December 3, 2020

Our Therapist, Who Art in Heaven

Psych Couch

“When God Is Your Therapist”
By T. M. Luhrmann
Published: April 13, 2013
New York Times

* * *

I have started reading T.H. Luhrmann’s book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, and hope to be reviewing it soon. In the meantime, I noticed that she had an op-ed piece in the NYT Sunday Review last week (see link above) and thought it might provide some good grist for discussion.

In both her book and this article, Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, describes how she spent time among evangelical Christians because of her interest “in the fact that people like me seemed to experience reality in a fundamentally different manner.” The piece at hand today describes how the evangelical churches help people deal with anxiety and stress in their lives through prayer.

The author likens what happens in evangelical settings to cognitive-behavioral therapy, which its practitioners characterize like this:

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors, not external things, like people, situations, and events. The benefit of this fact is that we can change the way we think to feel/act better even if the situation does not change.

Luhrmann cites the methodology of Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Life, who, in her words, “spells out thoughts he thinks his readers have but don’t want, and then asks them to consider themselves from God’s point of view: not as the inadequate people they feel themselves to be, but as loved, as relevant and as having purpose.”

What she observed in the churches was that congregation members were being encouraged to view their prayers — their conversations with God — in these same therapeutic terms. God is portrayed as a kind and welcoming Father and Friend, who invites us to share our concerns and struggles and helps us handle them.

She also notes that she saw this most clearly when tragedy struck and people avoided trying to give “answers” to theodicy questions and encouraged simply being with God, who would wrap his arms around them and give them comfort and strength. As a hospice chaplain, it was heartening for me to read that, for I have often seen people move much too quickly to the “answer bag,” where they pulled out clichés and pat solutions and unwisely applied them to those in deep pain. In the cases she observed, however, Luhrmann notes, “for them, God is a relationship, not an explanation.”

She concludes that these churches are offering, in effect, “a way of dealing with unhappiness.”  Instead of threatening faith, difficulties are presented as situations in which we can strengthen our connection to God because it is then that we feel our need of him most.

old movie psychI came away from T.H. Luhrmann’s editorial with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, any increase in kindness, forbearance, and gentleness in the way our pastors and teachers encourage us to treat one another is welcome. Withholding judgment and pat answers, learning to listen, helping people recognize God and his love in the hidden places of suffering and pain, urging them to talk to him in prayer and to cast their burdens on him — these are salutary ways of walking with one another in love and compassion.

On the other hand, I can’t help but suspect that this commendable activity that T.H. Luhrmann is describing may be rooted in shallow soil. For it is not just a “relationship with a Friend” that we need when it comes to knowing God, it is faith to embrace the mystery that he doesn’t always show up as my Friend.

He doesn’t always appear to wrap his arms around me and speak words of peace. Sometimes the room stays dark and my own voice echoes back when I pray. Occasionally God comes to me with a stern voice, as he did to poor, suffering Job, sitting there in the dirt all pitiful, scratching his sores, and says,

Why do you confuse the issue?
Why do you talk without knowing what you’re talking about?
Pull yourself together, Job!
Up on your feet! Stand tall!
I have some questions for you,
and I want some straight answers.

– from Job 38, MSG

Or take a saint like Mother Teresa, whose memoirs shocked the world when she confessed that she had lived for years without feeling the conscious presence of God. My theology of the cross tells me that God hides himself in the most unlikely places, and that where we imagine he is, he is not, and where we cannot fathom he would be, there he is.

I’m not sure God has hung the “Therapist” shingle on his door and that he’s on call 24/7 to fulfill that role.

And by the way, the most important question: where is Jesus — Christ and Lord, incarnate Son of God, proclaimer of the Kingdom, crucified, buried, risen, ascended into heaven, pouring out the Holy Spirit — in all of this?

However, apparently many believe in “Our Therapist, who art in heaven,” and that is what our churches are offering them. I am sure, as T.H. Luhrmann found, it is comforting and encouraging on one level. And as I said, I’m all for love and compassion.

I’m pretty sure, however, that this is not the Gospel.


  1. You handled this well, CM. I agree that we run to God in tragedy rather than to the theodicy answer book. I never thought of this as therapeutic. The “masks” of God drive us to the cross. Shallow soil? Perhaps. There was an article (possibly mentioned here) a few years ago explaining the connection between the financial collapse and faith-prosperity/power-of-positive-thinking teaching by churches encouraging members to make risky investments and loans in “faith”. God loves us but does not enable, endorse nor justify our stupid decisions.

