The Recency Effect

My mind and heart can be clouded by the immediate, a “what have you done for me lately?” attitude toward God that negatively affects my prayer life and leadership capacity. When I am in this state, I pray blind prayers, the result of which is leadership that fails to see the road ahead with clarity and accuracy. I become the blind leading the blind. 

The way out of this unhelpful state for me is to step back and form a larger perspective of God’s work in my life and the church. Unfortunately, what takes place in the short term is not always a clear picture of God’s activity. 

Each of us can lose sight of God’s goodness due to the challenges of the present moment. The American Psychiatric Association calls this the “recency effect”—we allow the most recent happenings to form our perspective of the whole and birth a negative recollection of the past. Gloom and doom become the mindset from which we attempt to lead—and that can drive us straight into life-altering depression. 

I believe John the Baptist suffered from the recency effect when he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one to come or if they were to look for another. The narrative is recorded in Luke 7:18-35 and displays the struggle to believe in the face of immediate challenges to faith. 

Like you and I, John the Baptist found himself in a difficult position due to doing the right thing. This caused him to doubt his belief in Jesus and the Messiah. His doubt gave rise to a serious question that required a clear and helpful answer. We can be grateful for this exchange between Jesus and John the Baptist because it helps us deal with our questions stemming from a mind clouded by the immediate. 

As I considered this account, I thought through my current challenges and those facing the church I lead. Working through the text helped me understand that rightly dealing with the effects of recent challenges to faith will increase our understanding that God is just. 

At the outset of this story, it becomes clear that recent challenges can hinder our sight of the overall good (v.18-19). John the Baptist was in prison for speaking out against Herod (Matthew 14). This occurrence most likely caused him to doubt his belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Remember that before this event, he had baptized Jesus and heard God’s audible voice identifying him as the Son of God (Luke 3). We may think that no one would experience a season of doubt, having previously seen and heard what John had. However, this great event in his past was clouded by his immediate state of imprisonment. He could no longer see God’s work in the past because the immediate was challenging to comprehend. In this clouded state, he addresses Jesus directly. 

Having received the question, Jesus gave a fantastic answer that helps us understand that recent challenges require a broad perspective. Jesus told John’s disciples to report all they had seen and heard (v. 20-23). In other words, Jesus said to report the evidence. 

The evidence they observed confirmed Jesus as the Messiah based on his fulfillment of messianic prophecy. It has been foretold that the Messiah would “preach the gospel to the poor” (Isaiah 61), which is precisely what the disciples of John had seen and heard. It was not simply that Jesus was providing miracles for the people of his day, but he was fulfilling all that had been foretold about him. John needed a perspective more extensive than his prison cell, and we need one wider than my current challenge. 

Not only was this answer helpful for John’s understanding of Jesus’ identity, but it also helped John see himself more clearly. Jesus defends him by speaking well of his faith and reminding him that he is indeed the forerunner spoken of by the prophet Micah (Micah 3:1-5). 

Jesus wants to strengthen our faith in him while at the same time encouraging our faith in ourselves in seasons of doubt. When clouded by the immediate, a broader perspective can help us see Jesus and ourselves more clearly. The rise of doubt does have to mean a decrease in your identity in Christ. 

When hearing Jesus’ defense of John the Baptist, the people declared God just (v. 29-30). This may be hard to comprehend because he did not receive his freedom (Matthew 14). Could it be that when we understand how Jesus fulfills God’s prophetic promises, we can see God as just, even amid personal difficulties? Do we have this wide of a perspective? 

Many have a hard time accepting God as just when they undeservedly suffer, and they can become hyper-judgmental and unpleasable (v. 31-35). The choice seems to be to widen my perspective or live life clouded by the recency effect. 

To widen your perspective and remove the fog of doubt, directly address each challenge to your faith. Here are a few suggestions that, if applied, can help clear your mind and heart that may have become clouded by the immediate. 

  1. Study the Bible concerning your exact challenge.
  2. Examine your expectations, comparing them to the biblical record.
  3. Examine what you have learned from others to see if it aligns with explicit biblical instruction.
  4. Allow clear biblical instruction to shape your expectations of God.
  5. Make what is clear in the Bible the basis for your faith as you continue to grow in your understanding of complex.  
  6. Create a truth-seeking community for support. 

The immediate difficulties we face are not the complete picture of God’s work in and through you. The story God is telling has a victorious ending that opens up a whole new reality of joy and restoration. 

Don’t sit in a state of discontentment and doubt. Instead, like John the Baptist, seek a direct answer from Jesus. May he widen your perspective and remove the cloud created by your current challenge.

Paul Hobbs is lead pastor at The Retreat Church: A Church of the Nazarene in Yucaipa, California.

Paul Hobbs
Paul Hobbs

Paul Hobbs is lead pastor at The Retreat Church: A Church of the Nazarene in Yucaipa, California.