In his book written in 1956, When Prophecy Fails, Louis Festinger told the story of a UFO cult whose expectations of an imminent apocalypse turned out to be ungrounded. Festinger coined the phrase cognitive dissonance to explain what happens when our expectations and assumptions clash with reality. According to Festinger, people try to resolve the tension between what they believe and what they experience by either altering their beliefs or avoiding information that challenges their beliefs.
Festinger and his theory might seem on the surface to be the preserve of psychologists and professional academics, but it has a real life application for all of us: real life has a habit of hitting our beliefs and assumptions in brutal head on collisions.
Christians aren’t immune. Especially, it seems, when it comes to our understanding of God.
Most of us would like to think that how we understand God is fairly and squarely based on the Bible. Technically that might be true, and if it is not entirely true, at least we aspire to understanding God through the lens of scripture rather than tradition or experience or even reason.
Take just three statements made about God in James chapter one.
James is speaking about wisdom. If we ask God, he says, and believe in our hearts, God will give us wisdom.
To back up his assertion he sets out the following aspects of God’s character:
Firstly, God gives generously (v.5). The sense of the word is that of singleness of mind. In other words, God gives generously without strings attached or qualifications. God is a generous giver. In our minds we know that (or might not have known that!), but in our hearts we might struggle to believe that is true.
Question: if you were asked to describe God, would you have chosen the words generous giver to describe Him?
Secondly, God gives generously to all (v.5). There is not a certain class or group of people who have the corner on God’s wisdom. Anyone can access it, the only condition is that you ask for it. God does not deny us access, but sometimes, for whatever reason we deny ourselves access to that wisdom. Why? Perhaps because subconsciously we believe that there is a special group of people who have some kind of “triple a” spiritual credit rating and we are not part of that group.
Thirdly, God gives generously to all without finding fault. This word is found in Matthew 27.44 describing the thieves who were crucified with Jesus casting insults in [Jesus’] teeth. We talk about casting things up or bringing up issues or we say things like “He threw it back in his face”.
God doesn’t operate like that. He doesn’t bring up the past. He doesn’t throw it all back in your face.
Why is it that those three statements don’t make it into many people’s definition of God? Festinger might just help us to explain. Our beliefs are challenged by our experience of life and to resolve the tension, we – might – adjust our beliefs to reflect our experience.
God gives generously. To all. Without finding fault. Those things remain true – whatever happens in life.