Excerpts of Acts 15: Paul & Barnabas part ways – The Need to be Right

Our Worship theme for Lent is based on a book written by Edward Bear called:  “The Seven Deadly Needs”. Some of these habits or needs can keep us from fully accepting ourselves as God does, or get in the way of self-acceptance, or our relationship with God and others. They are needs that often masquerade as healthy behaviors and they are so ingrained, they’re tricky to spot. But if we want to grow in our faith, if we want more intimacy and to live more fully in the world, we need to do some self-reflection to examine our own hearts and minds. Today’s deadly need is the Need to be Right.  When I asked a couple people if they ever struggle with this question, they quickly quipped back, “No, because I’m always right.”  

Some people I’ve met have apparently taken a life course called, “How To Be Absolutely Sure of Everything!”  They test reality with the motto: “It is so because I think it is so, and you should think so, also.”  The need to be right is not about actually being right. It’s about needing to be right, all the time or most of the time. It’s about our inability – or our unwillingness – to be wrong, or to let others be right. Or to see another perspective.

Lynne Namka: One of life’s biggest set-ups for being lonely is living with the erroneous belief that your way is the best way of doing things and insisting others agree with you. 

We all know people – certainly not us  – who have to be right. Maybe it’s the guy who storms off the court when he disagrees with a call by the ref  or the guy who fights you to the death over a game or dispute. 

Some of the qualities People who need to be right exhibit can include being argumentative, provoking confrontation, attacking your point of view, while defending theirs. Some people are not only always right – they are never wrong. Every opinion expressed is authoritative with no room for doubt. They are prepared to put everything on the line to prove  they are right – friendship, relationships, colleagues, marriage, children. That’s extreme -Know anybody like that? Are you sometimes like that?

We might call them stubborn or hotheaded or righteous know-it-alls. Therapist Karyl McBride, has a different word for them: FRAGILE.

People who always need to be right tend to have fragile egos. When they feel as if their self-image has been threatened, they want to make themselves look bigger or smarter, so they blame others. It’s a coping mechanism to deal with insecurity. Sadly, the more we insist we are right, the more we alienate others, frustrate ourselves, stymie our growth, restrict our ability to change, and cut ourselves off from our true nature.”

In a conversation in the Book, The Seven Deadly Needs, Tyler says:

When I was young, I was always trying to prove that my father was wrong. Because he was always right or claimed that he was. So I’d try to trap him catch him in a lie. Even when I could prove it, he would never admit it. He would even say the dictionary was wrong. He never gave in. Then I developed a need to be right. It meant that I was a grown up. That I somehow belonged. That I had been adopted into this mystical fellowship of men. That I had finally achieved something, done something right for a change. 

The scripture text I chose for today should really be a post-Easter text, as Paul & Barnabas are sharing about the risen Christ. But this text of the fall out between Paul & Barnabas gets at the heart of the need to be right, and how relationships can suffer as a result.  Saul of Tarsus had been such a vicious persecutor of Christians that even after his conversion the disciples are still afraid of him, with good reason. In Acts 9, Barnabas advocates on Paul’s behalf and persuades the disciples to let Paul join them. As a result, a lovely friendship between Paul and Barnabas forms. On their first missionary journey, John Mark, a cousin of  Barnabas, accompanies them but returns home to Jerusalem earlier than planned. When a second journey is planned, Barnabas suggests taking John Mark, but Paul resists. The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company. As far as we know they never saw one another again.

The dissension was not over doctrine. It involved a personal dispute. Who Was Right? Paul or Barnabas? We don’t know. Some argue that Paul was just too stubborn to give in. Lloyd Ogilvie wrote:

“Paul had fought one of Christian history’s most crucial battles over Gentile converts. He was not able, however, to apply the same truth to his relationship with John Mark”.

Paul may have been guided by experience and rational logic, whereas Barnabas was moved perhaps by a kindred familiarity and a warm heart. Whoever was right, it makes me sad that we never hear about Barnabas again and that a friendship and partnership dissolved over the disagreement. We never see them together again in scripture. I had a friendship that went off the rails because of my expectations, but fortunately after some time had passed, I realized the friendship was more important than my being right or feeling justified.

So much of life’s misunderstandings and lack of connection stem from holding a rigid perspective of this need to be right or feelings of self-righteous indignation.  There is a story that has been around for decades – one rendition goes like this: When a woman at an airport learned her flight would be delayed she purchased a bag of Cookies. She put them in her purse, found a seat, started reading her book. A man came and sat right next to her even though there were plenty of other seats nearby. She did her best to ignore him and kept on reading. But to her amazement, the man took the cookies, opened the bag, and took one out. Seeing her surprised look, the man paused, extended the bag in her direction, and offered her one of her own cookies! The woman didn’t trust herself enough to say anything she was so upset. So pursing her lips, she reached into the bag, grabbed one of her cookies and immediately returned to reading her book as she angrily munched away. From the corner of her eye she could see the man shrug and then grab a cookie before gazing at people passing by. He reached back into the bag, pulled out another cookie for himself and once again extended the bag in her direction as an offering. And so it went. One by one they both ate through her bag of cookies, with her seething with indignation, and him remaining nonchalantly calm and detached. Finally, the man crumpled up the bag, nodded at her before walking down the terminal. The woman was furious. Not only had a man stolen her cookies right in front of her, he didn’t even have the courtesy to thank her for them. Her anger and the cookies had made her thirsty.  Nancy reached inside her bag for her water when her hand felt the bag of Cookies. All the time she was rigid with anger at a stranger for eating her cookies, he was being generous, kind and gracious in spite of her obvious hostility.

