Scott Adam’s Dilbert cartoons are brilliantly funny because they’re so true to life. In a February, 2013 cartoon, he offered this classic exchange between an employee and the Pointy-Haired Boss:
Employee: “The CEO of Apple says we should admit when we are wrong. That won’t work for me because I’m never wrong. The best I can do is admit when other people are wrong.”
Pointy haired boss:”That sort of misses the point.”
Employee: “Well, I humbly admit you’re wrong.”
(Feb 20, 2013 Copyright Scott Adams, Dilbert.com)
The employee is us. None of us actually say we’re never wrong, but all of us act like it from time to time. And since we aren’t wrong, it has to be somebody else that’s wrong. So we deny or blame or accuse or correct. We are forced to “humbly” submit that someone else is wrong.
Just the other day, I reached for the salt shaker to enhance a dish I was cooking on the stovetop. The salt shaker was not in its spot, which was first frustrating my cooking, and then me. I thought, “Why does Joy do that?” After all, it’s not that complicated to put the salt right back in its spot. By chance, and God’s humor, I glanced out our back door window to see the salt shaker on the back deck table…right where I had left it after an earlier scorched green bean fiasco.
I’d instinctively assumed Joy was wrong. Obviously, I couldn’t have been. I was that cartoon employee, humbly admitting that somebody else was wrong. I wish this only happened with salt shakers, car keys and remotes. But I default to this self-assured thinking with ideas that matter a great deal. The person in the wrong is anyone but me.
Religious people are especially prone to such overconfidence, humbly or not-so-humbly admitting that everyone else is wrong. Forgive me in advance for using a story about the Pharisees in the Bible. They seem to be an easy mark for those of us who think we’re nothing like them, but I use their story because I, and we, are much more like them than we realize.
The Pharisees were a group of Israel’s religious leaders and teachers in Jesus’ day. They had a passion to see that Israel followed God’s laws to the letter, and in the process, they added a few of their own letters to that law, especially with how the Sabbath, Israel’s weekly holy day, should be honored. They created quite a few Sabbath laws, one of which forbade anyone to heal someone on that holy day.
There was a day, then, when Jesus healed a blind man. Jesus gave the gift of sight to a man whose entire life had been reduced to begging on the streets. Suddenly, people had that same beggar run up to them, look them in the eye, and tell them what was already clear: he could see. Jesus was apparently not paying attention to the calendar; He healed the man on the Sabbath. The remarkable healing story spread rapidly, finding its way to the Pharisees, who had to investigate, especially since it was the Sabbath. They first heard the detailed story from the smiling, blinking man himself. And the Bible has this to say about their first thoughts:
Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided. (John 9:16, NIV)
Some drew an immediate conclusion. This Jesus doesn’t keep our sabbath laws. He doesn’t agree with us. So he can’t possibly be from God. But there was this small problem. He had just healed a man born blind, an eye-opening miracle.
Here was their opportunity to think: Maybe our ideas about the Sabbath are partly wrong.
You can see their wrestling. This sure looks like something someone from God does. On the other hand, He is flaunting God’s Sabbath laws(Pharisaic edition). Hmmm. Either he’s wrong or we’re wrong. And here is the sad and haunting reality. Even though there was strong evidence they could be wrong, they couldn’t envision that possibility. So, they humbly admitted everyone else was wrong.
When you don’t think you can be wrong, and evidence suggests you are, you will begin grasping for explanations. Here was their first: This guy is lying about having been blind. So, they went to his parents. They were not subtle. “Is this your son? Is this the one you say was born blind? (vs. 19) What are they saying? We humbly admit that you’re wrong. The parents insist he was their boy who’d never seen a human face before that Sabbath.
Grasping at a new theory, they went back to visit the ex-beggar. Maybe he’d been blind, but now he’s lying about Jesus healing him. That was it. So they announced: “Give glory to God by telling the truth,”… “We know this man is a sinner.” (vs. 24) We know. We’re certain. We can’t be wrong. Which can only mean one thing. “We humbly admit that you’re wrong.” They couldn’t possibly see that they might be wrong. That wasn’t an option.
