Christianity as Emotional Therapy

Christianity as Emotional Therapy April 20, 2012

It is one thing to claim God loves us unconditionally; it is another thing to grasp God’s love. But it is yet another to comprehend God as a cosmic therapist who sits there, listens to us with an analytic mind, lets us say what we want so that we come to terms with our inner self — and then get healed from coming to terms with who we are before God.

Well, that’s a theme in T.M. Luhrmann’s 4th chap in her book, When God Talks Back. The subject of the chp is the evangelical heart, its heart religion and its concern with heart transformation.

I have to admit that I don’t personally encounter much of what I read in this chp, so I’d be interested in how widespread this is? Therapeutics — of course, God heals. But how central is this: Is God the healer pervasive enough to comprehend God as a therapist? How is this a need? How is this overdone?

1. Unconditional love is harder to comprehend than many know; there are no complete human analogies for such love. Some have really good parents, but no one indwells an unconditionally loving world or relationship. And the God of the Bible doesn’t always seem unconditionally loving — though that is the mantra so many repeat. So she picks out some wrath-of-God stuff and then Jonathan Edwards and knows that in the history of the church God’s holiness, wrath and judgment have often been uppermost. With this as the background for so much of theology, comprehending God’s unconditional love is not natural or normal or easy.

2. Humans, and she studies Christians in the Vineyard, have to grow and learn that they are lovable and loved by God. Her discovery is that the Vineyard folks see sin as separation and that it is not God who as separated but humans — in part by turning away from God but even more from not being open to the all-present love and goodness of God that is there for the reception.

3. Congregants learn to map God onto their brain by learning about this God and learning to embrace that God, but this raises the central element of this book: her sketch of the six practices of emotional healing she found so pervasive in the Vineyard.

So I will now mention those emotionally-healing practices, which she sorts through in light of her expertise in the social sciences:

1. Crying in the presence of God: the big issue here is to let one’s emotions come to the surface and to feel like a child in the arms of a parent. This sensation is sometimes seen as experiencing the Holy Spirit.

2. Seeing from God’s perspective: inherent to this whole issue is learning to learn about God and to let that view of God reshape the heart, but Luhrmann finds evangelicals ambiguous and paradoxical in what they say about God (she doesn’t develop this). She says Rick Warren’s book is a like a “folksy, spiritualized manual for cognitive behavioral therapy” (116).

3. Practicing love, peace, and joy. They need to learn to rehearse the feelings they’d have if God were real (or if God were present in a personal relationship).

4. God is the therapist. There is a lot of therapeutic language among Vineyard folks [is this accurate?], and God has developed an analytical, listening posture toward the Christian and listens well to the Christian bubble forth from the heart. But the whole issue is one of transference, and one person said this: “I think that when you get to know God, you’re really getting to know yourself” (121). This is not as tidy theologically as it ought to be, and it could say something that fundamentally denies what Christianity teaches.

5. An old idea, but almost certainly true: Reworking God the Father, and what she means here is that Vineyard Christians often witness to undoing their bad father images and reconstructing a God-the-Father image in its place. It is about reworking the inner-God concept.

6. Emotional cascades: it all comes tumbling down, or there is an emotional collapse or powerful, powerful emotional experience. Rare, overwhelming, unpredictable. An experience of the unconditional love and presence of God — with experiential certainty.

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