Tanya Luhrmann wrote When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God.

She has a column in today’s NYT, “When God is Your Therapist.”

IT had never occurred to me to think of God as a therapist when I began to spend time, 10 years ago, at an evangelical church in Chicago. Like many secular observers, I was interested in the fact that people like me seemed to experience reality in a fundamentally different manner. I soon came to realize that one of the most important features of these churches is that they offer a powerful way to deal with anxiety and distress, not because of what people believe but because of what they do when they pray.

One way to see this is that the books teaching someone how to pray read a lot like cognitive behavior therapy manuals. For instance, the Rev. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” one of the best-selling books of all time, teaches you to identify your self-critical, self-demeaning thoughts, to interrupt them and recognize them as mistaken, and to replace them with different thoughts. Cognitive-behavioral therapists often ask their patients to write down the critical, debilitating thoughts that make their lives so difficult, and to practice using different ones. That is more or less what Warren invites readers to do. He 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.

Does it work? In my own research, the more people affirmed, “I feel God’s love for me, directly,” the less stressed and lonely they were and the fewer psychiatric symptoms they reported.

More strikingly, I saw that the church implicitly invited people to treat God like an actual therapist. In many evangelical churches, prayer is understood as a back-and-forth conversation with God — a daydream in which you talk with a wise, good, fatherly friend. Indeed, when congregants talk about their relationship with God, they often sound as if they think of God as some benign, complacent therapist who will listen to their concerns and help them to handle them.

I am not sure how it fits into the mainstream of Christian spirituality, but it does not sound bizarre or harmful to try to talk to God and listen for His response (always remembering that we might mistake another voice for His, and even when He speaks we hear Him filtered through our receptors).

God certainly wishes to comfort the distressed, families whose father had died, parents who have lost a child.

I saw the same thing at another church, where a young couple lost a child in a late miscarriage. Some months later I spent several hours with them. 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. The husband quoted from memory a passage in the Gospel of John, where many followers abandon Jesus because his teachings don’t make sense to them. Jesus says sadly to his disciples, “You do not want to leave, too, do you?” and Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

This sounds mature to me.

Luhrmann doesn’t discuss what kind of response people get when they talk to God about cheating on their spouses or stealing from their employers. If God is still benign and complacent I would have doubts about this approach to Him.

Luhrmann also claims that

This approach to the age-old problem of theodicy is not really available to mainstream Protestants and Catholics, who do not imagine a God so intimate, so loving, so much like a person. That may help to explain why it is evangelical Christianity that has grown so much in the last 40 years.

“so much like a person” – but almost all Christians believe in a personal God, whom they know in Jesus Christ. Although there are problems with the Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the relationship is certainly personal. And Lutherans have a strong personal relationship to Jesus, “Jesu, meine Freude.”

I am not sure that Luhrmann is right, or perhaps what evangelicals mean by a “personal” relationship with God is something completely different from what other Protestants and Catholics mean.

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