I have encountered a lot of discomfort in bible study. I don’t mean the time my foot fell asleep when I sat on it too long reading 1 & 2 Chronicles. No, I mean the feeling of emotional discomfort when the Bible tells me something I did not expect or something that contradicts what I thought I knew. What I have found in the months and years since I started studying the Bible is that almost everyone experiences discomfort in bible study if they stick with it long enough. Discomfort of one kind or another is a huge reason so many Christians neglect bible study altogether. Of all the different brands of discomfort we face in bible study–confusion, conviction, embarrassment, frustration, boredom–there is a particularly nasty one that carries more weight and poses a more ominous threat than most of the others. It even has a special name.
When something we know to be true is challenged, we experience a unique sensation called cognitive dissonance. Dissonance is defined as a lack of harmony between musical notes. Dissonant sounds are unpleasant and jarring. Cognitive dissonance occurs when something we believe gets challenged or when something we know doesn’t harmonize with what we’re seeing, hearing, or experiencing.
I started out on this topic thinking it would be an examination of why people don’t read their Bibles as often as they should. It bugs me to know that such a massive portion of the body of Christ is biblically illiterate. It’s one of the reasons I started this blog. I can’t stand it! It actually plagues me to think about it, and I’ve read all kinds of articles that attempt to list out reasons why Christians don’t read their Bibles. As I considered them all again for this post, it occurred to me that not one of those lists confronted the problem of cognitive dissonance. Well, that’s not okay with me…because cognitive dissonance is a big piece of the puzzle.
So here I am, and here we are.
I’ll start by giving you a hypothetical example to illustrate the definition because a lot of people really don’t understand what cognitive dissonance means. They get it all mixed up with hypocrisy (doing one thing whilst professing another), but that isn’t at all what cognitive dissonance is about. I thought about it for a while, and then I got inspired by the opening lines of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens:
“To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.”
This begs an important question: How do any of us know when our birthday is? To what authority on this point of fact do we appeal? Well, most of us trust in our parents, who are the first to tell us about our birthdays. We trust them because they were there when it happened and, out of all the people on earth, they were the ones most concerned with the event. But Dickens highlights this peculiar truth: None of us knows from experience what day we were born. We know when we were born because we were informed of it by someone we believed.
How far must we be challenged on something as personal as our birth date before we will accept that we might be mistaken? What would it take to accept that the truth might be something other than our long-held belief, and how would something like that make us feel?
Let’s consider that question together because I believe it will give a very useful illustration we can apply to our struggles in bible study.
Imagine that I woke up one morning in the middle of November, to a group of my friends at my door with a beautiful cake, singing “Happy Birthday!” As my birthday is not in November, this feels very awkward. I would smile, hug my friends, and welcome them into my home, saying, “Come on in, guys; I love you for doing this, but today isn’t my birthday.”
Now, let’s imagine that instead of accepting their mistake, they persist. They dismiss what I told them and say, “What are you talking about, Amy? This date has been your birthday every year!”
I might feel confused and frustrated at being argued with over something about which I am certainly an authority–the date of my own birth–but none of what has passed in this scenario would shake my trust in what I know: that today’s date is not my birthday.
Let’s take the hypothetical a step further. Imagine that an hour after my friends leave, my mother calls to wish me a happy birthday. I would say, “But, Mom, this is November! What on earth is going on with this birthday nonsense today?”
As my mother and I continue to chat, I’m going to be searching for a reasonable explanation of why this is happening. I would check my calendar to make sure I’m not just wrong about the date today. Let’s say I confirm that it’s November, just as I thought. It is not my birthday. Not even close. My friends and my mother are simply wrong.
I would be very uncomfortable after hanging up with my mother, and a natural first response will be to find an explanation that puts everything back in order. Is my mother suffering some kind of memory loss? Did one of my friends call her about their birthday surprise, and Mom just had some kind of senior moment? Maybe she’s the one who called my friends and told them today was my birthday. Should I call her doctor?
This kind of thinking is a typical response to dissonance. I have started reaching for possible scenarios like these to explain why my belief is still true, even though it is being challenged by my peers (my friends) and even an authority on the subject at hand (my mother). I have dismissed the position of my peers as simple error, and I am now engaged in attempting to discredit the authority.
