Are Cognitive Biases Stopping Your Spiritual Growth?

March 30, 2022

There is a scene in the movie Free Guy where Guy hands his best friend Buddy a pair of sunglasses so he can see the world as it really is. The glasses will open Buddy’s eyes to the deception all around him. Guy was trying to shift Buddy’s paradigm. He wanted his friend to realize his full potential. But his strategy backfired. Buddy refused to put them on out of fear.

Believers in Yeshua are familiar with this phenomenon. It is called cognitive bias. We encounter this cognitive disconnect whenever our message is rejected while trying to share our faith with friends and family.

Cognitive bias illustration
Cognitive biases impact our perception of reality and how we process new information

The Backfire Effect

Yeshua (Jesus) got a first hand look at cognitive bias during his Judean ministry.1 He kept telling the people that the doctrine they had been taught was holding them back. Their traditions were standing in the way of their healing. Questionable theology distorted their understanding of how the Father’s Kingdom was designed to function. This is why many were unable to comprehend what he was trying to teach them about the Kingdom of Heaven. They were involved in a particular brand of cognitive bias known as the backfire effect.

The backfire effect happens when our core beliefs are challenged. Theological challenges causes the hearer to double-down and become even more entrenched in their beliefs. Scriptures that blatantly contradict what they learned in church prompt some believers to believe even more strongly.

Fear and Loss

Fear and loss are great (de)motivators. They stop us in our tracks and are obstacles to growth. When we are afraid of being wrong, or of losing something we have invested in, we will resist change. Case in point: the parents of the blind man healed by Yeshua. Under questioning by the Pharisees, the man’s parents refused to tell the authorities who healed their son out of fear of being thrown out of the synagogue.

His parents answered, “We know he is our son, and we know he was born blind. But how he can now see or who opened his eyes, we do not know. Ask him. He is old enough to speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews. for the Jews had already determined that anyone who confessed Jesus as the Christ would be put out of the synagogue. That is why his parents said, “He is old enough. Ask him.”

John 9:20-22 Berean Study Bible

The story of the rich young ruler is another example of how the threat of loss can impact our willingness to change. Yeshua was teaching Torah. He was explaining how one could obtain eternal life and inherit the Kingdom. The deal-breaker for the young man was the part about selling all he had to follow Messiah.

Jesus told him, “if you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” The the young man heard this, he went away in sorrow, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

Matthew 19:21-23 Berean Study Bible

The backfire effect is a cousin of the sunk cost fallacy. Sunk cost fallacy happens when a particular investment — whether its financial, emotional, or spiritual — is too hard to give up. Walking away would involve pain. This is especially true for pastors or ministry leaders because their theology dictates their position in the church. When you have invested time and money in a seminary education, teaching controversial subjects such as biblical cosmology (flat earth) will get you fired. (Luke 14:28-33)

The Apostle Paul was confronted with the sunk cost fallacy once his eyes were opened on the road to Damascus. He had to choose between keeping his position, or risking it all for the Kingdom. Because he chose the Kingdom, millions of believers in Messiah have been blessed.

I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!

Philippians 3:5-11 New Living Translation

Belief Bias

Belief bias
Are you guilty of belief bias?

The Apostle Paul refused to allow Pharisaical tradition to subvert the truth of the Gospel. However “truth” can be a tricky thing in our culture. The enemy of our souls has convinced many that objective truth is an oxymoron. He took Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” and rendered it subjective with the “my truth is not your truth” argument. (John 18: 37,38) This is the trap door of belief bias.

We are all guilty of belief bias when our conclusions support our already established beliefs. This makes it hard to properly evaluate new information. As a result, our religious traditions and customs become kevlar vests that are impervious to criticism and are constantly being reinforced. We defend our theology without taking the time to question it when necessary. In order to overcome our belief bias, we must strive to be like Berean believers who took the extra step of testing Paul’s teachings.

