The Transformational Power of Admitting “I was wrong.”

“There is transformational power in admitting you got something wrong.” 

I just listened to the most amazing Ted Talk. The speaker talked about how you can’t rush the process of transformation, and that process involves owning up to, rather than sweeping aside, the things you were wrong about. He spoke about how admitting you were wrong will tick some people off, because they were invested in the old you. He talked about how, when someone can’t admit they were wrong, they are not growing. And this should serve as a warning to those who follow them.

The whole talk had me nodding and murmuring my agreement (somewhat geekily I guess, given I was sitting in a café.)

Honestly, it was an amazing talk. You should give it a listen (I’ve pasted it below, but don’t ruin the suspense by scrolling down to see it just yet). The guy giving the talk only just gave mention to what he was wrong about. It wasn’t the true subject of the presentation, but gosh, it was massive. It took a lot of humility to do what he did – stand on the world stage and say “I got something wrong.”

If you were anywhere near your teens or twenties at the height of the 90’s evangelical purity movement, you know this guy. You were probably handed his book by a youth leader or mentor, and you might have felt a little kick of something like shame when you realised why you were reading it.

The speaker was none other than Joshua Harris, author of the international bestseller “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” This is the book that made him famous. Its the book literally sitting on millions of shelves, that was translated into several languages. At the height of the purity movement, this was the guidepost that urged us to guard our hearts and keep our desires in check. Now, after it’s first readers have grown up, Harris is noting that it seems to have had a few not-so-positive effects.

Harris recounts an interaction on Twitter in which a reader told him his book was used against her as a weapon. Harris did an uncommon thing, when it comes to big name Christian celebrities. He apologised. It wasn’t tokenistic either. He went on to open his website up to stories of the impact his book had. Some of them were resoundingly positive. Others were heart-wrenching. He is now making a documentary on it, one that is saying, “I was wrong about this.” He’s not throwing the whole baby out with the bathwater, but there’s a lot he is copping as not quite right.

Wow.  Just wow,” I thought. Its the same thing I said to myself when Benny Hinn admitted he was wrong about the prosperity gospel, or rather the extreme he used it for. (Read my take on that here). Its the same thing I thought when I read Billy Graham’s take on what he would do differently. (Read that here).

I truly believe that, when people say “I was wrong” about something, especially if they do it on a potentially humiliating public platform like Harris did, we ought to sit up and listen. These are people who are deeply conscientious, who are growing in their faith and the expression of it. These are people who are safe to listen to. (Don’t base your entire life on their expression of faith. That’s dangerous. Your relationship with God is your business and responsibility. But they’ve been doing some soul-searching and they’ve changed because of it.)

Harris’s Ted Talk is about the transformational power of admitting you were wrong. Honestly, its liberating!

But I can’t really call this a complete review unless I talk about the subject he says he was wrong about: his book.

I can’t say honestly that it hurt me. Much. The stories on his website vary a lot in content. The sadder ones include claims that it was legalistic, a flyswatter to whack people who stepped out of line, or that it was used to control people. I can’t disagree with those points, whether through reading these accounts or recounting my own observations that spanned multiple churches I encountered over the years.

Many a story on Harris’s website came from Christians in their 30’s who are still waiting for their life partner. Some stories came from people relationally paralysed either by fear of giving too much of their heart away, or by the strength of their desires. One particularly unsettling story came from a 30 year old guy who simply cannot accept a mate who has had sex, even if it was just a mistake from her past. I read that account with two types of heartbreak – one for him and all that he may have lost by never finding love, and one for the girls he has rejected. Has this book given rise to a pseudo-Biblical form of “slut shaming”, even in a time when we understand more about grace and forgiveness than we ever did? Quite possibly.

In hindsight, I remember reading the book and feeling a certain pressure to marry the first guy I “courted.” (Spoiler: I did, and he’s the best thing that ever happened to me). I am the eldest daughter of Christian ministers. There was a whole church and a whole network of churches that would see my every move. It was like living in a fishbowl. Oh the pressure to get this right!

I remember one lady in the church telling me off for flirting with a guy. She wasn’t my mother, and it wasn’t her job to police my behaviour. And I wasn’t flirting! I had zero feelings for the guy. But the shame I felt over that was huge. It wasn’t the only time I was pulled up for flirting. I truly believe this had a big impact on my ability to interact with members of the opposite sex. I tried my utmost to relate out of a stoic, “I have no sexual desires, I don’t even want to get married, you know, unless its God’s will for me,” kind of persona. If even flirting was sinful, then gosh, I was evil! I’d done it more than twice. I have a naturally bubbly personality. I love to connect with people. Part of me died.