    In the end, I am reminded of the life of Brennan Manning, who touched so many people despite living a broken life. I can’t call his example “therepeutic”. I’m not sure how to differentiate between offering God’s open arms to the bruised reed versus and enabling bad behavior and decisions in the name of “grace”.

  2. I was struck my the boldly idiomatic translation of Job, and was not aware that “MSG” stands for “The Message.”

  3. In the end of it all we don’t really need a therapist to help us rearrange the furniture of our lives, but someone outside of ourselves who will deliver us from ourselves. The Gospel is not therapy, but proclamation of what God has done and is doing in Christ.


  4. Thank you CM. Well written and thought out.


  5. Interesting take…..never having experienced evangelical faith or mind-set, I do not know if the author is correct in her assumptions or not.

    I CAN state, that as a Catholic Christian, we tend to NOT be surprised when evil or loss or suffering show up in our world. A fair bit of the Faith recognizes that Christ was “a man of sorrows, accustomed to suffering”, and that we will encounter this suffering ourselves. NOT that it is pleasant or well received, just that it is not a bolt from the blue.

    This is where communication often breaks down. The atheists and agnostics see evil and suffering as proof of the non-existence of God….the usual “How could an all-good and all-loving God allow to happen?”

    Most Christians, myself included, want to react to evil with “Why is this happening to ME or mine? I thought I was a friend of You, Lord, and that You would protect me!!”

    Knowing in our heads that we live in a world where satan roams free, thanks to human choices and sin, is small comfort when it hits our gut.

    All this ole’ gal can fall back on is that He knows what He is doing, can make evil work for good, and will never, ever leave us, no matter how we “feel” about it all.

    • That Other Jean says

      Around our house, we frequently react to life annoyances, large and small (tragedies are not dismissed so lightly), with one person demanding, “Why me, Lord?” and another, intoning as a Voice from Heaven, “Why not you?” Sometimes bad things happen; sometimes we’re miserable. It helps to keep real life in perspective.

      • Hard to grasp why God allows His children to suffer. Perhaps there is a point to it. Maybe God uses it to draw us into a deeper dependence on Him through it.

        “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

    • Personally, when I experience or witness suffering, I take more comfort with the idea of the randomness of life. Stuff happens and you deal with it, or don’t. I have a really tough time with the notion of a God who loves me infinitely, me and others, and yet does absolutely nothing to stop their suffering. That just doesn’t make sense to me.

      • I actually have more of a problem with your version of God than the other. By chalking it up to “randomness” aren’t you implying that your God loves you infinitely but is too preoccupied (or weak) to do anything about the junk that happens? I take more comfort in an all-knowing, all-powerful God who, for His own unfathomable reasons, allows suffering as a tool of formation. I guess both positions are unsatisfactory on some level.

  6. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    I had mixed feelings when I read that article as well, and for pretty similar reasons. I’m a big fan of cognitive-behavioral methods as part of short-term solution-focused pastoral care (note, I didn’t say “counselling,” ‘cuz most of us aren’t licensed councilors). It fits very well with the Apostle’s admonition for us to be “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind.” But that’s so totally not the main point of the Christian faith. It’s a side-benefit. Any time where we’ve gotta ask “Where is Jesus?” someone’s probably missed the most important point of all.

    • My thoughts were along similar lines. The Gospel restores the entire person (eventually). There is a lot in the Bible regarding the healing of the mind, body, emotions, relationships, marriages, finances, etc. We can’t talk about God’s salvation (culminating in Jesus) as though it JUST saves the soul. There are two extremes to be avoided; one that removes the work of Jesus from its central place and uses the Bible as an instruction/self-help book and the other that ignores the very practical elements of God’s salvation.

  7. This was definitely a problem for me for a while in my life. Everything in my spiritual life–repentance, prayer, reading the Bible, etc–were mainly about feeling forgiven. I didn’t treat those things as desirable ends in and of themselves, but as means to a particular psychological end–feeling forgiven. Or, not feeling guilty. Either way, once I felt forgiven, or no longer felt guilty, there was a feeling of “Phew, now that that’s out of the way, I can get back to my life.” And it’s not as though my life was constant debauchery…it was just about me. And so was God. He was there to forgive my sins, and get me to heaven, and make me feel goosebumps when I sang in church.

    But the tricky thing is, it’s not like those are bad things. But I made them about ME. It was as though Jesus died so I wouldn’t have to feel bad about things.

