Is It Becoming Easier to Say “I Was Wrong?”
September 15, 1991
The eyes of the nation focused on Milwaukee for one brief moment this week. Inside a hushed courtroom Jeffrey Dahmer entered a formal plea to the charges against him. First the reading of the charges. Then the question: “How do you plead?” His lawyer answered for him. “Not guilty by reason of insanity.”
When the plea was entered, relatives of the young boy Dahmer had killed cried out, “Oh, no.”
Jeffrey Dahmer has confessed to killing 17 young men, including one young man from Oak Park. So far, he has been charged with 15 murders. If he is found guilty, he faces 15 mandatory life sentences, plus 150 years as a habitual criminal. If he is found not guilty, he would be institutionalized and would be theoretically eligible for release pending review of his case after one year.
Everyone agrees that he did it. Even his lawyer admits that. The facts are not in dispute. Only one question remains: Was he insane?
Overheard on the radio that same day: “Of course he’s insane. How could you do what he did and not be insane?”
Do you agree? And is anyone surprised by that comment? I’m not. We live in a “not-guilty” world where no one is responsible for anything, where crimes are caused by the environment, where evil deeds are excused by appealing to your family tree.
It’s easier for us to deal with Jeffrey Dahmer by calling him “insane” than to suppose that he knew exactly what he was doing, knew it was wrong, and chose to do it anyway. The more horrible the crime, the easier for us to excuse it by saying, “Well, he was just crazy. A normal person would never do that.”
Who knows? Maybe Jeffrey Dahmer is insane.
You Must Be Nuts
In his book There’s a Lot More to Health Than Not Being Sick, Bruce Larson reports on the work of two doctor’s at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington. Psychiatrist Samuel Yochelson and psychologist Stranton Samenow studied the federal prisoners who are sent to them for treatment. Their conclusion is simple: We are not effective in changing criminals because we refuse to allow criminals to be wrong. Instead of allowing them to face their misdeeds and take responsibility, we are lenient and sentimental because we think people who commit crimes must be “ill” in some way. We refuse to believe that anyone in his right mind would repeatedly rob or steal or embezzle or cheat or murder.
Did you get the impact of that last statement? The verb is carefully chosen. We refuse to believe. As a nation, it is simply easier for us to excuse misbehavior than it is to punish wrongdoing.
The two doctors have produced study after study showing the bankruptcy of that approach. They believe that if you treat a criminal as someone who has consciously chosen to break the law, then he can be challenged to change his behavior. But if the criminal is “ill” or “insane,” he can hardly be held responsible for his behavior. Doctors Yochelson and Samenow believe that in the latter case, there is no therapy which has any hope of producing lasting change.
Back to Eden
But the sermon this morning is not really about Jeffrey Dahmer nor it is about the American criminal justice system. Those things are merely illustrations of a larger point—that it is tremendously difficult for any of us to accept personal responsibility for our actions. Although we live in a society that encourages us to make excuses, most of us don’t need any encouragement. We are born knowing how to pass the buck.
It all goes back to the Garden of Eden. The serpent came to Eve and tricked her into eating the fruit. She offered some to Adam and he ate, knowing full well the consequences of his action.
Suddenly the world became a very unfriendly place. Fear entered the human heart for the very first time. Suddenly Adam and Eve recognized their nakedness, and they were ashamed. When they heard God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, they hid. Sin had changed everything. Where once they talked with God freely, now they hid lest their sin be discovered.
At length God called out to Adam, “Where are you?” Adam answered and said, “I hid because I was naked.” God said, “Who told you that you were naked?” Then the dreaded question: “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
Adam is cornered, caught red-handed, stripped naked if you will of all his excuses. God knows! What will he do? He does what any self-respecting man does. He passes the buck. His answer is a classic form of evasion: “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the true, and I ate it.”
Did you get that? “The woman you put here with me.” Adam passes the buck twice. First it was the woman. Then it was the woman you put here. “Lord, it was her fault. She gave me the fruit and so I ate it. What was I supposed to do? She’s my wife. You know how it is, Lord, when your wife wants you to do something. What was I supposed to do? Say no and watch her pout all night? And anyway, who put her in the garden? You did! She wasn’t my idea. I’m not complaining, Lord, because she’s beautiful and cute and all that, but I didn’t have this problem when it was just me and the animals.”
And so it goes. The first man, the father of the human race, is also the first one to pass the buck. Make no mistake. The Bible is telling us something significant. It is in our nature to deny our own guilt and to try to shift the blame to others. That’s what Genesis 3:8-12 is all about. It’s no coincidence that the first sin led to the first cover-up. The first disobedience led to the first denial. The first trespassing led to the first buck-passing.
In all the thousands of years since then, nothing has really changed. Human nature is the same. Passing the buck is in our spiritual bloodstream. We do it now because Adam did it back then. He established the pattern:
Disobedience which leads to
Guilt which leads to
Shame which leads to
Fear which leads to
Hiding which leads to
Many of you are familiar with the Twelve-Step program for recovery that has helped so many people. First popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous, it has rescued millions of people from debilitating personal addictions.
