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Cognitive dissonance is a term that I studied in college as a psychology major. In fact, it is probably one of the greatest tools to help us to look at things differently, as well as to bring forth change in our lives.
Usually “cognitive dissonance” is defined as, “the feeling of discomfort or pain when new evidence conflicts with a current belief or perspective, which causes a discrepancy between what a person believes and their behavior. In order to bring some resolution to this state of mind, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the discrepancy.”
In a state of cognitive dissonance, a person has a few choices – either to discard the new evidence or discard the belief that they have held. Some people would try to integrate the new information and lessen the dissonance.
This is something I see that happens whenever we are confronted with the Gospel. I am not talking about just the intellectual assent that many people in the Church ascribe to but rather the real life confrontation, which causes us to re-evaluate our lives.
One good example is something that I witness every year on the college campus. There are students who come to the University of Michigan thinking that have a good grasp of the Gospel and the ramifications of being a Christ-follower. But they are in shock when they realize that the Gospel and being a Christ-follower demands their whole life. When their insecurities and self-centeredness begin to surface and get challenged, they start feeling the cognitive dissonance.
People start realizing that what they knew about Jesus, His call to discipleship and the local church, do not match up with what the Bible clearly lays out. In reality, people have been shaped more by cultural Christianity that reinforces a consumer-mentality, than the biblical standard.
Choice is clear.
Either discard the belief of easy Christianity and start surrendering your whole life to Christ or discard what Christ has stated in the Gospels.
The only way to do the latter is through rationalization – which sadly to say, many people have done.
This same thing happens to many single working adults. When they graduate from college and start working in the marketplace for the first time, they face this cognitive dissonance. Everything that they have learned when they were in college begins to be challenged. These single adults will usually discard everything that they have learned. The hope is that they are able to integrate the new information and stick with convictions based on Scripture.
But it is not that easy.
Sometimes the easier and the cowardly thing to do is to blame people for the cognitive dissonance. Whether the blame is put on a leader or a church, the lack of responsibility for their spiritual lives is pretty amazing.
This is why I am a firm believer of people going through cognitive dissonance. It really shows our true colors and it exposes what we are truly made of. It humbles us. It makes us more desperate. It makes us appreciate the Gospel that much more.
Jill Carattini who works with Ravi Zacharias wrote an article that talks about this cognitive dissonance in a person’s life, she writes,
Even so, it is perhaps safe to say that Job suffered from the most significant case of cognitive dissonance known among men. Job’s understanding of a gracious and just God who rewards the righteous and punishes the unrighteous was shattered by new evidence. Grieving the loss of the God he loved, yet unable to discard the relationship, the question of divine justice tortured his mind. ‘As water wears away stones and torrents wash away the soil,’ he cried, ‘so you destroy man’s hope’ (14:19). And yet, against the counsel of his wife, Job was unwilling to discard his belief and allow his hope to be washed away.
Job is the hopeful symbol of a steadfast mind amidst the ashes of our own questions. Why am I so troubled and afflicted? Why would a good God permit suffering? Why does God stand far off in times of trouble? Why is God so absent? The dung heap of life’s most plaguing questions is resistant to decomposition.
I remember the evening my mother had to call my grandparents and break the tragic news to them that their house was burning down. Fortunately, they were away for the weekend, and yet their home, literally built by their own hands, was at that very moment being consumed by fire and nothing would be salvaged. My grandmother’s response was calmly uttered: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
To my teenage mind, her response was both inspiring and maddening. Perhaps I wanted her to cling with me to the sorrow of that moment, to cry out at the unfairness of the situation, to ask as I was asking, ‘Why is this happening?’ Perhaps I suspected she wasn’t feeling the loss as intensely as I was. We all loved that house – so many memories were inside, heirlooms, events, pictures that could never be retaken. Her sense of loss was undoubtedly far more intense than mine. And still, she stood upon the words of Scripture and chose to cling to
God: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways’ (Isaiah 55:8). God’s stories challenge us to remember that just as there is intelligence behind his creation and design, so there is intelligence behind the one who helps us cope with suffering. That which we don’t understand can still hold within its core the wisdom and mystery of God. This was the knowledge my grandmother held near.
In the words of Henry David Thoreau, truth often strikes us from behind, and in the dark. Does the theology of the Cross not bring such a wisdom to light? At Calvary, we were abandoned. Christ was forsaken. God was beaten. God was absent. Death was given the chilling, final word. But on the third day, all of these observations, all of these sensations, however intensely felt, were radically challenged. The Christian does not view the story of the Cross as an eradicator of all of life’s dark and incomprehensible moments; their suggestion is far more aware of the storyteller. Perhaps the reliability of God’s promises and the truth of his Word merit our allowing God the final word.
Though ashes will not rise again to be houses, we hold the promise that broken lives will rise again to see God. Somehow through his suffering and in the dark, Job discovered this assurance. Like Abraham at the place of Isaac’s sacrifice and Mary at the tomb of Christ, Job declared the faithfulness of God in the midst of his situation: ‘For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another.’ Such is God’s final word to his sorrowing children.”
It is only when we are able to process the cognitive dissonance with a God-given perspective that we will find greater peace and freedom in our lives. This is how transformation starts and occurs, until we face the next cognitive dissonance.