The Pharisees, in this moment, ought to be a sobering lesson to us all, but here’s the comic, ironic reality. Almost no one thinks they could be a Pharisee. We can’t possibly make the same mistake. Christians can be the worst in this regard. After all, we know the Bible. But that’s EXACTLY what those Pharisees thought. Because they knew the Law, they couldn’t possibly be wrong. Similarly, Christians, Bibles in hand, are prone to assume they’re always right. This may be an even greater danger when you’ve a title like teacher or professor or pastor or clergy or advisor or counselor or scholar or apostle.
I think of Peter. I’m guessing he wouldn’t consider himself a Pharisee. But when Jesus told the disciples that the Messiah must die, Peter said the same thing the Pharisees did: “I humbly admit that you’re wrong.” The Bible’s actual wording is that he rebuked Jesus. “This shall never happen to you, Lord.” (Matthew 16:22, NIV)
Here was Peter’s opportunity to think: “Maybe my ideas about the Messiah are partly wrong.”
He had the chance to say to Jesus: “I’m confused. Help me understand why God would allow the Messiah to be killed, because it seems wrong to me. Help me see where I’m partly wrong.” But he blew by that possibility with a rebuke: I humbly admit that you—the Messiah!—are wrong.
Don’t laugh at Peter; we do it all the time. Or are you that person who doesn’t struggle with a single teaching of Jesus? I recall talking to someone about Jesus’ call for us to forgive, and she said “well, he wasn’t talking about situations like mine.” I hear a faint “I humbly admit that you’re wrong.” To Jesus. We read what Jesus says about marriage or hell or loving our enemies (like ISIS) or taking in immigrants or visiting prisoners or divorce or care for the poor or loving him more than our own family, and it doesn’t sound or feel right.
It creates an opportunity for us to think: Maybe my ideas about hell or divorce or forgiveness or sex are wrong.
In such moments, we’re really faced with the same conundrum the Pharisees felt. That Peter experienced. Either God’s wrong or I’m wrong. If we’re sure that we can’t possibly be wrong, we won’t pause. We’ll either correct Jesus or reject Him. We’ll either throw Him out entirely: “I can’t possibly follow the way of Jesus if he would send someone to hell.” Or we’ll correct Him: “I don’t think he actually said that” or “surely He didn’t mean that” or “He understands my situation is different.” “I humbly admit that you’re wrong.”
If you and I disagree with God, we’re certainly wrong. If we disagree with others, we may be wrong. This can be even harder to accept. And if we sometimes think we know better than God, we absolutely will think we know better than mere humans.
We must fight the pervasive assumption that we’re right even though we’ve been wrong countless times. So, how do we do that? Change the pronoun. I humbly admit that I may be wrong. Maybe we should actually use those very words from time to time.
A few years back, my brother Bruce tried opening up conversations with the words, “I’m probably wrong, but…” That’s not a bad option either. If nothing else, it’s great for the shock value. We need words that keep us in a humble posture.
I never like to correct people or address conflicts in relationships, but Jesus and real love require that we have those conversations. Embracing my partly wrong, I start them differently now: “There’s something I’m concerned about, but before I do I want to say that I may have misread something. It’s possible I am overreacting. I may have made an assumption that’s wrong. I care, but I may be wrong.”
What if we opened conversations about religion or politics or gun control or immigration or abortion or prison reform or race relations with “I humbly admit I may be wrong about some of this” kind of language? Well, for starters, we could actually have a meaningful conversation. And in that conversation, we could discover a flawed idea. And the new idea might save us or someone else.
Sure that everyone else was wrong, some Pharisees missed out on the grace of God that was close enough to touch. And it could’ve been prevented with one simple admission.
I humbly admit that I may be wrong.
[Feature photo by PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay.com.]
For each weekday of the month of July (and Aug. 1-3), I am blogging a chapter from my book, Partly Wrong, to be published this fall. This blog is chapter sixteen. I welcome any feedback that will help to make it a better chapter.