All of the steps are helpful, but none is more germane to our subject this morning than Step Four—Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. That means that you take a look at your life and see it for what it really is. You look in the mirror, and even if you don’t like what you see, you refuse to turn your face away. That’s not easy, because everything within us rejects such a radical step.
Listen to these words from Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions:
We also clutch at another excuse for avoiding an inventory. Our present anxieties and troubles, we cry, are caused by the behavior of other people—people who really need a moral inventory. We firmly believe that if only they’d treat us better, we’d be all right. Therefore we think that our indignation is justified and reasonable—that our resentments are the “right kind.” We aren’t the guilty ones. They are. (pp. 45-46)
Sound familiar? It ought to. Most of us know all about shifting the blame. We’re all experts at spotting the sawdust in our brother’s eye; we’re not so good at seeing the telephone pole in our own. We’ve got X-ray vision when it comes to spotting the faults of others; we’re totally blind when it comes to our own.
This book goes one step further. It speaks of being fearless in our moral inventory. Fearless? Are you kidding? Fear is the reason we refuse to look squarely at the mirror. We’re scared to death of what we might see. We’re even more scared of what others might see: “What if they find out what I’m really like?” What we mean is, “If they find out the truth, they won’t like me anymore.” So we lie and cover-up and deceive. Then we lie to cover up our earlier lies. One lie leads to another until finally we are so entangled in our web of deceit we hardly know what the truth is.
I read again from the book:
For most of us, self-justification was the maker of excuses; excuses, of course, for drinking, and for all kinds of crazy and damaging conduct. We had made the invention of alibis a fine art. We had to drink because times were hard or times were good. We had to drink because at home we were smothered with love or got none at all. We had to drink because at work we were great successes or dismal failures. We had to drink because our nation had won a war or lost a peace. And so it went, ad infinitum. (pp. 46-47)
Please note. Drinking is not the issue, not even for alcoholics. Drinking is a symptom of a deeper issue, a tendency to make excuses as a way of avoiding our problems. Many people who never drink at all lie about their behavior like the biggest alcoholic in the world. People who would never touch Jack Daniels think nothing of blaming everyone else for their problems.
Let me come to my thesis: It is a fundamental mark of spiritual health to be able to say, I was wrong.” Blessed is the man who can say those words because that man is on his way to spiritual health. If you want a verse to go with my thesis, jot down Proverbs 28:13, “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”
When we sin, Solomon says we only have two options. Option 1 is to conceal it. That means to cover it up, to make excuses, to rationalize, to pass the buck. When that happens, we do not prosper. We go through the internal hell of living with a guilty conscience. In the words of Psalm 32, our bones waste away and our strength is sapped. We suffer physically and mentally because we conceal our sins. Nothing works right.
Option 2 is clear. Our other choice is to confess our sins and to renounce them. Both those words are important. To confess means to own up to what you did. When you confess your sins, you are saying, “Yes, I did it and I know it was wrong.” To renounce your sins means to take steps to break the sinful pattern in your own life. When you renounce your sins, you are saying, “I’ve been walking in the wrong path and now, with God’s help, I’m not going to walk in that path anymore. I’m going to change the direction of my life.”
“I Was Wr-r-r-r-r-r-”
But it is not easy to say “I was wrong.” Most of us would rather do anything than to admit we were wrong. Do you remember how much trouble Fonzie had with this issue on the TV series Happy Days? Fonzie was too cool to ever admit he was wrong. Richie Cunningham would say to him, “Go ahead, admit it, you were wrong.” So Fonzie would go, “I was wr-r-r-r-r-r-r-.” And he couldn’t get the word out. So he would end up saying, “I was wr-r-r-r-r-Not right!”
But “not right” is not the same thing as “wrong.” If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. But if you are “not right,” nobody really knows what you are.
“All I Said Was”
Sometimes we make our excuses so subtly that we don’t realize what we’re doing. Let’s say that you are describing an argument you had with your wife. You say, “All I said was, ‘Is your mother coming again?’” Now you don’t have to be an Einstein to figure out that you’re in trouble the moment those words come out of your mouth.
Whenever we preface something with the four words, “All I said was,” we’re in big trouble. Those are four of the most destructive words in the English language. They imply that you are sane, logical and loving and the other person is a nut. When you use those four words, you’re really saying, “It’s not my fault. I don’t have a problem. Somebody else has a problem.”
As long as you continue to say that, you cannot be forgiven;
As long as you say that, your relationships will remain broken;
As long as you say that, you will struggle with bitterness and resentment;
As long as you say that, you will remain locked out of the abundant life Jesus came to provide.
As long as you blame others, your life will remain broken and fragmented because wholly living demands total honesty about your condition. You’ll never know holiness or wholeness or mental and spiritual health.
That’s why this first question is so crucial: “Is it becoming easier to say, ‘I was wrong?’”
