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Cognitive Dissonance in Christian Living

Embarrassment, shame, and guilt are emotions we have all experienced at one time or another. It’s very likely that these emotions were the result of a cognitive dissonance. In the book of James, we are warned about the foolishness of claiming a faith that is not reflected by our actions. Consequently it is to our benefit to take a critical look at our actions to ensure they are in alignment with our professed beliefs.

Reflections Inspired by Scripture

As inspired by James 2:14-26

Cognitive Dissonance: A Definition

The concept that James is writing about in the second half of chapter two is one example of what psychologist call a cognitive dissonance. A cognitive dissonance is when someone experiences distress due to conflicting beliefs or values. The reason this is relevant to how our faith translates into action is because while we may verbally profess one belief, our actions demonstrate a contradictory belief.

There are two implications for when our actions don’t match our words. The first one is that we are liars. Perhaps we verbally profess one belief because it gains the approval of others and we’ve been conditioned to profess those beliefs. The second implication is that there is some internal conflict that is acting as an obstacle. Let’s take a closer look at some examples.

Examples of Cognitive Dissonance in Christian Faith

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?

James 2: 14

Evangelism

Professed Belief: Sharing the Gospel Truth with others is good. It provides the opportunity to make a positive impact on others’ lives and saves them from a life of sin.
Opposing Belief: Sharing the Gospel is a waste of time because most people will find it annoying and won’t even listen to me anyway.

I recall struggling with this very same dissonance for a period of time. Whenever the subject of evangelism was discussed in church, I would experience guilt and discomfort. I was conditioned to believe that as a Christian I was responsible for declaring Christ as Lord in every conversation. The emphases was on our responsibility to covert the masses.

I agree that we have a responsibility to declare the gospel, but I also believe that our methods aren’t very effective. The result was general avoidance of Evangelism all together.

Freedom from Sin

Professed Belief: Thanks to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross I am already free from a life of sin (i.e. addictions, unhealthy relationships, poor lifestyle habits, etc.)
Opposing Belief: Breaking the shackles of addiction, guilt, and shame (i.e. sin) is a long and difficult journey.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard the unhelpful advice “Just Stop.” I do belief that God has provided the way out from sin, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy for everyone. The closest I have come to breaking an addiction is the unhelpful habit of biting/picking my nails. After about 15 years I was able to graduate to only picking the skin. As of today, about 10+ years later, I have yet to break the habit altogether. I cannot image how much more difficult it must be for someone with a chemical dependence or other addictive behavior.

The possible consequence of struggling with these conflicting beliefs is increased shame, guilt, and hopelessness. The inability to “just stop” translates to the mentality of giving up altogether. 

Financial Stewardship

Professed Belief: There is an abundance of blessings available and I can trust God to provide for all my financial needs.
Opposing Belief: There are limited resources available in the world and I therefore need to save up money for the future.

For anyone who has attended church, you’re familiar with being encouraged to give tithe and offerings. It is easy to give out of an abundance, but it is harder when we’re worried about paying the next bill. I do not deny that there are practical daily needs that must be meet for survival. Saving money is practical. However on closer examination the instinct to hold on to money is in contrast to our claim that God will provide.

In my experience the most common response to this dissonance is to ignore it. Perhaps in the deepest parts of our hearts the truth is that we don’t really trust God to provide for our future needs.

Idolatry

Professed Belief: God is the only one who owns my allegiance and loyalty.
Opposing belief: My ______ (sports team, favorite hobby, job, tv show, etc.) dictates how I spend my time and resources.

My personal reaction to this dissonance is frustration with myself. No matter how many times I tell myself that I will spend more time in devotion, prayer or service to others, something always seems to get in the way. Between my job and watching all the shows on Hulu+, I just never seem to have enough time for God. Things somehow become prioritized before my time with God.

The result is that I experience disappointment in myself for being unable to sacrifice those things that diminish my walk with God.

Resolving a dissonance

Life is not always black and white. The least effective way to resolve a dissonance is to pick one of the conflicting statements. It is not a matter of choosing the “right one.” The best way (and most challenging) is to create a new statement that can be lived out wholeheartedly. Let’s take a closer look about how this could play out.

Evangelism

I agree that we have a responsibility to declare the gospel, but I also believe that our methods aren’t very effective. There is more to evangelism than the traditional form of preaching. Effective evangelism takes place through relationships. Relationships provide opportunities to minister to others through action. Live a life of love and when asked about what sets you apart be prepared to share your testimony.

Freedom from sin

Life is a series of choices. Each choice we make either brings us closer or farther from God. The closer we feel to God, the easier it is to continue to make good choices. The farther we feel from God the harder it is to break the habits of sin. A sinner who knows God, believes Him, and is committed to Him can walk away from sin easily. A sinner who does not know God, doubts Him, and is ambivalent will have more difficulty walking away from sin.

Financial Stewardship

God has not called me to give away all my money away to the poor, but He does instruct me to be generous. As I said saving money is practical, wise, and a form of financial stewardship. The error for myself is when my anxieties about the future cause me to be greedy. Offering is a reminder to myself that I can trust God to be faithful.

Idolatry

To be honest I’m still trying to figure out this one. How can I invite God to be a part of my job, hobbies, tv time, etc.? Again it is not a matter of choosing one or the other. It is a process of going on a personal journey with God. One example is that my job is an opportunity to serve others as an act of worship. My hobbies are an opportunity to experience the joy God has to offer. As far as tv goes, I’m feeling prompted to prioritize devotions over tv time.

Final Thoughts

I’ve provided some examples of how cognitive dissonance shows up in our Christian walk. The above solutions are reflections from my own personal journey. You may be struggling with conflicting values in a different area of your life or your solution to the above examples are different. The best way to resolve a dissonance is to spend time in prayer with God and to be open to learn from others. Form a belief that you can believe in wholeheartedly, then live it out through action.

Resources

What is Cognitive Dissonance? from Very Well Mind

NIV Study Bible (2011) Zondervan. Grand Rapids, MI.

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