The Wisdom of Admitting a Mistake
WHO does not make mistakes? No human is infallible. Old and young, learned and unlearned, rich and poor, men and women, one and all are imperfect, and so make mistakes.
Human experience bears out the truth of the words of the inspired penman, the Christian disciple James, “We all make many mistakes.” (Jas. 3:2, Revised Standard Version) And as King Solomon said in his prayer at the dedication of Jehovah’s temple: “There is no man that does not sin.” Is it proper to say, then, that a sin is a mistake? Yes, for the word rendered “sin” in our Bibles literally means a mistake, a missing of the mark.—1 Ki. 8:46.
Since, due to inherited weakness, we all keep making mistakes and so fall short of the mark of perfection, why does it seem so difficult to admit making a mistake? For one thing, we may be trying so hard not to make a certain mistake that when we do, we dislike admitting it even to ourselves.
Doubtless in many cases the reason is pride. Admitting a mistake reflects on things we may take pride in, such as our knowledge, our skill or our carefulness. We want to have a good appearance in the eyes of others. Seeking to “save face” is not limited to Orientals.
Without doubt a very telling reason why it is difficult at times to admit making a mistake is the blame, censure or punishment that may come because of having made a mistake, as when one causes a serious accident. Thus, late in August 1972, a “human error” caused what were called “massive commuter tie-ups,” putting all four main tracks of the Penn Central railroad leading into New York city out of commission, and that for hours. “Someone pulled the wrong switch or pushed the wrong button,” and officials were determined to find out who made the mistake, who was really to blame. The guilty one was not anxious to speak up and admit the mistake.—New York Times, August 30, 1972.
Because of the shame that goes with making a mistake the tendency is to pin the blame on others, a thing our very first parents, Adam and Eve, tried to do. (Gen. 3:11-13) Similarly, Aaron, the brother of the prophet Moses, blamed the people for his mistake in making the golden calf, even as centuries later Israel’s first king, Saul, blamed the people for his mistaken act of disobedience. (Ex. 32:19-24; 1 Sam. 15:9-26) If we recognize why it was that they acted so unwisely, it can help us to avoid the same pitfall.
In contrast to such bad examples we have very good ones where faithful servants of Jehovah God freely admitted their mistakes, the record of which bears testimony to the honesty and candor of the writers of the Bible. Moses recorded his mistake of losing his temper on one occasion, resulting in his being denied entry into the Promised Land. (Num. 20:7-13) There was also Job, who, while insisting on his integrity, had made the mistake of being more concerned with his own vindication than that of God. Admitting it freely, he said: “I talked, but I was not understanding . . . I make a retraction, and I do repent in dust and ashes.”—Job 42:3-6.
The patriarch Judah, the son of Jacob, admitted his mistake in regard to his daughter-in-law Tamar, saying: “She is more righteous than I am.” (Gen. 38:15-26) Then there was also King David. When confronted with the mistake he made in sinning against Uriah, he did not seek to find excuses, but said to the prophet Nathan, “I have sinned.” (2 Sam. 12:13) And, to give another example, there was the apostle Peter. When he saw the reproving look of Jesus right after he had denied his Master three times, “he went outside and wept bitterly.”—Matt. 26:75.
Of course, admitting we made a mistake is the right, honest and decent thing to do. But it is more than that. It is also the course of wisdom. For one thing, admitting to having made a mistake is a lesson in humility. This, on the one hand, protects us from the snare of pride, which is ever ready to entrap us. And, on the other hand, the humbling experience of admitting we made a mistake may well serve to make us more careful so that we will be less likely to make that same mistake again. Wisely we are warned: “He that is covering over his transgressions will not succeed [with God], but he that is confessing and leaving them will be shown mercy”—by God and by God’s servants. Yes, the very confessing of our errors will aid us to leave them.—Prov. 28:13.
Admitting to making a mistake is the course of wisdom in that it builds in us strength and self-respect. Failure to do so is cowardly, and serves to weaken us morally, making it likely that we will continue to make the same mistake.
Further, admitting a mistake is the course of wisdom because it makes for better relations with others. When we refuse to admit we have made a mistake, we outrage the judgment of others; and they will conclude that we are either too proud, or dishonest, or too stupid to recognize that we made a mistake—all of which may well cause a barrier to come between us and those around us. Then, again, if we are willing to admit we made a mistake we will find ourselves more ready to sympathize with others when they make mistakes.
Most important of all, admitting a mistake will keep our relations with our Creator in good condition. Thus King David, by repeatedly and quickly admitting his mistakes, retained good relations with his God. King Saul, however, was reluctant to admit his sins; he preferred giving excuses, and was rejected.
Yes, in addition to the fact that to admit having made a mistake is the honest thing to do, it is also the course of wisdom. It helps to keep us humble. It also helps us to keep our self-respect and makes for better relations with others.