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. But perhaps dissonance is felt most acutely when it occurs in the realm of faith commitments. How is it that my spouse has left me if marriage is God’s ideal? How is it that prayers seemingly go unanswered if I have been so faithful to pray? How do I reconcile my personal or the global experience of suffering with a view of a good and loving God?
Now those who have never experienced (or noticed) cognitive dissonance as a reality in their own lives 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. Perhaps we have not understood right teaching. And surely 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 of John the Baptist. The gospels portray John 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. The courageous cousin of Jesus preached repentance resolutely, and even baptized Jesus in preparation for his own earthly ministry as the Jewish Messiah. 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 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 all of this background creates a dramatic contrast once John was imprisoned. His resolve was shaken. Both Matthew and Luke’s gospels record his 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?’” (Matthew 11:3; Luke 7:20) His question belies his own ‘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 we often fall into between what we believe and what we experience. Yet the suffering that results from the gaps, 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) 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 unbearable 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” (Matthew 11:6). Surely, the gaps between what we believe and what we experience often cause us to stumble and fall. Yet, as Cairns suggests, might mining those gaps also illuminate new paths of discovery from Jesus’s own life and ministry? The gaps we experience often hold the treasure of new insight and the beauty of a more faithful devotion if we are willing to let go of our “comfortable assumptions” and dig deep, where what is precious and most valuable is often found in the deepest places of dissonance.
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Scott Cairns, The End of Suffering (Brewster MA: Paraclete Press, 2009), 8.