Psychologists use the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the bothered, sometimes pained, state of mind that occurs when new evidence conflicts with a current belief or outlook. When such dissonance occurs, resolution is arrived at by discarding the new evidence, discarding the belief itself, or ideally, evaluating what is known to be true and integrating the new information.
If we closely examine the lives of certain biblical characters such dissonance is often and clearly evident. Abraham was devastated by the God he loved who asked him to trust, even as he led his young son to be sacrificed. Saul spent three days in blindness and without food trying to comprehend the presence of the Christ he once persecuted. Mary wept at the empty tomb, pleading with the gardener to show her the body of her friend and teacher. The instances where God’s plans conflicted with the understanding of God’s people are scattered throughout Scripture.
Even so, it is perhaps safe to say that Job suffered from the most significant case of cognitive dissonance known among humanity. 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.”(1) 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, which was 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, but sorrowfully 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 despair 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, so many heirlooms inside, pictures of many childhoods that could never be retaken. Yet 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.”(2) God challenges 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. This is not to suggest at all that God caused the house to burn down. Yet 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 as she cried.
In the words of Henry David Thoreau, truth often strikes us from behind, and in the dark. Does the theology of the Cross not tell a similar tale? We were abandoned. Christ was abandoned. 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 overturned. No Christian immersed in the mystery of this story concludes that Calvary erases similarly dark and incomprehensible moments in our lives. 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 our broken lives will rise again to see God. Somehow through his suffering, 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.”(2) Such is God’s final word to his sorrowing children.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Job 14:19.
(2) Isaiah 55:8.
(3) Job 19:25:27.