University was a particularly interesting time for me. When I was “outed” as saving myself for marriage, and when my fellow students discovered my flirting-disability, bets were laid. I felt so humiliated, and then all the more on guard with my peers. I was just a girl trying to find her way in the world. Now I was a trophy. A scalp to be claimed. A virgin. And that became the thing that everyone knew.

(Side note: Apologies to the guy who asked me out for dinner, and who was greeted not only by me but also the other 11 members of our study group. I totally missed the “its a date” memo. I will never forget the look on your face.)

(Another side note: I don’t blame my parents at all for being among hundreds of thousands of church ministers globally who embraced this book and used it! Heck, we were all in the 90’s purity movement. And you don’t need a shot-gun or baseball bat if your teenagers are afraid of dating to the same degree that they’re afraid of hell. My parents were just doing their best! I’m just sharing how I feel about Harris’s book and its effect in hindsight.)

For many people, this book was a lightbulb moment. For me, and apparently for a lot of other Christian kids, it was fear-inducing. I was afraid of natural desires God had given me. Guess what: I wanted to get married. I wanted to love and be loved. I wanted the full experience of that and I felt all sorts of guilty about it. Imagine my mortification when an itinerant minister with the boomiest of voices began to call my parents church his home and insisted on loudly “Blessing” me with a husband – Every. Single. Sunday. (I still cringe)

I finally married when I was 29, and I don’t regret for an instant that I saved myself for my husband – my soulmate,  best friend and life partner. I guess, in some way, I have “I kissed dating goodbye (IKDG)” to thank for that. I guess in some way we do. Truly, I’m happy about it.

But post-marriage, we had a thing or two to learn about switching-on the desires that we had been told all our lives were bad. Yeah, yeah, you can kiss and hold hands and stuff when you are married. You can even flirt, you know, if you want. But the guilt doesn’t go away instantly. (There’s a whole lot I could write on that topic, but I won’t yet because its a whole lot of disarmed honesty! Haha!)

I have a number of good looking, educated, eloquent, funny, amazing, single Christian friends who are of an age now where they look around at other friends with kids and wonder why its not them. They’re still waiting for “the one.” I’ve often ranted to my husband “Why don’t guys just ASK HER OUT? I mean, she can even COOK! Wife her already, someone!” I sometimes think this is the legacy of IKDG. We can’t go out for dinner with someone unless there’s a bloody strong chance they are “the one.” It carries a disproportionate feeling of failure if that dinner date doesn’t result in a second date, a third, an engagement ring, a white dress, a picket fence, 2.5 kids and an SUV.

I wonder how many others felt guilty for even flirting. I wonder how many others felt bad that they wanted so darn much to get married and have kids. “What if it isn’t God’s will for me?” and all that.

My thoughts on flirting now – It lets you know what good chemistry feels like. And chemistry matters. If you are dating someone and there’s none, then hold up honey! Warning bells.

My thoughts on Christianity and sexuality now – Can we stop pretending that because we are Christians, sexuality doesn’t play a central, sensitive part in who we are? Can we take it off the list of things we don’t talk about? Sure there is a Biblical approach to sex, and I don’t for a second regret saving myself for marriage. But gosh – sex, relationships, sensuality, desire for connection – they’re all God-designed. Can we not feel shame over owning something that is God-designed?

I applaud Josh Harris for standing up and saying he was wrong, and for expressing his regret at the legalistic fly-swatter his book became in more than a few instances. I hope he can also see the good it did (and I think he does). But adjusting our stance is a good thing.

My husband and I have two beautiful kids now. I adore them and hope they never face heartbreak. I’d love it if they fell in love with and married the first person they dated. I’d love it if they saved sex for marriage. I really hope they do and I’ll raise them to believe that true love waits. But I’ll also raise them to believe that flirting isn’t bad, and our desire for love is normal and good.

Hopefully they’ll marry younger than hubby and I, and I’ll get a lot of years with my grandkids! If I have to wait until I’m in my 70’s to chase the grandies around the park, I’m gonna be pissed.

If you’ve read Harris’s book, if you love it, if you hate it, if you feel it helped, if you feel it hurt – I urge you to check out his Ted Talk and his website. At the very least it will make you view change and the admission “I was wrong” as a wholly good thing no matter what it applies to. It might even release you from some baggage you have felt over the years. It doesn’t have to reframe how you feel about faith, sexuality, relationships or desire.

But you should know me by now! I like to think. I like to challenge thinking. And I have a firm belief that truth will prevail. I hope no one looks back on the 90’s purity movement with bitterness. A lot of good came out of it. But one perk of the passage of time is that we build on the generation before us. That doesn’t and shouldn’t involve taking their word as gospel. It should involve extracting the truth, and discarding that which is harmful, then moving on to a closer, better, more compassionate expression of faith.

Just some thoughts!
Kit K.

Over and out.

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