. 8:2). “Stephen Hawkins puts it this way, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”

Likewise, we may have “truth” through the Bible, but that does not mean our perception of that truth is correct. There are lots of variables to consider here. We are reading a book coming from a variety of different authors, in different cultures, different languages,  writing to people in different situations with different purposes in mind. The average Bible reader rarely considers these matters when forming conclusions on biblical text, and therefore comes to a faulty understanding. It is helpful if we keep in mind that Bible was written for us, but it was not written to us; but even this will not completely eliminate the possibility of being wrong.

Every method of communication carries with it the possibility of being misunderstood. I often have to remind my wife what she said was not what I heard. In fact, what I heard was completely different from what she thinks she said. I have to wonder which of us is wrong? The written word is perhaps the most vague manner of communication. There is no dialogue, there are no gestures, fluctuation in voice, facial expressions, etc. To illustrate this point, let’s consider a simple sentence: “I didn’t say that the preacher’s wife had an affair.” Without understanding context or manner in which it is said, a person may come up with several different meanings. For instance, consider how the meaning changes simply by fluctuating a different word in the sentence.

I didn’t say that the preacher’s wife had an affair.
I didn’t say that the preacher’s wife had an affair.
I didn’t say that the preacher’s wife had an affair.
I didn’t say that the preacher’s wife had an affair.
I didn’t say that the preacher’s wife had an affair.
I didn’t say that the preacher’s wife had an affair.

Do you get the idea? Have you ever written a letter to a friend who was greatly offended by what you wrote because they misunderstood it? Have your ever read a book, a song, or a poem, in which you later learned the meaning of the author was completely different from how you understood it?  This is just one of many aspects we could consider, but I do think it illustrates the potential for getting it wrong.

Something else to consider is different lenses through which we view Scripture. We all have different experiences, levels of education, maturity, and prejudices. All of which has  bearing on our understanding. None of us are on the same spiritual plane in our Christian walk when it comes to our knowledge, level of maturity, or experiences. Does this mean our salvation is in jeopardy? I certainly hope not. If our salvation is based on having all the correct answers to all the doctrinal issues considered in Scripture, I think it’s time we admit, we are all in a lot of trouble.

I remember one of my seminary professors reminiscing about the day he graduated with his PhD in Theology. One of the teachers gathered all the PhD candidates together in a small room just before they walked the stage to receive their diplomas.  When they were all together the teacher said, “It is nice to be with a group of people who finally realize they don’t know everything.” It is interesting how the more educated people become, the more they realize how ignorant they are. Confucius once said, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” It’s just like my favorite scene from the movie “Rudy.” Rudy was discouraged and seeking answers to which the priest replies, “Son, in 35 years of religious study, I have come up with only two incontrovertible facts: there is a God, and I’m not him.  Perhaps that wasn’t very comforting to Rudy, but it is a great principle to keep in mind.

True knowledge doesn’t end with our admission of ignorance; instead, it begins. We shouldn’t just accept ignorance; rather, we should be driven towards self-improvement in knowledge and character. Paul tells us, “do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is (Eph. 5:17).” The will of the Lord goes beyond the knowledge of  a bunch of arbitrary facts. Jesus tells us that those who are blessed are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Mt. 5:6). But we do this with the same patience and humility for others that we expect them to have towards us. Our ignorance should not be considered a license to live in any manner we choose. To be a Christian means we are under the submission of Jesus as our Lord and master. So, we are to constantly seek his will, and as it is revealed to us, apply it to our lives without dismissing the things we don’t like.

So then, we seek to understand and apply what we learn into our lives while remaining open to correction. When we don’t leave room for correction, we not only limit our knowledge to what we think we already know, we also become enslaved to that view and fearful of anything that differs. Have you ever been afraid to read a book or have a discussion with a person who you know differs with you? That is the fear I’m talking about. You become unwilling to process new knowledge. Should we ever fear information? Truth can stand the test of time and honest inquiry. Truth has nothing to fear. However, the arrogance that comes from the desire to be right has much to fear.  It’s no longer a matter of learning; it’s now about saving face. We should never fear differing views. To the contrary, we should seek to understand them so we can make an accurate decision based on all the information available.

My biggest concern with omniscient-minded folks is how they treat others. To disagree with such people is not just a matter of being mistaken, it’s either seen as heretical, or  blatantly  stupid. Such thinking has only led to the church being divided and labeled intolerant. Jesus warned us to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and teachers of the law (Mt. 12:31; Mk. 3:28-29; Lk. 12:10), and I am convinced this is what he was warning us about. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day considered themselves close to omniscient which made them intolerant towards Jesus. They were not only unwilling to listen to Jesus, they sought to destroy him. How many others were murdered in the most cruel manners conceivable throughout history because they dared to differ from the orthodox view? Is this attitude of God or Satan? How many have become atheists because of the way they see religious people treating each other?

We can be wrong on many things and still be right before God. In a church being torn apart by division, Paul writes to tell them what’s most important:

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing 1 Cor 13:1-3).”

In other words, you may be right, but if you treat others wrong, you are wrong. Perhaps there would be a lot fewer problems in the church if we kept these words of Paul in mind. I think I’m right about this anyway, but I would be wrong.

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About Ken Sayers

I'm currently employed by a children's home where my wife and I care for a cottage of girls who have been displaced from their families. I'm a middle age man with two grown children of my own and one grandchild. I have worked as a United States Marine, a youth minister, a preacher, a childcare worker, and a truck driver. My hobbies include photography, horses, playing guitar, writing, and fitness.
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