  8. The misuse of Scripture in the area of our thoughts has caused much confusion, pain and downright hostility in the different Christian “camps”. In my bookstore days I saw far too much “amateur psychology” being practiced by well meaning folks. The name it and claim it practitioner – if you speak it and believe it you have it. The “and calleth those things which are not, as though they were.” group. Yes, what we believe does obviously effect how we live. But for too many believers it is denial of reality. A way of escaping the pain and frustrations of life. It gives people a sense of power, control and certainty which, as I see it, is the opposite of faith. It makes me God – I am in control. It is also a way of satisfying our ego by thinking we have the answers to other people’s problems and by text flinging we have brought healing into a life. Usually it shows a glaring lack of Biblical knowledge and/or taking out of Context pieces of Scripture and building an entire “theology” around them. I have seen people refuse medical help because “by His stripes we ARE healed.” Which indicates to me that we think our biggest problem is our arthritis not the fact that we are sinners. The cruelty of this kind of “therapy” in the name of Christ is almost unbelievable. We are all Job’s friends when we practice it. The attitudes about depression that were discussed recently after Jeff’s post is another area where Scripture practitioners ply their trade. The best selling book for years at the bookstore was “The Battlefield of the Mind” by Joyce Meyer. One that was also quite popular and sold steadily was a bit more realistic – “Telling Yourself the Truth” by Marie Chapin and William Backus. It was Biblical Cognitive Therapy. But ultimately I see this as a misuse of Scripture and almost a false gospel. One simply cannot look back on the history of the church, or look today at the persecution of believers in areas such as Nigeria, Cairo, Iran, China etc. and really believe that the Bible was given to us to help us have a happier and purpose driven life. Jesus said our “purpose” was to die and become like Him.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      The name it and claim it practitioner – if you speak it and believe it you have it. The “and calleth those things which are not, as though they were.” group.

      ABRACADABRA = “I Speak and It Is So.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Separate subject, maybe going off-topic…

      I wonder if this is a corollary of the Evangelical Altar Call/Sinner’s Prayer “Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation”; not much of a stretch for it to become Personal Psychiatric Therapy, and (from personal experience) neurotics have a hard time thinking outside themselves.

      This might also relate politically, i.e. how Ayn Rand became the de facto Fourth Person of the Trinity. Let entropy set in for a while and there’s also not that much distance between a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation and Objectivism’s philosophy of Utter Selfishness.

    • One simply cannot look back on the history of the church, or look today at the persecution of believers in areas such as Nigeria, Cairo, Iran, China etc. and really believe that the Bible was given to us to help us have a happier and purpose driven life.

      Indeed. It’s hard to retain the therapeutic mindset when you realize that for the early church, the call to take up your cross was, in some cases, quite literal.

    • Does The Purpose Driven Life really fit in with the other books you mentioned? Isn’t its opening sentance “It’s not about you.”

    • Amen!

    • DaisyFlower says

      You said, “One simply cannot look back on the history of the church, or look today at the persecution of believers in areas such as Nigeria, Cairo, Iran, China etc. and really believe that the Bible was given to us to help us have a happier and purpose driven life. Jesus said our “purpose” was to die and become like Him.”

      And to what purpose was that purpose? I’d say to help other people and to receive help from God, in part.

      I don’t believe in the theology of, “God doesn’t want anyone happy and isn’t interested in meeting anyone’s earthly needs and making them comfy, he only cares about making us holy.”

      If that were true, Christ would not have raised the little girl from the dead, fed the multitudes by multiplying the fish and bread, Jesus would not have restored the cut-off ear on the guard in the garden, God would not have sent manna, Jesus would not have healed the woman with the issue of blood, etc.

      I’m turned off by this view -and I see it quite frequently in American Christian culture- that because your average, white, middle class, American Christian may have better living conditions (eg, indoor plumbing) than people in other parts of the world and isn’t being flogged for owning a Bible, but someone in Iran is, or children in India need rice, that Christians should only care about the Iranians or hungry orphans.

      The Bible does not classify and divvy up who is worthy and deserving of compassion, help, and encouragement and who is not, not in that manner. The Bible says to” weep with those who are weeping.” It does not say to “only weep for the persecuted Christians in China who are being persecuted for the faith.”

      I often see American Christians who are absorbed with helping orphans in India and the like but who walk past the hurting Christians next to them, or give those hurting Christians platitudes or blame – which is no different than the priests who walked past the bloody man in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.

      I’ve had this happen to me in times of great pain. I was supposed to compare myself to some needy third world group in Timbuktu and suck up the pain and get on with life, according to other Christians. How any one can say they have compassion for “group X” (usually orphans in some impoverished nation) and then blow off a hurting Christian right before them is something I don’t grasp.