“I Have Sinned”
Once upon a time Jesus told a story about a young man who felt an urge to leave his father’s house. It’s a familiar story, one that has happened in almost every family. This young man asked for his portion of the family estate and left for a distant land. There he squandered his money on wild living. Days passed, then weeks, then months. At last came the day when the young man had spent all his money. Now broke and destitute, he found himself in a desperate place, far from family and friends. Although he was ashamed, he hired on with a farmer who put him to work slopping the hogs. He was so hungry that he found himself ready to eat with the pigs.
It was at that precise moment that the light turned on in his brain. In a blinding flash, he saw himself and he saw what he had become. Most of all, he saw that it was his own stupidity that had gotten him in such a mess. No longer would he blame his father or criticize his older brother. No longer would he pretend to be something he wasn’t. In that moment of self-revelation, he saw what he had become. He knew that there was only one way back.
The strange irony of his situation hit him like a ton of bricks. His father’s servants were eating their fill back at home, while he, the master’s son, was living with the pigs. Then he thought to himself, “I’m going to get up and go back home. When I get there, I’m going to say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired hands.”
With that, the young man got up, brushed himself off, gathered his things and began making the long journey back home. He was still a long way off when his father spotted him trudging up the dusty road. Before the young man knew what was happening, his father ran to him, threw his arms around him, kissed him and said, “Welcome home, son.”
The son said what he had memorized in the pig pen. “Father, I have sinned against you and against heaven. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
But the father cut him off. He would hear no more of it. The cry went out, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Find the fattened calf and kill it. Call the neighbors and spread the good news. Tell everyone you see. This son of mine was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.”
No More Sleeping With The Pigs
I make one observation and one only. This young man, whom we call the Prodigal Son, turned his whole life around by saying three simple words—”I have sinned.” He said it while he was still living with the pigs. He said it while he was still far away from home. He said it while he was still broke and hungry. But those three words turned his life around.
It is a parable of your life and of mine. When we have sinned, we are so ashamed to find ourselves in the pig pen that we dare not tell anyone where we are. So we try to clean ourselves up, we try to be presentable, we brush our teeth and comb our hair, but we still have pig slop under our fingernails. Everybody knows we’ve been with the pigs.
This story is for everyone who is tired of eating with the pigs. If you are ready to go home, I’ve got good news for you. The Father is standing in the road waiting for you. His arms are open wide. He knows where you’ve been, and guess what?, it doesn’t matter to him. The only thing that matters is for you to come home.
That’s what the grace of God is all about. You can come home. You can start over. You can be forgiven. The slate can be wiped clean. You don’t have to live the rest of your life in hiding. You don’t have to live in fear that someone will find you out. You don’t have to eat with the pigs forever.
It is possible, and it depends on one thing—You have to do what the Prodigal Son did. You have to come to your senses and say, “Father, I have sinned.” When you do, you will find the mercy that Proverbs 28:13 talks about. When you do, you will discover I John 1:9 is true. He is faithful. He is just. He will forgive your sin and will cleanse you from all unrighteousness.
The Citadel Of Self-Justification
That brings me back to the basic problem. Ever since Adam, we tend to do two things when we sin. 1. We hide 2. We blame someone else. Most of us are pretty good at it. We know all the good hiding places and we’ve memorized a thousand excuses.
Listen carefully. As long as you live that way, you can never be forgiven. Never. Your refusal to own up to your mistakes costs you dearly. It means you will live with the burden of your past hanging like a millstone around your neck.
Through Jesus Christ it is possible to be forgiven. But even He can’t forgive someone who refuses to ask for forgiveness. As long as you refuse to admit you’ve done anything wrong, you can never be forgiven. Therefore, you will stay like you are right now—unforgiven, unhealthy, fragmented, broken, confused, divided, locked inside the citadel of your own self-justification.
But if you own up to your mistakes and say that you and no one else is responsible for them, then you can be forgiven.
So let me ask the basic question one more time: Is it becoming easier to say, “I was wrong?” I hope the answer is yes. This is where wholly living must begin.
“Do You Want To Be Right Or Well?”
Back now to Bruce Larson. In his book he mentions visiting a halfway house in Western Ontario. It was a place where people with severe emotional struggles might come and find healing. The main meeting room was the living room of an old farmhouse. A beautiful sign above the fireplace caught his attention. It read, “Do you want to be right or well?”
What a great question. Each one of us faces that same choice. As long as you demand that you be right all the time, you will never get well. Once you learn to say, “I was wrong,” then you begin to get well.
Would you like to be healed?
Would you like to get better?
Would you like to see the power of the Holy Spirit released in your life?
Would you like to see God do something miraculous in the relationships that matter most to you?
If so, then here is a place to begin. Are you willing to give up your right to always be right? If so, you can get well, and the healing can begin right now.
Thank you, Lord Jesus, that we don’t have to be perfect to come to you. If we had to be perfect, who among us would qualify? They called you the Friend of Sinners. Thank God it is true. You are the friend and we are the sinners. Thank you for taking us in.
I pray now for those who are truly frightened by my words. May they have the courage to give up their right to always be right. Help those who feel uneasy to yield to the gentle wooing of the Spirit. May they not be ashamed to join the rest of us in the Grand Order of Sinners Anonymous. In Jesus’ name, Amen.