I Have Been Wrong
In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins relates a story from when he was an undergraduate at Oxford. While I do not embrace Dawkin’s atheistic assertions, the anecdote is profoundly instructive for believers, particularly with regard to how Christians may reach the seemingly unreachable with the gospel.
Here is the story.
A visiting lecturer from the States arrived in England to give a talk on the Golgi apparatus, a microscopic organelle found in plant and animal cells. An elderly member of the Zoology Department at Oxford University, who had asserted for many years that the Golgi apparatus was a myth, attended the lecture with great interest. What would this American have to say that hasn’t already been said? I can imagine the professor saying to himself, “How dare someone make such an outlandish claim that I have already disproved. And in the halls of my university!”
To the professor’s surprise, the lecture demonstrated with indisputable evidence the Golgi apparatus did exist. Dawkins relates how, at the end of the presentation, “the old man strode to the front of the hall” to look the American in the eyes. However, the post-lecture engagement was not an argument but a confession, as the elderly professor took the American by the hand and said—with passion—‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.”
“We clapped our hands red.”
Beauty and Rarity
Why did the roomful of lecture participants erupt with applause, as if they were watching someone set a world record for an astonishing physical achievement? Why was such an incident emblazoned in Dawkin’s memory? Why did the crowd clap their hands red?
Not because of the brilliance of the lecture but in view of a professor’s response to the lecture, which wasn’t manipulated or coerced. He had not been shamed into making his confession. He was simply being honest in view of the truth.
Rather than ridicule the old man the way we might expect, the audience praised him with a standing ovation. They were compelled by beauty and rarity of an academic confessing to a crowded room of colleagues, “I have been wrong.”
It is hard to admit when we are wrong. This is true for academics. It is also true for pastors, fathers, mothers, employers, coaches, politicians, etc.
But there may be no more powerful apologetic for the world to behold than when a disciple of Jesus takes himself off of the throne of rightness and sits in the mercy seat as a sinner who needs the grace of God—the same grace we commend to the world. This is not to say we should compromise the truth. No, just the opposite. We must evaluate ourselves on the same standard as we do others.
Then, when we find ourselves to be wrong before the truth, we set an example for the world (and our own children) when we confess our sins, whether a moral offense, an error of logic, a condescending tone, a refusal to listen well, or whatever it may be.
Setting Others at Ease
Like the professor at Oxford who conceded he had been wrong about the Golgi apparatus, modeling a posture of teachability just might set someone else at ease, allowing them to be teachable, too. Because the truth we advocate is not about the existence of the Golgi apparatus but the gospel, where key themes concern topics such as human origins, the problem of human corruption, the necessity of divine redemption, etc.
At the very center of the gospel is the cross, which invites us to cast all of our wrongness upon Jesus who then grants to us his own rightness (righteousness) as a new legal standing before God and humanity. The gospel teaches that we are not righteous because of our attainments but because of the attainments of Jesus for us. We are merely recipients.
The way we receive our new standing is by admitting we are wrong, just like our elderly professor friend. Yes, it is hard. But how liberating it is just to confess and rest in the rightness of someone else. We don’t have to be right anymore. We are free to be honest.
How refreshing if we had politicians who would be honest, willing to say, “I was wrong about that.” Imagine if more pastors were willing to be teachable. And fathers. What about Christians in general? What if the world experienced us taking the lead—not cowering, but with courageous confidence in the imputed righteousness of Jesus—being willing to “go first” when it comes to the confession of being in the wrong, especially when we define wrong not only as breaking a rule but as failing to love.
Reaching the Unreachable with a Secret Weapon
What is it going to take to reach folks with their heels dug in against the claims of Christ? How are we going to impact people who believe that Christians have a God delusion? It just might be the same beauty that was revealed in the lecture hall at Oxford. An unexpected humility that owns up to my wrongness with as much zeal as we previously had defended our rightness. But the only way I will do that is if I have emptied myself of self—what we call self-righteousness. And the only way to do that is to be consciously covered by the gift-righteousness of Jesus.
I can’t help but wonder how my readiness to be wrong could set someone like Richard Dawkins at ease, even free to question some of his own assumptions and re-evaluate the claims of Jesus, the one who demonstrated the most stunning act of humility the world has ever beheld. Paul speak of this in Philippians 2:7-8, writing, “Jesus made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”
What if someone like Richard Dawkins observed the beauty of Jesus’ humility. If Dawkins clapped his hands red at the gesture of an Oxford professor, how much more could his heart be melted by the hands of Jesus that were nailed red? If a mere man’s humility stunned a crowd of academics, how much more the servanthood of a King.
In view of the example of Jesus, humility and confession just may be the secret weapon believers should wield as we live as subversive agents of kindness in a world that is thirsty for grace. The world will expect us to dig in our heels and fight back against their accusations and criticisms.
What if the world were to accuse me of being a hateful, holier-than-thou, hypocrite who doesn’t practice what I preach. I’d have to agree. In fact, such an assessment of me in the flesh would be too kind and understated. The cross tells me that I am far more sinful and deserving of judgment than I could possibly know. As Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
This is Why I Need Jesus
This is why the honesty of confession is so critical for the believer’s testimony before the world. Otherwise, in defending my own rightness, I will inadvertently communicate a false gospel that says the essence of being a Christian is morality, when he true gospel says that the essence of being a Christian is not a system of morality but the reception of God’s mercy.
This is why I need Jesus, and why honest confession is so important for Christian witness before the world. The reason I am free to admit I am far more sinful than anyone could really know is because, in Jesus, I am more forgiven and loved than I could dare to dream. From that posture, I am able to invite other sinners into the fellowship of grace—just in case they find that they need Jesus, too.
According to Jesus in Luke 15, when we confess our need for grace in repentance, heaven erupts in applause. The angels clap their hands red! I can only wonder if the same could be true for people like Richard Dawkins. I’d love to think that one day we’ll have a chance to find out.
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