When I was a kid, one of the things that drove me most mad was when my dad, who tended to fly off the handle pretty easily, would be proven in the wrong, yet would never admit it or apologize. In fact, it wasn’t until I was twenty-five or twenty-six that he ever admitted to me the possibility of his being wrong ever in his life.
There was this time, however, when I confronted of my parents for certain damaging things that they chose to do. Now I realize perfectly well that they did the best they could with what they had, and yet this does not erase the fact that what they chose caused monumental damage in our family relationships. I was seeking an apology, or at very least an acknowledgement that an error had been made. From dad, surprisingly, I got tears of deep repentance. From mom, equally surprisingly, I got the martyr treatment. In short, dad learned how to admit he was wrong, and mom still could not see that an apology for her decision, which she clearly regretted, would generate much healing.
I’m not trying to pound on my parents, but to illustrate a point, with which I think we as Christians have far too much difficulty.
We aren’t good at admitting we’re wrong. In fact, we’re really good at denying or deflecting it.
There are a number of reasons we have for this failing, of course. We’re supposed to be regenerated, that is, better people than those who aren’t regenerated, the non-Christians. We’re supposed to live an exemplar life.
Somehow, that whole notion of salvation by faith and not by works gets lost in our desperate need to show how very good we’ve become. Our minds are transformed, so we don’t make bad choices, or if we do, we brush it aside with bumper-sticker clichés like “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven”, clichés that have the unsettling effect of implying two very judgmental things:
nobody else is forgiven, and
you should immediately forgive (meaning, not take offense, or be pained by) a Christian whenever she wrongs you, and if you don’t, then you’re not very forgiving, so shame on you.
The first is judgmental and mistaken: God has forgiven everyone—that’s the very notion of grace. The second makes it an offense to be harmed or hurt by harmful or hurtful actions. And this is as absurd as blaming a victim for having the audacity to be vulnerable enough to be raped.
In short, we Christians tend to wiggle our way out of guilt admission and reparation, and we do it with rhetorical flourish.
But the mistake in this is in its very backwardness. I was raised under the odd little belief that admitting failure was somehow admitting that God failed in his regenerative act. It was shameful to err. Everything we did was a reflection on Jesus, so everything we did had to be perfect, or beyond reproach at least. “Appearances” was the mantra in our home.
Appearances, indeed. Christ is glorified in us not when we act perfectly, but in how we respond when we are shown to be imperfect. Christ is honored not when we avoid rightly earned blame, but when we acknowledge it and do what we can to make amends. For the difference between a regenerated heart and the unregenerate is this very thing—a love of the other such that any harm done to her is felt as harm done to oneself. It is only when love is tested that it is irrefutably shown to be love and not simply fondness or some other sort of attachment. And a test of love is when the beloved shows the lover to have erred.
Hold that thought.
I teach philosophy, and one of the first principles I teach my students is that the goal is truth, not winning. And in this quest for truth, if truth is really what we want, we have to question ourselves, too. If we really want the truth and then find what we have isn’t the truth, then we have to be willing to let it go, to be wrong, and as a consequence, we become free to pursue the truth. We have to be willing to discard cherished notions, if they stand in the way of truth.
A lover of truth is often wrong, but a lover of truth, a true lover, not merely a self-proclaimed one, will learn to accept her string of wrongs humbly. So two loves are at work: love of the other and love of the truth (both of which, of course, arise from love of God, which comes because God loves us). Admitting wrong then is a symptom of love, especially if accompanied by repentance.
We can be wrong in many ways, unfortunately. We can harm others; we can mislead others; we can misrepresent others. Recently, I had to admit wrongs done, wrongs that I will have to face for the rest of my life.
I was in an outing with two close friends. (By that, I mean I was outing myself to them.) They have known me as a self-proclaimed “ex gay,” who has nonetheless gotten a lot of rough treatment for ever having been or for being gay. In the course of our conversation, S asked me about things I had said about homosexuality and myself during that time. Things, she said, she had often quoted me on. Things I was terribly wrong about, even though I so desperately needed to be right about in order to maintain myself as an acceptable “ex gay”—things that must have harmed many gay Christians who heard them uttered by me or those who quoted me. Her question cut me deeply, not because she so intended (she certainly didn’t), but because the harm I did to others sliced into my heart. And I had to tell her I was wrong. Not just because of duty, but because something deep inside me needed the truth more than the self-sufficiency of being right. I told her what I said before I had wanted to believe, but that what I had to admit, eventually, was that my carefully-constructed explanation was really only a clapboard house with a fancy storefront and no foundation.
There’s another side to accepting one’s wrongs. Like I said, others see Christ in us when we humble ourselves and admit error, but when we truly see our wrongs, we are thrust into a vulnerability with God that is very painful, yet brings much intimacy. I cannot ever erase what I’ve said, things I’ve counseled people to do, arguments I’ve made. And I can’t erase the things that have moved from them to other people, misleading, harming, alienating them—effects of my words. And there are certain people I’ve damaged profoundly, people with whom I can never make reparations.
But this is where that dependency on Christ surfaces most readily. I can admit my wrong, apologize, and persist in living out the love that Christ is living into me. Knowing I cannot “fix” anything forces me into a naked humility that is terribly uncomfortable, because I would rather be the strong one, the right one, the perfect one.
Yet it is in our weakness that Christ is made strong, in our failings that love is made perfect. And it is this difficult truth that I have glimpsed yet again, that I am, ever so slowly, learning to love.