Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Cognitive Dissonance

"But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of a sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does" James 1:6-8.

Years ago a friend invited me to a lecture, and the topic was cognitive dissonance. I had no idea what this exotic term meant, but I was intrigued. Besides, going meant dinner and a night out with a good friend. I needed little arm twisting.

Individuals experience cognitive dissonance when caught between two competing views. It's as simple as a love/hate relationship with work. "I love what I do but I hate: the commute, the crazy long hours, the boss..." Fill in the blank. Until something changes I'll experience cognitive dissonance.

Harder to resolve is learning one's spouse is unfaithful. The mental gymnastics of grappling with conflicting beliefs: the faithful partner you thought you had as opposed to the traitor now revealed is exhausting. As long as competing notions are at war, cognitive dissonance reigns.

In modern parlance, Jesus was a disrupter, spreading cognitive dissonance around like free candy. Holding the Messiah's pedigree, this miracle working rabbi captivated hearts with His unusual teaching style. He ministered healing to both the sick and the dead, and on occasion threw in a free meal. He called the religious leaders on the carpet. Zacchaeus, the greedy tax collector was transformed into an honest man. What's not to like?

As far as Messiah's go, Jesus wasn't very choosy about the company He kept, preferring lowlifes to highbrows. Despite kingdom rhetoric, He repeatedly avoided attempts to be forcibly made king. He stressed loving the enemy, not overthrowing them. The Messiah...really?

Calling God His father was disturbing. No one had ever made that claim before.  The unseen God has a flesh and blood son? When pressed to show His father to Philip, Jesus answered: "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" John 14:9. Cognitive dissonance reared its ugly head again.

The Jews had no concept of God as a father, let alone addressing Him as "Abba" (Da Da for us). God's name was only spoken once a year by the High Priest. If Jesus was the spitting image of His father, and His father was God...He sure didn't act or talk like God to them.

Their God drew a sharp distinction between who was and wasn't acceptable. Jesus had no boundaries. Their God didn't soil Himself with sinners, riff-raff and Gentiles. Jesus embraced everyone. Their God could only be accessed via an intermediary, the priests. Jesus was approachable, touchable. In addition, Jesus handed out words of correction,  not harsh judgments. He had love and compassion for all, including those who rejected Him. His door was always open should they change their minds, something Peter experienced first-hand.

Unresolved cognitive dissonance creates continuous mounting pressure. The longer it simmers, the more violent the eruption. Judas chose betrayal over loyalty and friendship. The religious leaders opted to maintain the status quo as opposed to embracing a new revolutionary approach to God. The people voted for death instead of life. The handful that saw hope die on Friday were just as shocked at His resurrection on Sunday. With that, for them, all cognitive dissonance was erased. With minds firmly made up they changed the world.

How about you? When it comes to God, and Who He is, do you experience cognitive dissonance? If He's my healer, then why am I sick? Intellectually I know He loves me, but I am painfully aware of who I really am so how's that possible?

No one has a complete understanding of Who God is. Conflicting opinions, beliefs and feelings render one unstable as James described. Getting to know Jesus personally will force any misconceptions of Him to the surface. Intimacy with Him can easily challenge cherished "traditions of men that nullify the Word of God (who is Jesus because there was no Bible back then)" Matt. 15:36. God's desire for us is not cognitive dissonance. He's up to the task of helping us find resolution and peace. Trust Him, and enjoy the journey.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Christian Olympics

"But it's obvious by now, isn't it, that Christ's church is a complete Body and not a gigantic unidimensional Part? It's not all Apostle, not all Prophet, not all Miracle Worker, not all Healer, not all Prayer in Tongues, not all Interpreter of Tongues. And yet some of you keep competing for the 'so-called' important parts..." 
1 Cor 12:28-30 Message.

They're nothing new. The Christian Olympics are the offshoot of their parent, The Religious Olympics. That storied organization's roots trace back to those words spoken long ago. "I am like the most High," Isa. 14:14 Youngs. No surprise the first murder was the result of a fight over whose sacrifice was correct. The pressure to perform has been non-stop ever since.

Competition is woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. Kids compete for good grades to gain entrance into better schools than their peers, in order to get really good jobs. Adults attempt to outwork each other for promotions, pay raises and corner offices. These finance another level of competition. Who has the biggest house, newest car and more toys than their co-workers and neighbors? Those unwilling to join the hamster wheel lifestyle are labeled slackers. Unfortunately, these same behavioral patterns carried over and took root in the Church.

Pastors compare numbers determining who has largest congregation and the most programs with willing participants. Kids square off in Bible drills and scripture memory contests. Not necessarily wrong in and of themselves, the danger comes when genuine love of God and spiritual service is confused with Christian competition. When numbers and physical manifestations of growth/development mask one-upmanship and shallowness there's a problem.

Today, we're in good company. The disciples squabbled about who would be tops in the Kingdom. James and John's mother lobbied the Lord on their behalf. Paul's letter here indicates that this same jockeying for position and notoriety was evident in the early church. Just like us, they struggled to keep an intimate relationship with God from devolving into a cut-throat race to the top.

How much of what we do is fueled by an overactive sense of duty? We just have to do something to please God...right? Intimacy is so private and invisible; nobody notices. One step further, how much of our action is really an effort to see who winds up with biggest mansion, the most crowns, and the loudest "atta boy!" from God. Stardom here is fleeting, in Heaven it's eternal. Or so we may think.

Like their brothers the Corinthians, the Ephesians had this same problem. Paul addressed it head-on.

