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When being right is oh-so-wrong

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[Repost from 2011]

About 10 years ago I wound up in the office of a Christian counsellor.  I couldn't believe I was about to confess to depression.  Me, a church worker!  Me, conservative evangelicalism's next big thing!

The cause?  Several very stressful things were happening in my life, but the tipping point into depression was a frustration with the gospel that was being preached around me.  And I fell flat on my face in despondency.

My counsellor took me to Jeremiah 2:13

12 Be appalled at this, you heavens,
and shudder with great horror,’
declares the Lord.
13 ‘My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

He said (very graciously) I'd been digging some kind of broken well which had dried up.  Now I was slumped at this false life-source with a mouth full of mud.  He asked what the broken well might be.  In an instant I knew: "I need everyone to read the bible the same way I do".  Not for the glory of Jesus, but to be right!

I asked "What should I do?"  He said, "Give up on it and turn back to Jesus."  As soon as he said "Give up on it" my whole flesh rose up and said "Never!"  This snarling idol revealed itself.  And it shocked me.

My theological paradigm had become my god.  And it was so subtle.  Because here's the thing: I prided myself on the fact that my paradigm was uniquely Christ-centred.

But when I identified the pride issue a weight fell off my shoulders.  The issue was not the idiots out there, the issue was the arrogance in here.  I'd been thinking of my depression as a complicated issue of theological debate with no way through. In fact it was a simple (but very ugly) issue of plain old sin. And the gospel has a solution for sin.

Someone has wisely said that if you diagnose your problems as requiring anything less than the blood of Jesus for their solution, you haven't diagnosed your real problem.  My hour with the counsellor cut through to the real problem.  But thankfully the real problem has a real solution. And it's already mine. Or rather, He's already mine. I left that office with a massive weight off my shoulders.

Not that I didn't think the issues mattered any more.  They did matter.  They still matter.  But I looked at them through a different lens.

For one thing, I embraced the liberating truth that I was wrong too. Wrong about plenty. Wrong in a grotesque and sinful way. When you're right all the time it's a crushing burden. It's actually a relief to be wrong - to be in need of forgiveness and correction. Suddenly I was free from the need to prove myself, because all I'd proved was that I was a self-righteous fool.

From there it was impossible to feel superior to those who disagreed theologically. I stopped trying to 'put one over on them' and started to genuinely rejoice in a gospel that can save such wrong people - like them and like me.  I then began to genuinely pity the folk with a Christ-less or Christ-lite theology. Not in smugness but with a sincere desire for their good.  I gave up on being the one who would crush them in theological debate and started to think more in terms of sowing seeds and trusting the results to God!

I get this wrong all the time and there's still much of the arrogant young man to me.  But I also think God's been teaching me some things about how to live and minister among other Christians with whom I disagree.  I'll share a few thoughts in no particular order:

  • I love the saying (which I think goes back to Wesley?) that the way to handle opponents is "to out-live and out-love them, out-preach and out-pray them."  That's got to be the way forward. And I think it begins with repentance.  I repent of trusting in my Christ-centred paradigm.  I turn to Christ!
  • If I'm tempted to pride it's good to turn to Elijah's example in 1 Kings 19.  And to laugh at myself.  "I, only I am left!!" he says, exhausted by his own righteousness! "Ummm" says the LORD "I think you'll find there's thousands like you. Get some rest!"
  • I find it very tempting to try and be John the Baptist - a voice crying in the wilderness.  But that was a unique calling. I believe we're called to get around others with the aroma of Christ.  And the aroma of 'young hot-prot' is not quite the same.
  • When relating to church leaders, get a vision for what's already good about their preaching, leading and ministry.  It's so tempting to look for what they do badly and to miss the hundred things they do well.  Anything and everything we can rejoice in, we should.  Loudly.
  • People can change.  Not through grand-standing argumentation.  But through a drip, drip, drip of the gospel.
  • I'm only beginning to learn this one:  Usually change happens when people taste the gospel dishes you serve up.  If you consistently serve up Christ-exalting stuff that releases hearts into gratitude and love, then people will ask you about the recipe.  Don't start with the recipe: "Right, here are the ingredients you need - you've been doing it all wrong.  This is the order..."  Start by dishing out gospel goodness - then they'll want the recipe.

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