Cognitive Dissonance

There’s a prayer I learned as a kid that I’ve now taught my kids. It goes: “Jesus I love You. All I have is Yours. Yours I am, and Yours I want to be. Do with me whatever You will”. It’s a prayer of complete surrender they recite without fully comprehending its implications, which is no surprise. However, my prayer is that one day they’ll choose to fully surrender their lives to the lordship of Jesus of their volition. Nevertheless, I’m often startled when I hear my 6-year-old reciting the prayer with enviable gusto. I remember doing the same at her age, but these days, the implications of such prayers often leave me tongue-tied. Am I truly ready to give my all to Jesus? Do I have the conviction to pursue His will even if it costs me dearly? Is there a limit to my allegiance to Jesus, a point at which I would say no to Him?

These are challenging questions to confront, and I think my 9-year-old is beginning to understand that there’s a cost to following Jesus. Recently, he asked me: “Daddy, can I do what God wants me to do and what I want to do?”. That’s a question answered unequivocally in the Bible when Jesus tells us that it’s impossible to serve two masters [Matthew 6:24]. But, it remains an area of struggle for many of us as we try to navigate the circumstances of life. In any case, I told my son that God isn’t a dictator who compels us to do His bidding. It matters to God that we have the freedom to choose or reject His will. When Jesus said: “…not My will, but Yours be done…” in the Garden of Gethsemane [Luke 22:42], it was the ultimate demonstration of His love for the Father. That statement also reminds us that when the rubber meets the road, we’ll usually have to decide whose will prevails.

I’m glad my son is discovering early in life that choices have consequences. Many have said that saying yes to something typically implies saying no to another. The challenge is that many of us usually take the path of least resistance when faced with difficult choices. For instance, if we face a choice between doing or saying something inconsistent with Scripture or drawing the ire of peers whose opinions we value, we often choose the former. At that moment, it probably doesn’t occur to us that our actions demonstrate we fear men more than God. We’re choosing the path of least resistance because the wrath of our peers seems scarier than God’s displeasure, or we don’t want to compromise friendships. After all, we can always ask God for forgiveness. In many situations, the choice between God’s will and ours is more subtle, but the question remains; are my actions consistent with who I claim to be?

Many of us are familiar with these situations and probably experience something psychologists call Cognitive Dissonance. It’s a term that often describes the inconsistency between what a person says they believe and how they behave, especially under pressure. It’s easy to make lofty claims when there’s nothing at stake, like my 6-year-old reciting a simple prayer. But a day will come when life will test those claims, and her actions will either be consistent with her claims or not. Thankfully, God doesn’t mark us down on how often we fail to live up to our claims. Otherwise, we’d all be doomed. Instead, He lavishly supplies the grace we need to live as children of God [1 John 3:1-2]. When we falter, like a doting parent with a toddler learning to walk, He lovingly helps us back to our feet and encourages us to try again.

Unfortunately, many of us trivialise the cognitive dissonance in our lives. We may even become numb to the discomfort it creates or mansplain away the inconsistency between who we claim to be and how we behave. We make statements like: “When in Rome, behave like the Romans…”. That may be a worldly truism, but it’s not consistent with the Christian life. We’re God’s children in Rome, and when we aren’t in Rome [Colossians 1:13]. We’re His ambassadors at all times [2 Corinthians 5:20a], and He expects us to behave accordingly [Luke 6:46-49]. It’s not an easy calling, and we cannot succeed at it in our strength, but we must adamantly resolve to adopt a lifestyle consistent with the ways of Jesus, no matter the cost [Matthew 16:24]. Consequently, any discomfort we experience due to cognitive dissonance should be an alarm requiring urgent attention.

Ultimately, our words count for little if they aren’t consistent with our actions. Therefore, Scripture urges us to be doers of the word, not just hearers [James 1:22-25, Romans 2:13-16]. If you ever doubt how seriously God takes what you do, read the letters of Jesus to the seven churches [Revelation 2 & 3]. Elsewhere, we read that God will judge us according to our deeds [Revelation 20:12]. Our actions are often the most apparent indication of our deepest convictions, irrespective of what we say. I hope this blog will be an occasion for you to pause and examine your life to see if there are inconsistencies between who you claim to be and how you behave. If you claim to be a Christian, is your calling card love [John 13:35]? Do your actions communicate love to your neighbours, especially those who disagree with you or even despise you [Matthew 5:43-44]? If they don’t, what are you doing about it?

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