Cognitive dissonance, the study of psychology tells us, is the internal tension that results when our experience doesn’t match our professed 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 the course of academic training as we learn new ideas. Or we can be jolted as we meet new people with vastly different backgrounds and cultures from our own.
But perhaps dissonance is felt most acutely when it occurs in the realm of faith commitments and expectations. Why is it that even when the right thing is done, the good action taken, nothing appears to change in my life or circumstances? If suffering is merely an illusion, why do so many people experience so much pain? How is it that marriage can be so difficult and yet God’s ideal for relationships? How is it that prayer seemingly goes unanswered even in the face of faithful and persistent prayers? How do I reconcile personal and global suffering with a view of a good and benevolent Divinity governing the world?
Some, to be sure, might claim to have never experienced (or noticed) cognitive dissonance as a reality in their own lives. There are always quick explanations offered 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. Perhaps there are times when all of these explanations may be true.
But is it always so easy to explain dissonance away? I asked this question anew when I looked at the questions raised by John the Baptist as presented in the New Testament. John the Baptist was the cousin of Jesus of Nazareth. Like Jesus, he had an extraordinary beginning, having been born to parents beyond child-bearing years. The last of the great, Hebraic prophets, the gospels portray John with all the intensity and moral outrage of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Malachi. John was fearless in his proclamation issuing the call of repentance to sinners and the religious leaders alike. He even baptized Jesus in preparation for his own itinerant ministry. He was resolute in his stand against immorality and hypocrisy. He understood his unique and limited role in preparation for the Messiah. Even as his own disciples came undone and complained that the crowds who once clamored to see him were now flocking to 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’” (John 3:26-28).
Yet knowing all of this background creates a dramatic contrast when we hear John speak after he is imprisoned by Herod. His resolve was shaken. Both Matthew and Luke’s gospels record his own experience with 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) His question belies the ‘gap’ between the reality he envisioned and his current reality in a cold prison cell. 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” (Matthew 3:12). The Messiah was coming to rid Israel—and indeed the world—of evil. Yet in John’s day to day existence in his lonely prison cell, evil had won the day. “Are you the expected one, or shall we look for someone else?”
John’s dissonance is not unlike the gaps between belief and experience. Yet perhaps, according to author Scott Cairns, “[These also] can become illuminating moments in which we see our lives in the context of a terrifying, abysmal emptiness, moments when all of our comfortable assumptions are shown to be false, or misleading, or at least incomplete.”(1) Surely, John thought, the Messiah would free him from prison, bring justice, and bind up all the wicked like chaff to be burned. Yet, what was expected was not experienced. John experienced the terrifying and abysmal emptiness that came in a Jesus who was free from his expectations and of his own assumptions.
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” (Matthew 11:6). Like John before us, those who seek to follow Jesus often stumble over him. The gaps between what we believe and what we experience create fissures in faith into which many fall. Yet, as Cairns suggests, might mining those gaps uncover the treasure of encountering Jesus in new ways? Might mining the gaps we experience hold the treasure of new insight and the beauty of a more faithful devotion if we are willing to let go of “comfortable assumptions” and cherished expectations? If so, then might all the faithful dig deep and find that what is precious and most valuable is often found in the fissures of dissonance.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Scott Cairns, The End of Suffering (Brewster MA: Paraclete Press, 2009), 8.
(2) Matthew 11:3; Luke 7:20.