Cognitive Dissonance: The Human Affliction

Wisdom's Friend

Cognitive Dissonance: The Human Affliction

We humans so easily deceive ourselves. Has not God said so? “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9 NIV).

We can know something without any doubt as to its truthfulness yet still fail to govern our actions by what we know to be true. We deceive ourselves into believing either that our failure to do what God says is right will not be noticed by him, or else that he will not judge us for our sin.

“They say, ‘How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?'” (Ps. 73:11 NIV).

“With our tongue will we prevail; our lips are our own: who is lord over us?” (Ps. 12:4 KJV).

Even believers are not immune to this cognitive dissonance, that is, knowing something in the mind (cognitive) but keeping what is known separate from the heart (dissonance) because it causes unrest there, since we know that what we are doing or contemplating doing is wrong.

Two examples of cognitive dissonance can be found in the same chapter in Genesis, chapter 38. The situation is this: Judah’s first-born son, Er, was killed by the Lord because of his wickedness (Gen. 38:7). In accordance with the custom in those days, Judah then told Onan, Er’s brother, to produce children with Onan’s widow, in order to carry on the family line (Gen. 38:8). Outwardly, Onan complied with this requirement, but he took care that his sleeping with his brother’s widow would not result in pregnancy, for he did not want such offspring, perhaps, to share in the inheritance he would leave for his “own” children (Gen. 38:9). So for this wicked hypocrisy, he died by the Lord’s hand as well (Gen. 38:10).

This is the first example of cognitive dissonance in this chapter. Onan knew what was right to do, but he did not do it. He made a separation between what his mind knew was right and true and the actions of his body, which were not in accord with what his mind knew. Not only that, but Onan showed disrespect for the law in that he used it to gain pleasure to satisfy his carnal appetite in bed, yet showed disdain for the purpose of the law. He sought only his own pleasure and purposes, not the Lord’s; nor did he have consideration for his brother’s widow. He used both God’s law and people for his own purposes. Thus he added to his sin by pretending to follow the law; his hypocrisy was repugnant to the Lord and he put him to death for it. Onan’s cognitive dissonance resulted in his losing his life. Cognitive dissonance can be fatal.

But even if it is not fatal, cognitive dissonance can still have serious negative consequences. This is shown by the second instance of cognitive dissonance in this chapter. This second instance is closely related to the first in that it came about in the life of Judah, Onan’s father.

Judah had told Onan to fulfill his responsibility to his brother’s widow by producing children from her (Gen. 38:8). So Judah knew what was right and he told someone else to do what was right. But then he himself failed in this area. How easy it is for us to tell others what is right and what they must do–and then disregard this same advice in our own lives! Thus Judah himself became the victim of his own cognitive dissonance. For he told Er’s widow to go back to her father’s house and wait for his third, and apparently last and youngest son, to grow up, so that she could then marry him and have children. But Scripture says that inside, Judah thought that he could get out from having to release his last son to fulfill this obligation because he too might die before that came to pass (Gen. 38:11). Thus Judah also was being hypocritical, telling someone one thing while hoping for something else.

But that is not all. After some time, Judah unknowingly slept with Er’s widow, thinking she was a prostitute, and afterwards had his foolishness exposed, which caused him embarrassment with the threat of greater public embarrassment, which in turn finally caused him to see his own cognitive dissonance (Gen. 28:12-26).

It took public embarrassment, shame and disgrace to bring Judah to see his own cognitive dissonance, in which he had known in his mind what was right and wrong and yet had not let this knowledge influence his behavior and actions, thus leading him into sin and shame. When he finally realized all that had happened to him and how he had mistreated his daughter-in-law, Judah declared:

“She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah. And he did not sleep with her again” (Gen. 38:26).

Judah and his son Onan are not unique. We all are subject to this same, harmful disease of the soul, cognitive dissonance; it is, sadly, a trait to which all of us sinful human beings can be subject. No doubt that is one reason Scripture warns us so often against falling victim to this insidious malady.

“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (Js. 1:22-24 NIV).

“For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” (Rom. 2:13 NIV).

“Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, and it collapsed; it was utterly destroyed!” (Mt. 7:26-27 NET).

Utterly destroyed There is no greater destruction than to lose one’s life, to die for failure to abide by God’s law. Onan found this out too late, as he was killed by God for daring to treat that law as though it were of no account, even while he used it for his own purposes of pleasure. His complacency cost him his life.

“For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them” (Prov. 1:32 NIV).

All should learn from this frightening example. Yet who listens to the voice of Wisdom therein? Countless others in this world do the same thing. They know the truth about God’s existence, even as they deny it. They go about their wickedness by putting this truth into a separate category of the mind, letting it have no effect upon how they conduct their lives. They suppress the truth in cognitive dissonance. For this, they are under the wrath of God.

“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” (Rom. 1:18-19 NIV).

What God has made plain, these seek to hide. They would even bury this truth in the earth so that it no longer convicts them of their refusal to acknowledge the truth of God that he has placed in their minds and consciousness.

“Because of rebellion, the host of the saints and the daily sacrifice were given over to it. It prospered in everything it did, and truth was thrown to the ground” (Dan. 8:12 NIV).

But truth is not so easily disposed of. It cannot be buried for long. Our Lord Jesus, who is truth (Jn. 14:6), was buried in the earth only for three days. Then Truth was resurrected in victory over all who sought to bury it. And even in those three days when it could not be seen on this earth, Truth was active beneath this earth, making himself known (1 Ptr. 3:18-20).

The time is fast approaching when Truth will return to this world to separate all human beings into two groups: those who willfully made a cognitive dissonance within their being by refusing to assimilate God’s truth into that being, by keeping God’s revealed truth as a separate thing within their mind and not letting it possess their soul; and those who joyfully incorporated the Truth into their very soul and spirit, becoming one with that truth (1 Cor. 6:17).

Then those who brought upon themselves this cognitive dissonance will experience the ultimate end of that disease: eternal death (Rom. 6:16, Rom. 6:21, 1 Cor. 15:56). Even at the very end of this world, they will still seek to bury the truth rather than acknowledge it (Lk:23:30, Rev. 6:16).

May all who read this take heed that they do not find themselves in this doomed gathering. Take heed that no cognitive dissonance resides in one’s life, no keeping the truth of God as a separate mental knowledge only in one’s mind and not lived out in one’s life (Js. 2:17-19). For to do so is to succumb to the fatal affliction of human kind: cognitive dissonance.

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