All of us have experienced cognitive dissonance. That is the stress that is created when we try to hold two or more conflicting beliefs or values in our head, or when we do something or learn something that conflicts with these beliefs or values.
Cognitive dissonance theory says that we all try to keep our mind (our cognitive function) peaceful and in harmony and that when a conflict arises (dissonance) we will act to reduce the conflict, most times without our even realizing that we are doing so.
For instance, someone who wants to eat healthy and lose weight is offered a delicious double cheeseburger. There is a conflict. They would love to have a double cheeseburger and they want to lose weight. They may reduce their mental discomfort by rationalizing, “I’ve been doing pretty good, I can cheat every now and then.” or “My diet for today is shot. I’ll start over tomorrow.”
Or “I’m going to go for a long walk after supper and work off the calories.” They may even convince themselves that the facts are not true and say, “Double cheeseburgers are not actually all that high in calories, plus they have a lot of protein and nutrients that are good for me.”
A fourth way to handle the conflict is to adopt new values or beliefs or to change their behavior, “As good as it looks, my diet is more important. I’m just not going to eat that double cheeseburger.”
So where does the Holy Spirit fit into this?
It is very rare that God strikes us blind the way he did to Saul in order to give us a clear vision of the road we are to follow. For most of us, God’s call it is a quiet, nagging voice that prods us this direction or that. Sometimes, we heed that call and go willingly in the direction God would have us go, but most times not.
All too often, the word of the Spirit creates a cognitive dissonance—a conflict between our world view and God’s view. We all are guilty of shaping the word of God’s to make it more comfortable for us to hear. For instance, when God says to help the poor, we tell Him we have that covered when we pay our taxes. God says love our brothers, we do but point out that we really deserve credit for putting up with them as well as we do. God says love our enemies, we say that we do love them, but we are showing tough love by not validating their sinful lifestyle and by showing displeasure in their inappropriate life choices.
Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, he was calling on the religious leaders to open their minds and actually hear what the Word of God says. Ever since their days in the wilderness, the priests and scholars in their zeal to obey the law had come up with hundreds of “what if’s” in which they had argued and debated the different ways that God’s commands could be interpreted. These were codified into an oral tradition.
At the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were the teachers of and the enforcers of the oral tradition. In their mind, these traditions became equal to the actual Word of God. They became the moral code that they bound themselves to.
Jesus criticized them saying, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban* (that is, devoted to God)—then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
So when we study God’s word and hear it addressed to us, we must be very careful that we hear the actual intent and not our minds watering down of the message. The very fact that there are so many denominations and divisions within the Church is a testament to how difficult it is for us to do this.
However, there is one key rule that we can use to help us understand the mind of God and His will for us. This rule is, “God is love.”
Remember Jesus’s answer to the lawyer when asked which commandment was the greatest? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
If you keep these words in mind whenever you hear God speaking to you, you will know that you are on the right path.