Realizing there is a difference will make your life better
I have taught middle and high school kids for almost 35 years and have heard just about every excuse for why they did not follow the rules. I forgot. I didn’t know. It’s not my fault. It was only a mistake. Most of these excuses I do not respond to but when they say it was only a mistake, I always stop in my tracks and address their statement. My students need to understand what they label as a mistake is usually a poor choice. What difference does it make? All the difference!
Nicole was running late for work one day and forgot to bring her lunch. On that same day, she was reading a text and ran a red light. Both actions are mistakes. Right? Wrong. Forgetting your lunch is a mistake, running a red light is a poor choice.
Teens are not the only ones who confuse mistakes with poor choices, adults can, too. So, what is the difference? Both words communicate something you have done was incorrect but a closer look reveals one major difference and that is, intent. A mistake is unintentional and a poor choice is deliberate (even if the action is reflexive or not scrutinized). It is a mistake if I pick up the wrong candy bar; I make a poor choice by stealing the candy bar.
It is tempting to think because you did not think of the consequences of your actions in the moment, it shouldn’t be classified as a poor choice but we all know this immature theory doesn’t hold water. Whether we pause and think through the consequences of each action or not does not turn a poor choice into a mistake.
- Mistakes free you from self-imposed guilt; poor choices require ownership and responsibility.
When I was 16, I was with a group of teenagers and adults on a summer mission trip. We often sang in church, accompanied by one leader who played her guitar beautifully. One day, one of the other leaders of our group accidently stepped on her guitar and the sound of a crack echoed in the room. I watched as he apologized and arranged to have it repaired. I was glad to hear the guitar owner say it was a mistake; she accepted his offer of repairs and that was it. I know that had the same incident occurred and the “guilty” one had hidden the guitar and not owned his mistake; the action becomes a poor choice.
Watching this event unfold at 16, I remember thinking I would be full of guilt if I had damaged the guitar. I respected the fact the one leader made his mistake right with the other and did not hang on to the incident. I wanted that freedom.
I want to make a distinction here by noting many forms of negligence are unintentional. If we are unintentionally negligent, it does not negate the consequences of our actions or inactions.
2. Mistakes do not carry with them selfish motivations; poor choices do.
When we scrutinize someone’s actions, searching for motivation and intent, we get into murky waters. The motives of other people’s words and actions are not clear-cut. We cannot get into the hearts and minds of others and know what precipitated their actions, but we CAN with our own. We are the only person who can know our motivations, even though, sometimes, this can be unclear to ourselves. Analyzing our poor choices will often reveal selfish motivations which will set barriers up in our relationship with others.
The Bible is clear that God knows our hearts and the intentions behind our actions. The second half of Kings 8:39 (NLT) says, “Give your people what their actions deserve, for you alone know each human heart.” I Chronicles 28:9 (NLT) tells us, “the Lord sees every heart and knows every plan and thought”. God knows our motivations and intent; therefore, we must look within ourselves and weigh our choices. Once I identify a poor choice, I must take responsibility for my actions, to God and to those I have wronged.
3. If we attribute a mistake to a poor choice, we put our relationships in jeopardy.
It is not uncommon for a person to apologize for his or her actions but when this person equates what he or she did with a mistake, it communicates you are not taking ownership of a poor choice. Mistakes are unintentional, poor choices are not.
Imagine if a wife loses her temper with her husband because she’s tired of picking up after him all day. She says some harsh words to him and storms out of the room. Later, she feels bad for what she said and did. She’s still not happy about the situation but realizes she did not handle the situation well. She approaches her husband and says, “I made a mistake earlier by using harsh words with you that were over the top. I’m sorry.”
Let’s think about what the wife is saying here. “I had no control over my mouth and the mind that makes it work. I’m sorry but, it’s not my fault.” Labeling a poor choice as a mistake will not bring healing to the situation.
We need to get in a habit of testing our actions and reflecting on our intentions. Realizing there is a difference between mistakes and poor choices will make your life better