Psychologists have long noted the “Consistency Principle” as a central motivator of human behavior. Research shows that our desire to be consistent with what we have previously done or decided, quietly but powerfully directs our actions. And while consistency is a good and valued trait, our longing for it can just as easily be detrimental. As professor of psychology Robert Cialdini notes, “Sealed within the fortress walls of rigid consistency, we can be impervious to the sieges of reason.”(1)
What might this mean in terms of outlook and belief? It is natural to want to be right. We want to remain unswerving in thought and deed with the things we have already done or said. We want to remain consistent and appear consistent. The fearsome thing is when we want to be consistent more than we want an honest reasoning of truth.
When I look at the agonized questions of Job in his unimaginable suffering, I am reminded of the difficult choice we face when contradicting information comes our way. Every principle and mindset that governed Job’s life was suddenly pulled out from under him by contradicting information. I remember the first time my worldview was challenged by moving outside of the world my teenage mind knew. Living in another country, experiencing a different culture and mindset and religions, the longing to hold on to all that I thought I knew was potent. At times all I wanted was to cling to some sense of consistency in my mind.
Job’s anguish shows his longing for what he thought he knew. The temptation to hold the pieces together was certainly present. Yet, even as the foundations of Job’s worldview cracked and crumbled, he refused to soothe the gaping wounds of his soul with theological fillers or compromising explanations. He remained utterly resistant to the easy answers, turning away from the superficial pieties and formulaic answers of his friends. Despite his pain, maybe even because of it, Job held fast to a sincere reasoning, hoping that God was still with him, longing for faith to be restored, demanding to know why life was crumbling even if it meant challenging notions formerly embraced.
His friends were not so willing. Their only goal was to remain consistent with the knowledge they neatly possessed, which meant countless attempts to argue away Job’s situation. Vigorously driven by their desire for self-exoneration, they overestimated and misused their understanding of the truth, turned a deaf ear to contradicting information, and blinded their eyes from the truth itself—and sadly their friend as well.
The prevalence of great skepticism beside so many explanations for life’s suffering can also be blinding. For some the Socratic observation begins to sound comforting: All I know is that I know nothing. But this approach can be as unreasonable as clinging to religious formulas if it is simply a way of living with one’s eyes closed.
Job cast the inconsistencies of his experience upon the God he believed he knew—even when it meant shaking his sorrow and anger at God as well. What he found was God remaining in the midst of all of it. In the end, the story reports that Job is restored, mentioning more children and livestock. And while anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one might cringe at the suggestion that this loss can be restored, perhaps the true miracle of restoration here was that Job would be able to open himself to the possibility of life again.
(1) Robert Cialdini, Influence: Science and Practice (Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2001), 55.
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