Mining the Gaps
Posted by Margaret Manning Shull on April 28, 2010
I had never even considered that life wouldn’t be exactly what I hoped it would be. Indeed, all that I had been taught about how God worked, what God valued, and how to pray according to God’s will seemed a lock-shut formula for the fulfillment of my every expectation and goal. Cognitive dissonance, the study of psychology tells us, is the internal tension that results when our experience doesn’t match our beliefs and values. It is that sense of unease when we encounter something that contradicts what we have held to be true. We often experience this tension in the course of academic training as we learn new ideas. But perhaps dissonance is felt most acutely when it occurs in the realm of faith commitments. How does one reconcile the belief that marriage is a lifetime covenant instituted by God with a spouse who chooses to leave the marriage? How does one maintain the belief that prayer is essential and that God answers prayer with a lifetime of seemingly unanswered requests? How does one reconcile personal or the global experience of suffering with a view of a good and loving God? These are simply a few examples of the dissonance that can occur when what we experience differs greatly from what we believe. Many years ago, the idea of cognitive dissonance became a reality for me with an innocent birthday greeting. While a student at seminary, I saw a friend of mine admiring the beautiful view on a marvelous spring day in New England. Our campus was set on the top of a hill—the highest hill in that particular area—overlooking the bucolic expanse of quaint towns dotting the landscape below. It was her birthday, and given the beauty of the day, I assumed she would be in a celebratory mood. Yet, when I wished her a happy birthday, she was clearly very troubled and near tears. I asked her what was wrong and she choked out the words: “I’m 42, I’m not married, and it is not likely that I’ll ever have my own children.” She went on to tell me that she had prayed and believed that God desired for her to marry and have children. She had possibilities for marriage in the past, but nothing ever materialized. Now, when she looked out on the next years of her life she saw a bleak horizon. Then, she said words I’ve never forgotten: “I have to let go of my dream of children, and my birthday simply reminds me of the death of this dream.” Every fiber in her being told her that she should be, indeed, would be a mother. All of the Christian communities she had belonged to reinforced this expectation of finding a husband and having children. And yet, each birthday sounded a death-knell to her hopes and dreams. I encountered her when I was a young, 26-yearold seminary student. I had never even considered that life wouldn’t be exactly what I hoped it would be. Indeed, all that I had been taught about how God worked, what God valued, and how to pray according to God’s will seemed a lock-shut formula for the fulfillment of my every expectation and goal. Yet, with my friend’s admission, I wondered if there might be a gap between what I expected for my life, what I believed God would do for me, and my life experience. My friend prompted in me a deep experience of dissonance. Sadly, over the years of ministry I have heard her story repeated again and again with ever-changing details of loss and dissonance. Fortunately, there are always those who share stories of life exceeding their expectations as well! And of course, I’ve known many who have offered quick answers of resolution in order to dispense with dissonance. Those who have never experienced (or noticed) cognitive dissonance as a reality in their own lives are generally quick to offer all kinds of explanations for those who don’t find it quite as easy to reconcile the gaps between beliefs and experience: We have drifted away from our moral center. We have not studied the Scripture enough, or prayed enough. We have not understood right doctrine. And surely there are times when all of these explanations may be true. But I am often unsettled from my own tendency to explain dissonance away when I look at the experience of John the Baptist. The Gospels portray John as the last of the great prophets—with all the intensity and moral outrage of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Malachi. The courageous cousin of Jesus preached repentance resolutely, and no one would describe him as lacking confidence in his proclamation. In preparation for Jesus’s earthly ministry, he baptized his cousin in the Jordan River. He stood against the immorality and hypocrisy of those who were religious and political leaders calling all to repentance. John was resolute in his ministry as the forerunner to the Messiah even as his own disciples came undone and complained that the crowds who once clamored to see him were now flocking to Jesus. John remained steadfast in his identity and calling: “You yourselves bear me witness, that I have said, ‘I am not the Messiah,’ but ‘I have been sent before him’” (John 3:26-28). Yet knowing all of this background creates a dramatic contrast once John was imprisoned. His steely resolve was shaken. Both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels record his experience of dissonance: “Now when John in prison heard of the works of Jesus, he sent word by his disciples, and said to him, ‘Are you the expected one, or shall we look for someone else?’” (Matthew 11:3; Luke 7:20) Here was John experiencing a gap between what he believed about Jesus and his own life’s reality. If Jesus is the Messiah, John must have wondered, why am I sitting in this jail? For in all of John’s training and understanding, the Messiah John proclaimed would “thoroughly clear his threshing floor” and “burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). John believed that the Messiah was coming to rid Israel—and indeed, the world—of evil. Yet in John’s dayto- day existence in his cold prison cell, evil had seemingly won the day. “Are you the expected one, or shall we look for someone else? ” In the end, Jesus does not rescue John from prison. John would be beheaded and Jesus would mourn his loss (Matthew 14:13). In the assurances Jesus gives as evidence that he is indeed the Messiah, none of them save John from prison. He is healing the blind and cleansing the lepers. He is preaching the gospel to the poor. John would not see the deliverance he long expected. John’s dissonance poignantly illuminates our own gaps between what we believe and what we experience. The gap between what we, like John, believe about the nature and ministry of the Messiah and our own experience often creates unbearable dissonance. Yet the suffering that results from the gaps, according to author Scott Cairns, “can become illuminating moments in which we see our lives in the context of a terrifying, abysmal emptiness, moments when all of our comfortable assumptions are shown to be false, or misleading, or at least incomplete.” 1 Our own experience of dissonance illuminates a Jesus who is free from our comfortable assumptions and free from our expectations. Jesus acknowledged that his ministry would be disruptive, and even be misunderstood. In responding to John’s doubts, Jesus said, “Blessed is the one who keeps from stumbling over me” (Matthew 11:6). Surely, the gaps between what we believe and what we experience often cause us to stumble and fall. Yet, as Cairns suggests, might mining those dissonant gaps also reveal new paths of discovery? John would have to grapple with this new vision of the Messiah while still in prison. And perhaps, John would experience new insight as he pondered Jesus’s words that “the dead are raised up.” The Messiah would save him, but not in the way he expected. Blessed is the one who keeps from stumbling over me. The gaps we experience are unavoidable, but these same discomforting gaps can be mined to yield an unforeseen bounty. As we dive deeply into the “abysmal emptiness” of our unfulfilled expectations, we have the opportunity to find the treasure of new insight and understanding. The beauty of a more faithful devotion—not without experiences of cognitive dissonance—awaits us if we are willing to let go of our comfortable assumptions and dive deep to mine for what is most precious and most valuable: treasures that are only found in the deepest places of dissonance. And in fact, this is what God has promised: “And I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness—secret riches. I will do this so you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name” (Isaiah 45:3).
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
1) Scott Cairns, The End of Suffering(Brewster MA: Paraclete Press, 2009), 8.