The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith: It's such a little thing to be right


My wise wife recently pointed out that I have a thing about being right. I gave her a list of five reasons she was wrong. I know this about myself, but I can't stop.

I think this goes back to school. I was not athletic, so I prided myself on being smart. I wanted to be known for something, so I worked hard to be the kid who knew the answers. This strategy worked pretty well until I met Algebra. When I met x and y, my thought was, "Why is this important?" I was told it would help me think critically. It did; I was very critical of higher math and my math teachers.

It was about this time in high school that I learned I could not be smart about everything. History and English came naturally to me. I sought to know as much as I could about these subjects.

When I went to college and majored in religion, I was right more often than not, having been at Sunday School my entire life. Once, I had to take a doctoral-level seminar at Indiana University. The professor came in on the first day and explained to doctoral-level students that the Bible was divided into books, the books were divided into chapters, and the chapters were divided into verses. I knew this from what we used to call "Sword Drills" back in third-grade Sunday School. I made an "A" in that seminar.

It was odd that the more I learned, the more there was to know. My field of knowing everything shrank. By the time I finished my Ph.D., I was an expert on three chapters of the Bible. It was a lot of school to be the luminary on 91 verses.

I found what worked in school did not work in every area of life. My mother once told me, "No one likes a know-it-all." That explained my lack of dates during certain times of my life. Insisting on being the expert with my friends meant I drove some of them off. It is hard to build intimacy when you must prove you know everything. In one evaluation, I had said, "Pastor, please try harder to be humble."

I like to be right because deep down, I am afraid people will reject me if they find out I don't know. It turns out people will also reject you if you have to prove how right you are.

Being right is a way to justify my behavior: "It's OK for me to act this way because I am so wounded. I am the victim." Being right is a defensive mechanism that keeps us from facing the truth about ourselves.

I am slowly learning that being right, defending myself, does not bring the people I care about most closer to me. To paraphrase Craig Groschel, people would rather be friends with someone who is real than someone who is right. The truth is no one can be right all the time. Most of us do well to be right over half the time.

I think about all the damage I have done in the name of being right. I have gotten my family lost for over an hour because I refused to stop for directions. I have grown an unhealthy pride that makes me reluctant to hear the ugly truth. I have damaged my health because I insist on discounting what doctors tell me.

Do not misunderstand me. It is important to be right about important things. Your relationship with God is important. What you believe about God, about your relationship with God, really matters.

But is some of what I believe really that important? Sometimes I listen to the lyrics of hymns and songs and think, "That's not right." Then I get a gentle nudge from the Holy Spirit, saying, "Does it really matter?"

I wish I were farther along in knowing how to sort out the important from the unimportant. I hope I have made progress in keeping my mouth shut and not having the last word.

I think what a better world it would be, what a better nation we would have, if people could simply say, "Well, we see things differently," and then stop talking. I might tune in to a candidate debate if they talked like that.

Jesus very pointedly said, "It is better to tie a millstone around your neck and throw yourself into the sea than to cause one of these little ones to stumble." Causing people to stumble by insisting you are right about unimportant stuff must be a big deal to Jesus.

I think this is why the ancient prophet Micah said, "He has shown you, O man, what is required: To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." Humility means it is such a little thing to be right. You trust God with that.

The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter. Email him at