Our sense of rightness blinds us to what is really going on and convinces us that our perspective is the only right one. We can feel validated when we’re right and someone else is wrong. There’s a place within us that feels smug, superior. More successful. Makes us feel like we belong. Part of the in group that is right. But meanwhile, we’ve cut ourselves off from connection with others. In the book, the Seven Deadly Needs, Tyler continues:

At some point I stopped feeling that I had to be right. I discovered it didn’t make any difference who was right. Turns out that being right is not terribly important. I realized the need to be right was a consequence of always feeling wrong, or being led to believe that I was wrong. But the price is too high – you have to give up peace and serenity. Would I rather be happy or right? Always needing to be right separates me from people. If I’m right, you’re obviously wrong. I’m bulletproof. You can’t touch me.  What do you say to someone who’s always right?  

Sadly, the trajectory of people who need to be right ALL the time can lead not only to inner turmoil but also to dysfunctional relationships, abuse and violence.  People who defend their Need to be right are preoccupied with imagined shortcomings of others and perceived attacks.  We have only to look at the religious extremism and white supremacy of the man who violently and senselessly killed 50 Muslims in their house of worship.  This is where the Need to be Right in the extreme can lead.

People with a need to be right justify criticizing and blaming others to avoid the dealing with their own emotions. They fear losing power and will use anger to keep others from asserting themselves. Life becomes miserable – fear and control based.

It’s easy to recognize the extreme in other people, but our task during Lent is to do the hard work of self-reflection – and the hardest part is to do it with self-love and self-compassion.

My colleague Rev. Elizabeth Ingram Schindler wrote this:

The need to be right creates situations in which we constantly compare ourselves to others, compete with others, and feel good about ourselves only if we win. But there are two problems with letting this need run rampant: one is that if we feel the need to be right all the time, we constantly set up situations in which others have to be wrong. It breaks the connection between us and everyone else, because we constantly create distance between ourselves and other people by our need to define ourselves against them. We cannot love our neighbors if we’re always setting up competitions with them, if we always have to be superior to them in this way.

At the same time, the need to be right, the need to define our self-worth by our achievement, our perfection, our knowledge, cuts us off from God. It denies that we are beloved simply because we are God’s holy creation. It denies that we are worthy of God’s love just as we are. It blocks our ability to receive God’s grace. It says that we are unworthy of love or belonging if we make any mistakes, which fundamentally stunts our relationship with God. The need to be right eliminates the space for mystery or Spirit to work in our lives, setting up every situation, every idea, as black-and-white, right-or-wrong, win-or-lose. The need to be right keeps us from growing spiritually.

We are conditioned since birth to defend ourselves or convince other people we are right. What if there was another way? Dr. Wayne Dyer asks –

Would I rather be right or would I rather be kind? What if we could choose to be kind over being right?  Habit won’t change overnight so have self-compassion for yourself.

What do we really want in life? What most of us desire when we strip away our self-protective and ego-protective defenses of control is to be loved; to belong; to feel safe; to be heard and understood. Our need to be right, our fear of losing control and the resulting hostility is a sign of needing to be loved but not knowing how to get it. We become more secure when we understand that things don’t always go or even have go the way we want. Life becomes less threatening as we learn to deal with vulnerable feelings and uncomfortable emotions.  Move from “I need to be right” to “I choose to be feel uncomfortable feelings of anxiety and vulnerabilty.  And learn to apologize.  One way to recognize the Need to be Right is the inability to apologize or recognize someone’s contribution by expressing gratitude. One way to do this self-reflection is to remember the last time you apologized. If you can’t remember, that might be a place to start. It’s not something to just shrug off. Being willing to own our own behavior, feel the difficult feelings, and forgive ourselves in the process creates transformation not only within ourselves, but in our relationships. We can put down tools of war and pick up tools of communication, conflict resolution – tools that produce connection, intimacy, and commitment.

“Do I want to be right or do I want to be happy? Do I want to get my way or do I want to feel a sense of closeness and connection with others?” 

It’s curious, in scripture, we never hear about Paul reconciling with Barnabas, but if we glean through scripture we find these words years later in 2 Tim. 4:11, Paul writes, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministering”. And in Col 4:10, Mark is commended to the Colossians.. And Paul would later affectionately mention Barnabas in 1 Cor. 9:6 as being worthy of monetary support in his work of proclaiming the gospel.  There was a softening in Paul’s heart, and there can be a softening in our own as well. 

We won’t transform the world by being right or winning arguments or proving others wrong or impressing people with our intelligence. Change comes through love and humility and connection and partnership with others, not through being right.

So this Lent may we congratulate ourselves when we are wrong, when we are able to apolgize, when we can recognize and affirm in our out loud voice the contributions of others – recognizing that it does not diminish our own contributions, and to celebrate the times we can do each of those. May we not take glee in the times that we are right and someone else is wrong, but be grateful that we have someone to love. May we seek not to win arguments with our superior logic and rational thinking, but seek to see others for who they are and what they value.

EIS: We have never been beloved because we are right. We have never been forgiven because we are right. We have never been chosen as children of God because we are right. We have always been loved, chosen, forgiven… because we are God’s. That is where our worthiness comes from. Thanks be to God.

Excerpts from Acts 15

12The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.
22Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.
35Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, and there, with many others, they taught and proclaimed the word of the Lord. 36After some days Paul said to Barnabas,
“Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.”
37Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. 39The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. 40But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. 41He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.