June 17, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance: The Body of Christ and it’s Response

Posted in Church Psychology, Healing Series, IC Doctrine and Practices tagged , , , , , , , , , at 8:37 pm by Set Free Indeed

Cognitive Dissonance is a theory used in psychology which refers to the uncomfortable feelings produced when a person holds two contradictory ideas simultaneously. Dissonance occurs when a person perceives a logical inconsistency in their beliefs, when one idea implies the opposite of another. The dissonance might be experienced as guilt, anger, frustration, or even embarrassment. It is a term used to describe the reaction people have to new information which does not agree with their previously held beliefs. They are unable to understand or internalize these beliefs because that would destroy their whole view. Unless something replaces that vision that’s being destroyed, many will go to extremes, even deny the truth so blatantly staring them in the face to resolve the dissonance.

For the purposes of this blog, dissonance is caused by simply coming to the realization that “biblical” beliefs that you currently strongly hold are simply not biblical. Once the dissonance occurs, one has a decision to make. Obey God and submit to His word, or hold on to “truths” you have previously proclaimed. It is a feeling I am sure every Christian will experience in their lifetime.

Occurrences of Cognitive Dissonance in Believers and Unbelievers

Let’s talk about the first occurrence believers can relate to: Godly sorrow which leads to repentance. As an unbeliever, you lived as you pleased, did what felt good to the senses, and gave no thought to the laws of God or their consequences, but through the drawing of the Holy Spirit, he led you to Christ, and in the process, you felt as if your whole world has crashed down on you. Realizing everything that you have ever thought about life, God, happiness etc. to be WRONG. This is cognitive dissonance in one of its most extreme forms.

A powerful cause of dissonance in this case is any idea that is in conflict with a fundamental element of the self-concept in the sinner, such as “I am a good person” or “I make good decisions.” The anxiety that comes with the possibility of having made a bad decision can lead to rationalization of behaviors, and the tendency to create additional reasons or justifications to support one’s sin.

Dissonance is a powerful motivator in decision-making. To resolve dissonance, many exhibit confirmation bias, the outright denial of biblical evidence, and many ego-defense mechanisms.

Often those who experience cognitive dissonance use these ego-defense mechanisms to resolve the dissonance:

  • Denial – Arguing against an anxiety provoking stimuli by stating it doesn’t exist. An example would be denying that your physician’s diagnosis of cancer is correct and seeking a second opinion.
  • Displacement – Taking out impulses on a less threatening target. Slamming a door instead of hitting as person, yelling at your spouse after an argument with your boss are great examples.
  • Intellectualization – avoiding unacceptable emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects. Ex: Focusing on the details of a funeral as opposed to the sadness and grief.
  • Projection – Placing unacceptable impulses in yourself onto someone else. Ex: When losing an argument, you state “You’re just Stupid;”
  • Rationalization – Supplying a logical or rational reason as opposed to the real reason. Ex: Stating that you were fired because you didn’t kiss up the boss, when the real reason was your poor performance.
  • Reaction Formation – Taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety. Ex: Having a bias against a particular race or culture and then embracing that race or culture to the extreme.
  • Regression – Returning to a previous stage of development. Ex: Sitting in a corner and crying after hearing bad news; throwing a temper tantrum when you don’t get your way. Spiritually remaining in infancy.
  • Repression – Pulling into the unconscious. Ex: Forgetting abuse from your childhood due to the trauma and anxiety.
  • Sublimation – Acting out unacceptable impulses in a socially acceptable way. Ex: Sublimating your aggressive impulses toward a career as a boxer; becoming a surgeon because of your desire to cut; lifting weights to release ‘pent up’ energy.
  • Suppression – Pushing these ideas into the unconscious. Ex: Trying to forget something that causes you anxiety.

Taken from http://www.allpsych.com

Cognitive Dissonance in Sinful Mankind

In its most damming form, cognitive dissonance hinders decision-making abilities and causes human beings to suppress and distort the truth. This is the modus operandi of the unbeliever who refuses to believe the truth of God’s word.