      Also, anything that whiffs of codependency – implying it’s wrong for any Christian to get her needs met because it’s supposedly “selfish” (or one is only to think of other people’s needs) – rubs me the wrong way. And this idea it’s selfish or wrong for you to get your own needs met is not in the Bible (the Bible actually assumes you will get your needs first, but asks that you also meet other people’s needs – not ‘in place of’ but ‘in addition to’).

  9. As a long-time friend of the pastor of the church the author spent a lot of time with, I can speak with full conviction that while he certainly believes that Jesus came to bring us joy and to help us with our problems, he can and does also speak from personal experience of the hard truths of the gospel and the long road of discipleship over a lifetime (he’s given me many a needed kick-in-the-pants reminder!).

    I suspect (although this is something I’ve not asked him) that much of that kind of communication comes in one-in-one settings where he can deliver those truths in the context of an ongoing friendship….and thus the author may not have seen as much of that as actually happens.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Liz.

    • Yes and no. I agree that there is no substitute for pastoral counsel applying hard truths to our personal lives, helping us find God in the midst of struggle. But that should not be the only place it happens. If his public airtime is completely devoid of bluntly addressing real issues, I suggest such preacher does a grave disservice to his congregation. You can’t paint the life of discipleship as a bed of roses to the public and then cut to the chase behind closed doors. It has to be a both/and.

      • I wasn’t so much commenting on the content of what Liz said as much as thanking her for speaking up as someone familiar with the parties involved.

        • I don’t mean to address the specific situation (I don’t even know for sure which church this is) as just to add to the idea she brought up: the importance of pastoral counsel.

    • That is something I wondered as I read about Luhrmann’s evaluation; How much can we depend on a secular academic to understand some limited sampling of a churches proclamation of the Gospel? There is definitely value in hearing her perspective, but she is almost certain to miss some things and misunderstand others. I would take her assessment “with a grain of salt.”

  10. Well said, Chaplain Mike! I sometimes wonder if there is actually anything more therapeutic than the real Gospel. The problem is not so much that religions should not be therapeutic, as you clearly stated, but that they often direct troubled consciences to find their relief in the wrong places: our own methods, strategies, and personal disciplines. In other words, the Law. But there is nothing more comforting to the troubled soul than the Words of Christ and his presence in our midst, bringing us forgiveness, life, and salvation. But it depends upon what the soul is troubled with. If a soul is troubled with the hardships of life and looking for a solution to his own problems, God is approached as a means to an end. But if one is troubled with their own sins, I suggest these are the brokenhearted which Christ came to bind up. And he always will.

    • +1

    • DaisyFlower says

      You said, “God is approached as a means to an end. But if one is troubled with their own sins, I suggest these are the brokenhearted”

      I disagree. I think God’s compassion and concern extends to the pains we experience in life. I’m tired of Christians who harp on the sin angle constantly. My sins were paid for by Christ at the cross.

      • I suspect the “sin angle” has more to do – in Miguel’s statement – with sin as a universal condition rather than sin as a personal behavior or action that causes said condition. If you see sin as the former, you can still recognize the blessings of God in creation while experiencing the brokenness that comes with a fractured relationship with the creator and it doesn’t have to be because of something you did. Yes, Jesus died so that we might be redeemed, but there is still a very real now-and-not-yet aspect to that redemption of the world. It also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recognize that we consistently miss the mark; that’s what being humble before God means after all.

        If your objection to Christians hauling out the “sin thing” is that presentation which insists every bad thing that happens is the result of sin as something you personally did, I get that. And I do get it because it’s all too easy to abuse the particulars of sin into a behavioral control mechanism or a means to separate “us” from “them.”

      • You contest my point with one hand, and illustrate it with the other. If Christ died on the cross to pay for your sins, than he did not die to rescue you from a life of mediocrity. The cross wasn’t about giving us a more meaningful, fulfilling, and comfortable life in this world. In many cases, it gives us the exact opposite. It’s not that God doesn’t care about our pain or suffering. We’re told to cast our cares on him, because He cares for us. But the God who makes all your problems go away is not the God who dies for your sins on the cross. One is a Jewish carpenter, the other is a super-elf from the North Pole. Jesus hears the cries of the oppressed and the suffering, whether from their own sins or the sins of others. But he does not set everything right in this life. Some, yes. But let’s not minimize the suffering of those who never received their vindication.

        • What I had tried poorly to convey was exactly the point you make in your next post. I did not intend to minimize anyone’s experiences of suffering and brokenness and apologize if that was the message that came across.