A probable next-step response would be to seek out another person who will confirm my position. I might go to my husband and say, “Honey, I just had the strangest morning,” relating the entire tale. Imagine that he listens intently and then says, “Wait right here. I want to show you something.” My husband walks out of the room and comes back with my birth certificate and a photo album. He shows me the certificate with today’s date as my date of birth and then flips through an album to show me photos from my early birthday parties. Each photo is labeled with today’s date in November.
Now, after a whammy like that, I’m going to be hit with a wave of monstrous discomfort. I mean, this is the kind of thing horror movies are made of. In the face of all this evidence–my friends, my mother, my husband, the photos, and the state-issued document–I’m going to have two choices. I can stick to what I have always known, that my birthday is and always has been in December, or I can start to look at all the evidence I’ve been given and accept that I am the one who is wrong and that my birthday falls in November.
Various Responses to Dissonance
Regardless of the outcome, I will be extremely upset, unsettled, and overwhelmed in such a moment. I might lash out with angry words. I might experience physical effects like dizziness or nausea. I might run out of the house to put distance between me and the people or evidence that made me feel this way.
No matter how I respond to the situation, what I will be feeling is cognitive dissonance.
It is the discomfort we feel when something we know to be true gets challenged, and it is an incredibly powerful emotion.
My purpose in laying this out for you is this: I want you to know that you will occasionally read something in the Bible that directly contradicts what you have been told or believed about the Bible. When you do, it will feel pretty ugly. That ugly feeling is normal. God won’t be mad at you for feeling it. The Bible can take it, and so can you.
Over and over again, I discovered that what I had been taught about the Bible didn’t match what the Bible actually said. I read things in the Bible that I could not believe were true. I read things in the Bible that I could not reconcile with a good or loving God.
It is brutal when this happens.
It can come out of nowhere and shock you right in the middle of a book you were enjoying or a passage you really thought you understood. It can catch you off guard and send you down a tumbling list of questions you never thought you’d ask of God’s Word.
A real example of cognitive dissonance I felt during bible study happened in the Samson and Delilah story. I was always taught that Delilah cut off Samson’s hair. She didn’t.
By the time I got to this part of Judges, I was already frustrated about all the horrible things that didn’t line up with what I’d been taught to expect from this story. The Delilah bit was just the final straw.
I had to read the passage five or six times to make sure I’d read it correctly and the dissonance I felt was very troubling. I thought, “Why did they lie to me about that?” “Why do bible teachers always blame the women, even when the Bible doesn’t?” “Why do all the paintings show Delilah with the scissors and why did every Sunday school teacher I ever had blame her when she didn’t do it?”
This is what a dissonance moment can look like.
I spiraled out on that one for a while, but it was pretty mild. It didn’t threaten my faith in the Bible or in God. It was just unsettling in the moment to find out something I’d been taught over and over again was so flat-out wrong. I didn’t stop reading the book of Judges, and the peace and clarity of working through all the discomfort was worth it.
In the end, these things make you love the Bible even more because they teach the crucial lesson that only the Bible is always trustworthy to tell you what the Bible says.
When bigger, more important issues come, you should always look to other Christians for help. Talk to a pastor. Talk to a teacher you trust. Most importantly: stay in the Bible. Stay in the text. Keep reading. Keep asking. Don’t ignore it and don’t disengage from the study. Quitting in the face of dissonance is the worst thing you can do. Wrestle with it, and hold on until you get your blessing (Gen 32:24-28).
When you feel dissonance in bible study–and you will–stop right where you are when it hits you. Write down precisely what the problem is. Write down exactly what the question is. What part of the passage was upsetting? What did you think it was supposed to say, instead? What did they always teach you about the Bible–or even about God–that this passage seems to contradict? Once you’ve named the question or the fear, you can start finding the answer.
And all of the questions have answers. I promise.
So don’t panic. It’s just a feeling. The truth doesn’t care about your feelings, and the Bible always tells the truth. That’s why the Bible is hard. It’s hard because sin is ugly, and even the best of God’s people were sinners. The truth doesn’t care about our feelings, but God does. When you hit these challenging spots of dissonance in study, talk to him about it. Ask him to help you. Lean on the mature believers around you. And hold on until you get your blessing. It will come.