The bible isn’t a stranger in describing the hearts and minds of men and would agree with the assessments above:

Romans 1:18-23 (NIV)

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

This passage shows the inner conflict in mankind. They know the truth, they even know who God is, but accepting this truth would mean that they would have to accept that they are wrong for not submitting to Him, and it would mean they have essentially been living a lie. All of their preconceived notions about their lives (much like the sinner who has come to repentance) have been WRONG. So instead of accepting the truth which has been made plain to them, they try to distort and discredit it instead to resolve the dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance and the IC

Cognitive dissonance can occur intrapersonally or between two or more people. The IC and many of the members (not all) try to strive for consistency concerning their beliefs, whether it be by denomination, and/or membership locally. Whenever anyone challenges the “truths” held by an institution with biblical support in context, you can guarantee that many of the ego-defense mechanisms from above will be used methodically and repeatedly to resolve the dissonance amongst the members, and you will find many members of IC’s defending extra-biblical beliefs in order to resolve dissonance, even choosing to ignore the word of God and deciding to live in biblical error.

Personally, I have been cursed out, slandered, ignored, unfriended in real life and social media, made fun of,  preached against etc. based on biblical conversations where people disagreed with me on many doctrines such as tithing for new testament believers, “going” to church, etc. I’m not saying I was 100% right in my persuasion, approach, or even doctrine, but it is utterly fascinating to me how professing Christians respond when their beliefs are challenged. The bible says we are to be ready to give an answer for the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15-17) but many would rather ignore truth, insult, resort to childish behaviors etc. instead of doing what the bible says to do, test all things, and examine ourselves.

Ex: You tell someone: “The Church is not a building but a people according to the scriptures. ” and even provide biblical proof that the church has never been referred to as a place on the map and someone responds:

“You know what we mean when we say we’re going to church!”

As a response to resolve their dissonance, they repress the truth, and continue to keep calling their place of worship a church.

Ex: It is proven that a pastor of a congregation committed adultery has fathered a child with another woman in the congregation during his marriage, yet his congregation continues to let him pastor, even when he has not shown he is repentant for his sin. The leaders and members of that congregation, instead of properly dealing with the sin of both parties according to the scriptures, they collectively decide to publicly vilify and shame the pregnant woman, and even excommunicate her from their fellowship, yet continues to let the pastor assume his role without disciplining him. This is a classic example of projection, denial, and displacement.

Ex: A Homosexual who is openly living an and unrepentant lifestyle of sin amongst the members there, continues to remain in the congregation of saints there without being lovingly restored.  Someone goes to the homosexual and shares the scriptures with them and is immediately scalded for doing so. The rationale is that they shouldn’t “judge” this man but “love” him, and instead of confronting him pray for him, and those who are telling him that homosexuality is a sin are obviously intolerant and unloving. Can you guess which ego-defense mechanisms were used here?

In these scenarios the truth is plain and apparent in the scriptures, yet I’m afraid these scenarios and many more play out in the IC more times than one would like to admit. The culture of silence and ignoring the obvious has allowed much sin to run rampant, and trust me, God is NOT pleased with us choosing our fleshly inclinations to deny the truth over his word.


Cognitive dissonance is a killer of truth. It is a response of the flesh, and we further sin by protecting our egos with the responses from above. The root of these responses is good old-fashioned pride, and that little part of us which is still in rebellion to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ. We as the body should always be examining ourselves when it comes to our faith, and shouldn’t be afraid when someone challenges a truth you have previously held, as a matter of fact, it is an opportunity to make your faith stronger by being able to give a reason for what you believe. This is what this blog is all about. There are plenty of extra-biblical beliefs and traditions which are choking the life out of the body of Christ, and if we would just let our pride go, submit to God, and ask the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom and understanding of his word, He will not hold it back from us.

What is the point of all of this? I could write on this subject forever, but this is just a little bit of self-examination for all of us. Sometimes our motives for doing what we do can be self-serving, and trust me I do not exclude myself from this examination. We have to always be open to the truth of the scriptures, no matter what discomfort it may cause us, no matter how it makes us feel, and no matter what it costs us. Maybe we bear the marks of being unpopular, or the scars of being ridiculed for our beliefs. You will not be the first or the last who will bear their cross for the sake of the word of God.

Do you experience discomfort when presented with biblical views that differ from yours? Have you taken the time in the word to examine the claims and strengthen your faith in doing so? Are we every 100% when it comes to biblical truth? Truth has never been dependent upon consensus of opinion, and most importantly truth will stand against biblical scrutiny, because the word of God IS TRUTH. It is important that we examine our beliefs on a regular basis to see if they stand up to the test of scripture.

If you find your first reaction to beliefs that are opposing your are the ego defense tactics above, ask God to examine your heart, and show your motives. In the end, who doesn’t benefit from this?

Grace and Peace.


1 Comment »

  1. angie said,

    very well written. the examples (which i need lots of to help me understand things clearly, were very helpful); i found myself engaging in many of the defense mechanisms. angie~

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