          • Well you’re certainly not hurting my feelings with a blog comment. 😛 All I meant is that to say that God brings relief from all our problems in this life is not only misleading, but provides a false hope for those who never receive their comfort in this world that could potentially lead them to despair and unbelief. This is why false doctrine is so dangerous.

      • I’m tired of Christians who harp on the sin angle constantly. My sins were paid for by Christ at the cross.

        I hear this a lot from Evangelicals who aren’t incredibly interested in the forgiveness of sins. It’s as if since Jesus died for me and I’ve been saved, I really don’t need him a whole lot anymore, except to deal with my other problems (which are infinitely less significant, imo). Most Evangelicals aren’t troubled with their own sins. They even tout this as a virtue. God sets us free from guilt! they say. This seems to reduce repentance to a self-improvement program and discipleship to life-coaching. I care about my sin. I want God to continue to reveal it to me more that I might know his forgiveness in a more powerful way the empowers me to leave that sin behind and extent this wonderful forgiveness to others. I appeal to a line from my favorite hymn:

        “Ye who think of sin but lightly nor suppose the evil great
        Here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate.
        Mark the sacrifice appointed, see who bears the awful load;
        ‘Tis the Word, the Lord’s anointed, Son of Man and Son of God.”

        Getting your sins forgiven is not the introduction to the Christian life. It is the beginning and the end, the constant journey of repentance. Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is life and salvation. There aren’t more important things for us to receive from God.

  11. Kyle In Japan says

    I had mixed feelings about this article too. The “Jesus-is-my-buddy” brand of McChurch is a sentimental decontextualization of what the Bible tells us about God, and I think prayer is often abused in ways relating to this. But I don’t see the connection to this part:

    “Clearly numbed, they told me they did not understand why God had allowed the child to die. But they never gave a theological explanation for what happened. They blamed neither their own wickedness nor demons. Instead, they talked about how important it was to know that God had stood by their side.”

    These people absolutely had the right approach. Are we not told by the writer of Hebrews that we have a High Priest who is able to sympathize with our sufferings? I don’t think this fits in with the God-as-Therapist thing at all.

  12. “I’m all for love and compassion. I’m pretty sure, however, that this is not the Gospel.”

    Really? Love and compassion are not the Gospel?

    Who knew!?

    • Excellent example of quoting out of context.

      • Yeah, I know, Chaplain Mike. It was late and I was tired. Sorry to be a smart-alec.

        To really speak my mind, though, I don’t think that a way of approaching God needs to be “rooted in shallow soil” just because it is different from ones own. I also don’t believe that God is totally “other,” “that where we imagine he is, he is not, and where we cannot fathom he would be, there he is.” Honestly, if that’s so, why worship Him? We’re just as likely to be on the wrong path as the right, if we really can’t fathom God in any way.

        Didn’t Jesus come to “portray” God, to show us what God is like: “Who has seen me has seen the Father.” And didn’t He continually urge His followers to preceive and address God as a loving Father?

        I really don’t see how anyone can be a follower of God if we basically have no idea about where or who God is. I’m not questioning *your* faith or your experience at all! You are obviously more theologically educated and “deeper” than I am. I’m just saying that as a very ordinary person, not even close to being a Mother Teresa, I would be and am very deeply discouraged by such an understanding of God.

    • Right. Love and compassion are the Law, not the gospel. They are things we are supposed to be doing, but because we do not, God had to come and do it for us.

  13. DaisyFlower says

    I do think Christians drop the ball when it comes to how they treat the suffering. It’s been my experience more often than not when going to another Christian for comfort, I’ve instead received cold advice, judgement, Bible verses tossed my way, or blame.

    As far as God, I did not expect an entirely pain free life, but I am troubled and puzzled by the lack of his presence, especially after experiencing the death of someone very close to me a few years ago.

    I hear other Christians give testimonies of “how God was there for them” during a rough patch, or how they “felt God’s presence” during their trial, but God has seemed very far from me.

    That is one reason of many I’ve been thinking about leaving the Christian faith. I have others, that’s only one.

    • Just know that you are not alone in the absence of God’s “presence.” I got tired of faking it a few years back. I receive precious little emotional validation from religion anymore, and I have quit expecting it. For me, I have learned to find comfort in the Word and Sacrament ministry of the older traditions. I pray you are able to find yours, wherever your search takes you.

  14. “However, apparently many believe in “Our Therapist, who art in heaven,” and that is what our churches are offering them.”

    In the many centuries before there was such a thing as a professional therapist wouldn’t a father (whether biological, or a priest) have fulfilled that role? Hence “Our Father who art in heaven” = “Our Therapist who art in heaven” — no?