Conflict between life and belief has caused many to reject the Christian faith. But dissonance is part of the music.
Two years ago, my friend Joe suffered a major crisis of faith. Halfway through Christian college, a series of hurtful experiences led him to seriously question his beliefs. With his former "perfect" life crumbling around him, Joe remembers asking himself, "Why do I have to believe this? Why be part of a group that hurts more than it helps?"
Growing up in a Christian home, Joe knew all the basics of Christianity. He'd given his life to Christ at a young age and even felt called to full time ministry as a teenager.
But suddenly, his faith didn't seem to ring true. He began making sinful choices, which heightened these feelings and isolated him from Christian community. "I was ready to throw it all away," he says.
A few weeks ago, I heard someone say that dissonance is the number one reason people leave the faith. "If a person is claiming a set of beliefs while living in a way that violates those beliefs," he said, "he will eventually give up on his faith to escape the pressure."
We all experience this kind of disharmony at times in our lives. Googling dissonance and faith, I came across the blog of an ex-Christian. He wrote: "Christianity promised life fuller and more abundant. Instead, it separated me from life. It made me miserable."
Sadly, I don't have to go to the blogosphere to hear words like these. I've heard them from many of my own friends. Dissonance, defined here as "inconsistency between the beliefs one holds or between one's actions and one's beliefs," occurs when a person's perceptions about themselves and life fail to match their beliefs.
Whether the result of intellectual struggles, disillusionment with fellow believers or tension created from a less-than-Christian lifestyle, spiritual dissonance is uncomfortable.
When I graduated from high school, a middle school band played a horribly out-of-tune rendition of "Pomp and Circumstance." The incident became legendary in my family. True dissonance can make you want to flee the room or have your eardrums removed.
The Ideas that Shape Us
When thinking about the issue of dissonance, it's helpful to consider the influences that shape our perceptions of faith and truth. Among these influences are standards promoted by media and culture, our own personal experiences and relationships.
As Dr. Al Mohler pointed out on his blog, even something as seemingly innocent as "the American way" can conflict with biblical truth and create dissonance. A report released earlier this year found that a shocking number of Christians do not believe in the existence of hell. Dr. Mohler credits this statistic to Americans' allegiance to the ideals of equality and fairness:
Eternal punishment in hell is not consistent with "the American experience" or "the American way." The God of the Bible, in other words, does not act in ways consistent with what many people consider to be American ideals. Sending people to hell is just not fair.
Because of the extra-biblical influences that mold us, dissonance is inevitable. When my life — the thoughts, feelings and actions that dominate me — seems inconsistent or incompatible with the tenets of the Christian faith, I have two options. I can depend on my own understanding of life, and reject the parts of Christianity that conflict with my personal truth. Or I can resolve to stand firm in the truth of the Bible and examine where flaws in my understanding or lifestyle may be causing discord.
When Talk and Walk Don't Match
Jason is a talented, inspiring, contagious young man who claims to be a Christ-follower. Whenever you see him, he talks up Christian principles to the sky. But his actions — particularly in the area of sexual purity — are dramatically inconsistent with the faith he claims to hold. Beneath the surface, he's miserable because he feels like a huge failure and hypocrite. For now, Jason's clinging to his faith, but he feels severely isolated and plagued by guilt.
I think we all know people like Jason. Maybe we are Jason. When a person's lifestyle and beliefs do not match, tension results. James 1:22 says:
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.
Merely knowing what the Bible says will not bring about the power of a faith lived out. In fact, knowing and not acting results in being deceived. Perhaps that's why believers who consistently choose their own way over God's seem to drift farther and farther from Him. We've all been there. Guilt becomes a barrier, causing severe spiritual angst.
Eventually a person may alter his beliefs to match his lifestyle in order to relieve the pressure. Such an action may deliver an initial sense of relief because the person's beliefs and actions finally match. But giving up faith and choosing one's own way always leads to destruction.
Hey There, Delilah
No one demonstrates this road to ruin better than Samson. From birth, it was apparent that he was destined for spiritual greatness. But early in his life, he began making some reckless choices.
Instead of seeking out community among those who supported his calling, Samson started socializing with those who opposed it. Maybe it was more comfortable than being accountable to people who knew his destiny. Maybe he was attracted to the danger. Or perhaps he was simply deceived into thinking he could do it on his own.
Over time he lost perspective and fell prey to a very transparent deception that ultimately led to his death. As one of my friends said, "If you live apart from community, you'll end up in Delilah's arms every time." Samson made a series of bad choices based on his emotions. He drifted so far from the truth that he did not even recognize "that the LORD had left him" (Judges 16:20).
Being encompassed by a community that upholds truth is critical to dealing with dissonance and avoiding the "shipwreck" of your faith (1 Timothy 1:19). An authentic, believing community — where doubts and struggles can be discussed openly — acts as a force field around your boat, keeping you on course and away from the rocks.
Additionally, the Body of Christ provides a place in which to directly address dissonance and its causes. Confession of sin (James 5:16), encouragement (Hebrews 10:25) and truthful perspective (Proverbs 27:6) are three things that strengthen believers who are in healthy community.
In Ephesians 6, Paul talks about putting on the armor of God. There may be times when we've failed to wear the armor for so long that we don't even realize we're unprotected and being overwhelmed by the devil's "fiery darts." At such times, our fellow soldiers who know our weak points can step in to help us reapply the armor.
Beauty in Discord
As painful and destructive as dissonance can be, the truth is that a lack of harmony is a natural part of our world and relationship with God. Think about the gospel. There is implied dissonance in the fall of humanity, a sovereign God who chooses to insert Himself into time and even die to redeem a fallen race. Scripture tells us the earth groans for redemption (Romans 8:21). In essence, our world exists in a state of disharmony, waiting for the ultimate fulfillment of God's plan.
Wikipedia says this about musical dissonance:
Despite the fact that words like "unpleasant" and "grating" are often used to explain the sound of dissonance, in fact all music with a harmonic or tonal basis — even music which is perceived as generally harmonious — incorporates some degree of dissonance. The buildup and release of tension (dissonance and resolution), which can occur on every level from subtle to the crass, is to a great degree responsible for what many listeners perceive as beauty, emotion and expressiveness.
This illuminates a beautiful truth. Dissonance exists to be resolved and turned to beauty. And God's purpose is to resolve it in such a way that the music created is a testimony to His power and grace.
When Joe was at his lowest point, his sister and her family intervened. "They told me, 'We're not losing you,'" he says. They invited him into their home where he was subjected to persistent, intentional, sometimes-painful community. "If it weren't for them, I don't know where I'd be today," he says.
Within that community, God began a process of restoration. Over the course of several months, He began to resolve the out-of-tune chords in Joe's life and replace them with harmonious ones. And in the resolve of the dissonance, Joe recognized more fully than ever before, the music God wanted to play in his life.
Dissonance does not have to signal the end of faith in Christ. Harmony is one of the things God offers us through Christ. In the hands of an almighty, skilled Conductor, sour notes can be the beginning of a heavenly opus.
Copyright 2009 Suzanne Gosselin. All rights reserved.