I’ve been reading through Stanley Hauerwas’ Working with Words. I just read an essay in which he gives a great summary of the problem with moralistic therapeutic deism: “God becomes that great OK who tells us we are OK and… we should tell others they are OK.” In other words, God’s “I love you” is twisted into “I approve of everything you do.” Having argued for a more therapeutic understanding of holiness ( that God is more interested in healing than retribution), I thought I should distinguish that from the view that God is our “yes man therapist who approves of everything we do.
It probably wouldn’t surprise people who have read my blog for a while that I have a whole lot of experience talking to therapists. I’ve had some helpful ones and some less than helpful ones. I’ve had to learn over time what I can reasonably expect from a therapist. It’s not their job to tell you what to do. When you’re going through depression or another mental illness, this is incredibly frustrating. You want someone to give you step by step instructions that you can follow in order to get “fixed.” But it doesn’t work that way.
Perhaps a pastoral counselor would be different, but the secular therapists I’ve talked to have always responded to me with what Carl Rogers termed “unconditional positive regard.” It seemed like their goal was for me to make peace with whatever I was doing or thinking rather than ask whether it was right or wrong. This is certainly helpful for people who are getting tied in knots with anxiety and shame about their decisions. But it isn’t all that we need.
Because of the therapy-shaped world in which we live, it’s easy to imagine God as a therapist who is completely understanding and accepting of everything we tell Him. When we see God this way, we ask Him for help when we’re having a rough time, but we lose the concept of serving Him or dedicating our lives to His mission.
I’m preaching this weekend here in the Dominican Republic on Isaiah 6, the story of how the prophet Isaiah received his call. It talks about Isaiah seeing God in the temple. He was so overwhelmed that he said, “Woe is me, I am lost! For I’m a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips and I have seen the Lord of hosts!” I don’t know what Isaiah saw that made him respond this way, but the God he saw must have been a far cry from the always accepting and approving therapist God we tend to create in our minds.
And the same God who instilled such dread and shame in Isaiah one minute ultimately inspired him to say, “Here am I; send me” when God asked,
“Who will go for us?” A therapist God may appease and comfort us, but He’s not going to inspire us to dedicate our lives to His cause. An inspiring God is going to be a God whose beauty makes us hate our ugliness, who makes us long desperately to have His heart and see the world through His eyes. Though we do grow in our patience and mercy towards others the more we are sanctified, the opposite happens to our tolerance for our own sin.
We need more than a therapist God. Therapists have their place. I know that I needed mine. But I also need a God who will never let me be satisfied with who I am.