Fathom Mag
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Published on:
July 8, 2020
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3 min.
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Three Little Words

My life suffers from a lack of three little words. 

Three words I long to hear whispered in my ear, like sweet nothings flicked from the tongue of a lover. Give me the same scant sentence uttered into a microphone, the speaker blinking beyond the flash of cameras to look us all in the eye. They would sound equally sweet shouted across a crowded room, or made holy as they echo off a cathedral ceiling.

Grace dictates “I love you” daily—in the high woodwind voice of my son, and in my wife’s steadfast tones. The absence of another three words impoverishes me: I was wrong.

We degrade the art of apology.

We degrade the art of apology. So often, we subtract those three words to save a little face, to salvage pride from the shipwreck of our making. 

Athletes with hangdog expressions meet the press to explain away indiscretions or obscure social-media embarrassments. “That isn’t me. I wasn’t raised that way,” they say, forgetting that from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks and the thumbs tweet. 

When scandal darkens the doors of their churches, pastors—not the ones I know in real life, but the ones who ascend elevated platforms—borrow their language from public relations, not Psalm 51. Their words taste nothing like the Eucharist.   

Presidents and politicians don’t even pretend anymore. Wave mistakes and outright lies before their faces and they double down. Or they rummage through a well-worn bag of tricks, finding and extending a gaslamp, making you feel small and sorry. 

What I wouldn’t trade for a world in which we felt the freedom to be wrong—and to say so, full-throated and unashamed. Only half-joking, I tell friends I’d willingly vote for any candidate who owns just one mistake. But an aching heart beats behind that quip. The bar for who I’ll follow, in any aspect of life, seems low yet unattainable: just tell me when you’re wrong. 

Three little words strike ample fear, packed with more power than their span implies. Enough power to introduce doubt in the hearts of others; enough power to demand reckoning within our own. 

“I was wrong” takes an eraser to convictions penned in our hand, rubbing the paper so hard we brace for the rip. The words draw a line in the dirt, forcing us to choose. Keep your feet planted in contempt, or step across the threshold of something better.

These three particular words cannot pass our lips without doing something to us. Even “I love you” becomes an instinct. Meant, yet said with a single thought. 

“I was wrong” takes an eraser to convictions penned in our hand, rubbing the paper so hard we brace for the rip.

In our most insincere moments, we borrow the language of love to manipulate, to broker cheap treaties, to hush. We bend those three words in the direction of baseball teams, punk bands, and pizza joints. The phrase “I was wrong” will not depreciate or be sounded so casually. Those words weather our facades. They write a new map, with dotted and solid lines cutting a path through discomfort to honesty and remedy. 

I hear those words too little because I say them too little. I want them from the mouths of public servants, pastors and celebrities. And I want them from myself. 

I stop short when my wife, drawing on nearly 20 years of friendship, dares to see a sin or blemish outside my blinders. I poke holes in her argument, present the file I keep on her, step dangerously close to slander. I do anything and everything but admit “I was wrong.” 

In a tentative moment with my son, I use too many words. The holy blueprint is clear: confess simply, then plead forgiveness. Instead I talk circles around my seven-year-old. I admit anger and haste like technicalities, making his role as the catalytic converter clear.

Surely I would surrender to the same instincts when placed behind a presidential seal or before a press conference. Up the ante, and we only amplify our desire for self-preservation. I am no better than anyone else at sweeping the corners of my soul. And when I think otherwise, I am indeed wrong.  

My theology bears almost no resemblance to the Word of Faith movement. Even if I wanted to, I am hazy on the protocol for speaking something into existence. Still I stake my life on the promise that words—expressed often enough, beautifully enough—reshape our daily realities. 

If any words ripple out, let them be “I was wrong.” Consider the legacy those words might leave. Repeat them, and you start to believe in the holiness of your limits. You sit still long enough to let God sand your heart to soft, smooth grain. Others watch as those words break molds, creating lives that seem strange and desirable.

A church that confesses, and confesses specifically, answers a common objection. Yes, we are a living temple built of hypocrites. But we lay our offering, every mistake and misguided desire, on the altar, trusting them to a God who rights our wrongs now and forever.

Christians identify themselves as people formed by the Word made flesh. When three little words—“I was wrong”—become flesh in our own lives, we yield the need for protection or perfection and make Christ known.

Aarik Danielsen
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. He is a writer, editor, and curator concerned with the intersection of faith, culture, and human dignity. Follow him on Twitter or read more from Aarik on Facebook.

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