My boys have been squabbling with each other. The 6 year old and the 13 year old seem to have endless, petty arguments, in which the 6 year old takes a stubborn hold on a factually incorrect proposition, and the 13 year old fails through vain repetition to convince him of the error of his ways. The bickering erodes away my patience with both children, but especially the older one. Yes, he’s right, but what does it matter? Wouldn’t it be better to just let it go, allow his little brother to continue in his error (until he forgets about the disagreement, which will happen almost as soon as the older one stops bringing it up), and be content with the internal knowledge that he was right? Apparently not, because whenever I suggest (or order, depending on how long and loud the conflict has been) that he drop it, he can’t resist trying to have the last word, or needling his brother one more time.
After a full summer of this, I had to ask myself the question: Is there any virtue in being right? In insisting that you are right?
It seems to me that any time you turn something into a point of conflict, you risk being in the wrong. Not that your cause turns evil or the proposition you support is suddenly fallacious; but that you have turned your own righteousness into a point of pride. It becomes more important to be right than it is to understand your fellow brother, to exercise compassion, to be humble and teachable.
I recently re-read Job. Job had lived righteously and still suffered. He was unrepentant because he knew he had done nothing of which he needed to repent. But his friends were sure that he must be sinful, and that he must need to repent; the evidence was clear. By insisting on his own righteousness, Job was saying in effect that he was right and they were wrong, and if their mutual understanding of God was accurate, then somehow God was wrong too.
So in the end, when God speaks to Job in His thoroughly overwhelming way, Job repents. God asked him outright, “Wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous?” Job withdraws his complaint. He close to the truth earlier when he asked “How should a man be just with God?” The answer is that he cannot. If the protestations of his former righteousness were accurate, then the only thing of which Job could repent is dogged insistence that he was righteous. As long as he clung to the idea that he was right, he was closed to the upbuilding that is in the thought that as before God, we are always in the wrong (Thank you, Kierkegaard).
So when Job insisted that he was right, even though he had been right, he became wrong. When my son uses his rightness as fuel for continuing a fight with his brother, he is wrong.
We ought to seek absolution, not vindication. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one into his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” What we need is to be redeemed, not justified.
What is important in our relationships with God and with each other is not being right; it is about understanding and being understood, compassion and vulnerability. The pride of thinking oneself to be right insulates us against the openness we need to love and learn and to become right through the grace of God.