Cognitive dissonance, the study of psychology tells us, is the internal tension that results when our experience doesn’t match our beliefs and values. It is that sense of unease when we encounter something that contradicts what we have held to be true. We often experience this tension in as we learn new ideas. Cognitive dissonance can also be felt acutely within the realm of faith commitments. Can one be free if God is sovereign? How can suffering and evil coexist with a loving and good God? How can scientific knowledge be reconciled with supernatural events?
Now, those who have never experienced (or noticed) cognitive dissonance might be quick to offer all kinds of explanations for those who don’t find it quite as easy to reconcile the gaps between beliefs and experience: We have drifted away from our moral center. We have not studied enough or prayed enough. We have not understood right teaching. And surely there are times when all of these explanations may contribute to dissonance.
But the Bible itself often challenges an easy dismissal of one’s cognitive dissonance. The gospels depiction of John the Baptist offers a compelling example. The gospel writers placed John in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. Here was a man filled with all the intensity and moral outrage of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Malachi—zealous prophets from the days of ancient Israel prone to weeping and crying out with zeal and tenacity. John, who was the cousin of Jesus of Nazareth, preached a hell-fire and brimstone message of repentance. Those who truly repented of their sins would come to him to be baptized, washed in the river Jordan as a sign of their cleansing from sin. He stood against the immorality and hypocrisy of those who were religious and political leaders. John was resolute in his ministry as the forerunner to the Messiah. Even as his own disciples came undone and complained that the crowds who once clamored to see him were now flocking to his cousin Jesus, John stood clear in his calling: “You yourselves bear me witness, that I have said, ‘I am not the Messiah,’ but ‘I have been sent before him.’”(1)
Knowing this background creates a dramatic contrast once John found himself in prison. His confrontation with Herod did not bring down fire from heaven, as it did when Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal. Instead, it landed him in prison and his resolve was shaken. Both Matthew and Luke’s gospels record his deeply troubling experience of dissonance: “Now when John in prison heard of the works of Jesus, he sent word by his disciples, and said to him, ‘Are you the expected one, or shall we look for someone else?’”(2) Here John the Baptist experienced a gap between what he believed about the Messiah and his experience as Herod’s prisoner. If Jesus is the Messiah, John must have wondered, why am I sitting in this jail? The Messiah John proclaimed would “thoroughly clear his threshing floor” and “burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”(3) The Messiah was coming to rid Israel—and indeed the world—of all evil. This was why John called the people to repentance. Yet as John languished day after day in his prison cell, it appeared that evil had won the day. “Are you the expected one, or shall we look for someone else?”
John’s dissonance is not unlike our own gaps between what we believe and what we experience. Yet the dissonance that results, according to author Scott Cairns, “[This also] can become [an] illuminating moment…in which all of our comfortable assumptions are shown to be false, or misleading, or at least incomplete.”(4) The gap between what we, like John, believe about the nature and ministry of the Messiah and the reality of a Jesus who is free from our comfortable assumptions often creates intolerable dissonance.
Jesus acknowledged that his ministry would be disruptive, and even be misunderstood. In responding to John’s doubts, Jesus said, “Blessed is the one who keeps from stumbling over me.” Surely, the gaps between what we believe and what we experience often cause us to stumble and fall. And it may feel that getting out of that gap is an impossibility. Yet, as Cairns suggests, might mining those gaps illuminate new understanding and a clearer perspective? Within these gaps, we may find treasure of new insight and a beauty of a more faithful devotion if we are willing to let go of “comfortable assumptions.” In these spaces of deep dissonance what is precious and most valuable is often found.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) John 3:26-28.
(2) Matthew 11:3; Luke 7:20.
(3) Matthew 3:12.
(4) Scott Cairns, The End of Suffering (Brewster MA: Paraclete Press, 2009), 8.