"He handed out gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher to train Christian in skilled servant work, working within Christ's body, the church, until we're all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God's son, full mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ." Eph. 4:11-15. Message.(emphasis mine)

Paul did wish the Ephesians would exert themselves, in this aspect.

"And I ask Him that with both feet firmly planted on love, you'll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ's love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God." Eph. 3:20-21 Message.

If we insist on knocking ourselves out for anything, this would be well worth our efforts.

How about you? Would you describe your Christian experience as a hamster wheel run or restful abiding? Are the things you do for God either consciously or subconsciously rooted in a spirit of competition with other believers? How can you determine when your actions are genuinely divinely inspired or just part of the Christian Olympics? Be encouraged to believe and receive. God's love for you is never tied to performance. It is His gift of love to you.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Enemy Territory

"Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior." Col. 1:21

Mindsets can be deadly, determining if we flourish or fail regardless of our circumstances. Paul reminded the Colossians that the only separation they ever experienced between themselves and God was all in their heads. Alienation from God is the result of faulty thinking.

In his book, Saint in the Hands of a Happy God, author Jeff Turner discusses the debilitating effect fear has on our thought processes. "Fight or Flight Syndrome" is a direct response to scary situations. Pertaining to one's concept of God, those who are afraid of Him respond in one of two ways; either they rebel against the God they perceive Him to be (fight), or they run from Him (flight).

God in the Old Testament gets a bad rap as an angry, capricious deity despite comments such as:

"I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them...I will rejoice in doing them good" Jer. 32: 40-41 (emphasis mine).

God made this promise to Israel personally, but due to their erroneous thinking they failed to believe and receive His words. Israel repeatedly ran away from or rebelled against God, all out of fear. Still, He never abandoned them to their distorted understanding of His character and personality. He continually pursued a relationship with them. He does the same for all of us.

Jesus came and demonstrated the true nature of God the Father. Because he contradicted their well entrenched beliefs, the Jews couldn't accept Him. It was alright when Jesus did things for His fellow Israelites, the good ones at least. When he lavished that same love on sinners, and even worse heathens, they drew the line. Their God wouldn't possibly act this way. He did, however, and still does.

In one respect we're a tiny step ahead of our Jewish brethren. They did and still do very little outreach to invite Gentiles into a relationship with God. Christians as a whole are more apt to share their faith. Sometimes our approach, however, only feeds the fear of God those who don't know Him personally already have. This causes them to either push back harder, or run even further away.

God's never been separated from man. Yes I said never. Sin does not separate man from God. If it could, God would never have been looking to fellowship with Adam in the garden after the fall. God wasn't hiding, Adam was. Sin was dealt with before the foundation of the earth before mankind was ever created. Christ's crucifixion was the temporal demonstration of the Lamb's sacrifice already done in eternity.

God solved the sin problem before it existed. Paul reminds us that the only way we are enemies of God is through sin which makes us feel separated from Him. It is, however, all in our minds. God will work to bring correction to our misconceptions  of who He is and our relationship with Him, but He won't force us to think differently.

How about you? Is the news that any perceived separation you may be feeling from God is just wrong thinking and not reality? This was true before salvation and will always be that way going forward. How do you think those who are afraid of God might respond when they're told that any notions of enmity with God they're experiencing are just that...notions? Isn't that the Good News we need to tell them?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Shallows

"Study to show yourself approved..." 2 Cor. 2:15.

A recent Wall Street Journal article penned by columnist Peggy Noonan described her discouragement concerning a perceived superficiality in young politicians and journalists today.

"...They're bright and ambitious, but they've seen the movie and not read the book. They've heard the sound bite but not read the speech...They learn through sensations, not through books which demand something deeper from your brain...If you can't read deeply you will not be able to think deeply."

In her piece I saw parallels with the Church today. Research shows most Christians don't read the Bible. In addition, most high school seniors never read another book after graduation.

I'm a voracious reader so this is difficult for me to comprehend. However, I realize we're all hard-wired differently. You won't find me spending countless hours exploring the beauty and intricacies of math.

Christians  are admonished to know first-hand what they believe. We're not to just take someone else's word for it, but we're to weigh the evidence and decide for ourselves.

My purpose isn't to guilt trip people into reading the Bible, but to encourage believers to go deeper than sound bite Christianity. It's possible to take a single scripture, camp out on it for several months and mine a treasure trove of riches from it. What you discover there is yours, not another person's revelation.

Maturing in the faith is more than just knowing what and why you believe. It is the progression of seeing the Bible not just as a rule book of do's and don'ts, but as the unfolding revelation of who God is. It is intimately engaging with the Word of God, Jesus.

The Corinthian church's spiritual foundation was what Paul taught them. They didn't have a Bible because it didn't exist. They, like other New Testament believers, were dependent primarily on their relationship with Christ personally for guidance and direction. We're inundated with resources they'd love to have had. Still, we're not necessarily appreciably wiser in the things of God than they.

Regarding our country (and this piece isn't about politics), Ms. Noonan quipped, "What ails American Democracy? Too much information and too little thought." This could also apply to the Church today; we just don't think. As a side note to Ms. Noonan, America is a republic, not a democracy.

How about you? Do you ever dissect a portion of scripture or study a theme and arrive at a different understanding than what's popularly taught? What are the benefits of drawing your own conclusions after careful thought and study? How, if at all, has the information age enhanced/detracted your relationship with God? What practical things can you do to avoid the shallows and experience a deeper relationship with God personally?
 The Politics of the Shallows, Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal, 1-2 October 2016