(The following is adapted from Respect the Image: Reflecting Human Worth in How We Listen and Talk, by Timothy M. Shorey, P&R Publishing, 2020, 163-177—and first appeared as an article published by The Gospel Coalition on Jan. 21, 2021)
We all tend to turn the debatable into the dogmatic. Be it politics, or education options, or whether or not good Christians may ever drink alcohol or watch TV or read Harry Potter or cheer for the New England Patriots—you can be sure that we have opinions and are sure of them. And herein lies much of our current crisis.
Assume You Are Wrong
We need to learn better how to coexist humbly and teachably. To do this we must assume that in every disagreement, we may very well be wrong. By “wrong”, I mean wrong in some way—in opinion, or attitude, or word choice, or emphasis, or tone, or grasp of the relevant information, or timing. We should enter every dispute confident that there will be something for us to learn, something for us to confess, something that we did not know as we ought to have known it, or need to know 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 short-circuits much angry diss-course. After all, if we assume that 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.
Searching the Scriptures
The Scriptures teach 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).
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 that I am teachable, which means that I know I have to learn, which means that I assume I am at least partly wrong.
To Battle or to Learn?
Dr. Soong-Chan Rah suggests that 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 that there are important things I do not know. “In a battle of messages, we fight over who gets to be right,” while “a learning conversation places a higher value on learning than scoring points and proving yourself correct” (Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing World; Moody Publishers, 2010, 133; see also 132–36).
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 that is necessary to assume that we are wrong can face two potent forces.
How Isolation and Power Affect Our Opinions
First, isolation hinders such humility. Only if we choose to mix with old and young, male and female, black and white and brown, rich and poor, and all the combinations that these categories produce, will we learn healthy self-doubt. We need to come out of isolation to widen our conversational circle if we would see our errors, sharpen our faith, test our assumptions, enlighten our hearts, and nurture our relationships.
If isolation is one barrier to healthy self-doubt, power is another. Those with authority or majority status often assume a superiority status as well, which can further lead them to assume an infallibility status. Learning conversations—to use Dr. Rah’s phrase—are hard for people in power. I know this well, since in every role and position I occupy that includes advantage and/or authority—such as my status as father, husband, pastor, and white male—I have often assumed myself to be right when I was very wrong.
Power is a part of life, and few—if any— of us are spared its temptations. 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. He calls leaders—like everybody else—to see their great need for the insight of others—including those they lead; to assume that they are wrong; and to act like they mean it.
How the Gospel Frees Us to Be Fearlessly Wrong
At the heart of the gospel is the promise that, even though sinners who 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 wrong, we cannot be condemned (Rom. 5:1; 8:1, 31–34).
This good news creates fearless conversations. It frees us from proud assumptions that we have to be right, and from the paralyzing fear that we never are. It enables us to assume that we have something to learn and something to say—and that if we are wrong in the process, it’s all going to be all right.
Here is a climate change we all need; one to infuse fresh humble relational air into every single sphere of life. If all of us, secure in God’s justifying grace, dare to assume that we might well be wrong, much of today’s rancorous diss-course will come to a swift and powerful end.