Now these people were more noble and open-minded than those in Thessalonica, so they received the message [of salvation through faith in the Christ] with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

Acts 17:11 The Amplified Bible

The Curse of Knowledge

We all learn and grow in increments. When we first “get saved” our theology is at the “Jesus loves me, this I know” level. However, after listening to hundreds of sermons, attending many Bible studies, consuming dozens of books and watching tons of videos, the curse of knowledge becomes a reality in our lives. We presume that once we understand something, it will be obvious to everyone. Not so young Padawan!

Unfortunately, what makes sense to us can sound like heresy to others. We tend to forget that we are all on different journeys and at different levels of spiritual maturity. Therefore, we have to resist the temptation to serve meat when milk is called for. As we strive to keep explanations simple, we must also take extra care to keep everything in context and back up our assertions with Scripture.

The Illusion of Truth

The Illusion of Truth

If a lie is printed often enough, it becomes a quasi-truth, and if such a truth is repeated often enough, it becomes an article of belief, a dogma, and men will die for it.

The Crown of Life by Isa Blagden (1869)

The illusory truth effect describes how a person tends to accept something as being true simply because they have heard it repeated again and again. It doesn’t matter whether the statement is true or not. While you may think that no rational person would accept something as being true without investigating it, you would be wrong.

People are reluctant to re-examine religious doctrine when it comes from an authority figure such as a pastor or influential family member. A person will accept information from these sources (right or wrong) simply because it is familiar. Rather than working out our faith line upon line and precept on precept, faith is instead mediated by Christian tradition. (Isaiah 28:10)

We read our Bibles in the light of what we have learned from these sources; we approach Scripture with minds already formed by the mass of accepted opinions and viewpoints with which we have come into contact, in both the Church and the world…

Fundamentalism and the Word of God by J.I. Packer, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1958

Again, the fear of stepping outside accepted orthodoxy can be crippling for most believers. However we fail to understand that today’s orthodoxy was once rejected as a form of deception by the enemy. Put another way, today’s orthodoxy is yesterday’s heresy.

In-Group Bias

In-group bias is a heterodoxy killer.

In relation to religious life, orthodoxy means correct or sound belief according to an authoritative norm; heterodoxy refers to belief in a doctrine differing from the norm.

enclyclopedia.com

In-group bias is another way of saying that people tend to favor those who belong to the same group as they do. Like the parents of the blind man in John’s gospel, fear of being rejected by our group (or family) can force us into silence. Tribal identity is a strong motivator to disregard teachings that veer away from accepted dogma; even if those teachings are incorrect.

The Battlefield of the Mind

All of us are susceptible to varying degrees of cognitive bias. That is why we must pray for a spirit of wisdom, and be willing to remove the log from our eyes before we attempt to correct someone else’s vision. (Matthew 7:1-5)

For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers; that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. 

Ephesians 1:15-17 New American Standard Bible

Finally, we must also consider that many believers in Messiah attend New Testament-only churches. They have a limited understanding of the Old Testament and have been subjected to “sound bite” theology taken out of context. Therefore, the best remedy for cognitive bias will always be prayer and dedicated study. As we strive to walk the ancient paths in obedience to our Heavenly Father, everything old will seem new. When we fully comprehend the instructions for living known as Torah and incorporate them into our lives, we will be better able to see our theological biases as a roadblock to discerning biblical truth.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Buddy never did put on the sunglasses. He didn’t need to. His friendship with Guy made all the difference. You see, their relationship was based on trust. This allowed Buddy to take in new information over time and expand his view of the world little by little. Yes, Buddy and Guy are fictional movie non-playable characters (NPCs), but they can teach us a lot about how time and patience work in our favor when we are introducing unfamiliar doctrinal perspectives.

See this explained graphically here. (https://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe_clean)


FOOTNOTES

1 The Gospel Worth Dying For, Chapter 4, “Yeshua Our High Priest”, page 37

Brenda Ross
Brenda Ross

Brenda Ross is a co-author of the book, “The Gospel Worth Dying For.” She is a former major market radio and television broadcaster who has served as Single’s Ministry Director at one of Houston’s Memorial Drive-area churches, a Jews for Jesus staff volunteer, and participated in mission outreach activities in Costa Rica, Mexico, and China. Urban mission experience includes volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity and catering to the homeless in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

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