OK, let’s talk about cognitive dissonance and the difference between having sight and seeing.
Last week we talked a lot about the difference between living — having a pulse — and being alive — having presence. This week we’re focusing a lot more on biases and the tricks your brain uses to disconnect you from other people.
Today we need to talk about the convergence of these two topics, and we’re going to start by looking at the apostle Paul.
Blow Up The Outside World
Let’s start at the start: the man we know as the apostle Paul was born in the city of Tarsus on the plains of Cilicia in what is now south-central Turkey. He was borne of the tribe of Benjamin, which made him a descendant of the youngest son of Jacob and Rachel, the son whose birth resulted in Rachel’s death.
The tribe of Benjamin has a very complicated history in Israel; in the book of Judges we get the story of a young concubine who is ravaged and murdered by a gang of Benjamites, after which the other tribes slaughter all but 600 of the tribe. These 600 remained sort of outcast for several hundred years, but when the Philistine threat loomed large the people cried out to God for a king, and it was a man from the tribe of Benjamin that He chose that king, King Saul.
Saul’s name, שָׁאוּל, is the past tense of a verb, שָׁאַל — sha’al, that means “to beg.” The noun Saul means “desired”, as in “the thing that you begged for.” What an apt name for the first king of a people who had begged for him. His father, Kish, gave him this name because he was a beautiful baby who grew up to be the tallest and most handsome man in Israel. He was basically Ryan Gosling, I guess?
Saul goes on to reject God’s authority on multiple occasions, so God chooses a new king, king David, and the two have quite the number of go-rounds before Saul finally dies. It is this man, the first king of Israel, that the apostle is named after.
Fell On Black Days
The apostle was raised as a Jew and joined the dominating force in the religion at the time: the Pharisaical order. The Pharisees came about in what’s called the “inter-testamental period”, meaning the time between when the last book of the Old Testament (Malachi) and the first book of the New Testament (Matthew) take place. They were a group who had taken up the charge of keeping the laws of Israel pure and holding the people accountable for their upkeep during the time that Rome was attempting to convert the people to.
To say they were legalistic is a vast understatement. In their zeal to hold off Hellenism they expanded the 613 Laws given by God through Moses into thousands of clarifications to cover the various aspects of modern life. It was an honor for a young Jew to become a Pharisee because it meant you were trusted to uphold the purity of God. And when we pick up with Saul in Scripture it is a couple years after Jesus’ resurrection when he is in his mid-30s, which means that Paul was born shortly before or shortly after Jesus Himself was born.
Saul was one of those charged with exterminating the vile Christian — a term that was originally a slur — threat to Israel, and he was good at it. So good, in fact, that it is he who Jesus chooses to touch and convert to His cause.
The Day I Tried To Live
Saul was a short, stocky, balding man and not exactly impressive. It’s hard to imagine a person ore opposite than King Saul. It is for his stature that he is given the Latin name Paul, which means “little” or “small.” It is a common misconception that Jesus changed Saul’s name to Paul. He didn’t. Saul changed his name because he took up the mantle of carrying the gospel to the Gentiles, most of whom were Roman. “Saul” would have been immediately off-putting because it was a Hebrew name, but “Paul” is just another Roman citizen.
But the little idea, the little ask, also happened to be Paul’s specialty. This makes sense if you think about it: as a Pharisee he was trained to attend to the finer points of the “broad brush” laws Moses left. His entire world was the small variance, the semantic argument. As a student of the Hillel School under Gamaliel he was trained in philsophy, art, logic, stoicism, and rhethoric. He was a man built to argue semantics.
This odd little man who was trained to defend the purity of the Old Testament was chosen, also, to guard the New. Think about it: of the 27 books in the New Testament 16 come to us from Paul directly or directly due to his influence. Without his words much of what we build our Christian doctrine around just wouldn’t exist. His training as a Pharisee prepared him to fulfill his purpose as an apostle.
Slaves & Bulldozers
But much of this I have written about before, so what do I have new to say here? I started off saying one thing I wanted to talk about the difference between seeing and having sight. Here is a perfect case in point: Saul/Paul thought his life was being aimed at upholding the laws of God, but when Jesus gave him sight he realized it was to uphold the heart of God. It was the same job, with just a very minor syntax tweak that happened to change his entire worldview. And that is the real core of it: cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state where you hold two conflicting ideas in your mind, especially as it relates to behavioral change. An example of this is when you believe a thing to be true and then someone shows proof that belief is wrong. It creates a contradictory state in your mind that your psyche will force resolution of. In Saul/Paul’s case what Jesus gave him was a big boatload of cognitive dissonance! He thought he had sight: these were the words God gave us, and they mean that, so people should be doing this.
But Jesus’ message to all the Pharisees hits against precisely that thinking: you’ve been blind; those words are not what you think they are. This is what He is alluding to in Acts 9:5 when Jesus tells Saul “it is hard for you to kick against the pricks.” The moment you think you’ve got the universal rules of God down pat you find out you’re wrong. Because The Word is not an absolute and cold entity: it is a living, breathing person. This was dissonance that altered Saul/Paul’s life: God isn’t who you think He is; He is a God of Laws, and a God of Freedom, and a God of Comfort, and far more.
In that small change, that small shift he went from bulldozer Saul, assaulting everyone for not being the perfect model, to slave Paul; spending his entire life trying to show everyone what they could achieve if they freed themselves of the legalism. He resolved the dissonance by adopting the enhanced version of God, but allowing himself to accept that while the Laws were not wrong, they were also not absolute. And that message is so, so needed today.
Burden In My Hand
My Facebook feed is constantly populated by two castes of Christianity: those who believe that society is corrupt because the church has compromised its values and we are all rolling down the hill to Hell, and those who believe that the church is corrupt because people have compromised their values and we are all wasting time suffering here because we all go to Heaven.
Both of these are born of the same fallacy: someone has misunderstood who God is and what He wants and also misunderstood who we are and what we are here for. They were presented some piece of information that triggered cognitive dissonance and their brains forced them to veer to some strange doctrine. “The people at a couple churches hurt me so I don’t believe in church anymore.” “There is no such thing as Hell, it was a myth made up by power-hungry preachers.” “Grace covers everything so you don’t ever have to do anything; Jesus does it all for you.” “I don’t believe in brick-and-mortar churches; I am part of the Body of Christ.” “The tithe is to make you feel guilty!! It isn’t real!!” “If you don’t tell a sinner their sins, or if you do and they don’t change, you need to cut them off quickly or they will drag you to Hell!” “Love means you have to tell someone if they are going to Hell!” These are some struggles going on in the church today, and I see them in a constant stream!
All of these are easily swatted away with even basic rationalization and a single read-through of the Bible. But they persist because if you confront any of them confirmation bias and status quo bias jump in to fight you in order to prevent cognitive dissonance. You are not arguing with the person, or even their opinion: you are fighting their brains’ defense mechanisms. That’s a complete no-win scenario!
If you really want to help a person cure an errant belief you can’t just tell them it’s errant. Believe me: I have spent tens of thousands of hours trying to convince people their core beliefs were jacked up. The thing I learned early on, and the thing that Jesus’ life shows, is that you have to first gain trust. You have to first establish a connection with that person. This teaches their brain that you are a friend and are safe.
Now I could stop there, because — let’s be honest — if we could all take that to heart the amount of chatter on social media would drop considerably. But if we’re really going to discuss cognitive dissonance we need to talk about our own.
You see, it’s not just the people you’re arguing against that have biases that protect them from cognitive dissonance — from internal contradictions. You do, too. So do I. All of us are out here wearing our beliefs on our sleeve, so sure that they are right that we don’t mind broadcasting them to the world. And should someone confront us, our biases kick in to keep us from possibly listening and having our own internal contradictions formed.
Back to the good ole’ amygdala. The demon that trained our neocortex to fear. He is a deciptive and subtle little cretin and we must be always aware of his existence and his tactics!
So here is my exhortation for us this weekend: question deeper. When you see that post that makes you immediately angry and you start to type out your witty retort… stop. Ask yourself if your post will really help improve things. When you see that person you can’t stand at the office, sit back and ask yourself if you can really detail why you don’t like them and if those reasons are really so important.
And most of all: when you say something to yourself, ask where it came from. I know I struggle with this one. Our Father tells me and shows me every day that He Loves me. I believe Him. But there is also this contradiction in me that says I am disappointing to Him. I believe completely both that I am one of His saints, and that I am a complete failure in that job. That dissonance hurts me. It triggers depression and anxiety and procrastination and self-hate. I think a lot of people struggle with similar pains.
So my call to you today is to question deeper. Don’t just let your own voice condemn you; you have always been too close to yourself to really be reasonable. Take the time to pull back. Ask some friends and Loved ones if what you think about yourself is true. Read some of the apostle Paul’s words. He dealt with his own cognitive dissonances, and his words are immeasurably helpful to healing those hurts.
Break free of the cage of bias and shortcuts your brain has confined you with. Seek the light. Seek the truth. Seek the life. Realize that just because you have visibility doesn’t mean you see. Try to see.
Father, I pray that this finds its way past the defenses of readers’ minds and into their deepest hearts. Help us all to see past our own biases and dedicate ourselves to Your purpose. In the name of Your mighty Son, Your Word, Your chosen Christ and my brother, my King, my Savior, and my Teacher Jesus I pray. Amen!