Therapeutic Gospel = False Gospel: Self-esteem vs Christ-esteem
by Patte Smith on Saturday, December 10, 2011 at 8:01pm ·
in our culture — even in the church — it's common to interpret human desires automatically as givens. They're seen as unalterable and valid wants that must be fulfilled. The troubles that beset our desires arise because our desires are not fulfilled, our felt needs have not been met.
When this way of looking at things is ported into Christianity, then the gospel of Jesus becomes the better way to 'meet your needs.' Perhaps your sin is that you look to your girlfriend/boyfriend or spouse to meet your need for love, when Jesus is the one who lives to meet that need. In this way of looking at things, God's chief purpose is often portrayed as merely giving us what we deeply desire, gratifying our deepest instinctive longings. This way of describing how God interacts with our desires is a "therapeutic gospel." It offers to heal the woundedness we feel because our needs weren't met. It offers to fill those empty places inside with Jesus.
I think that the therapeutic gospel gets it wrong. It gets God wrong. It gets people wrong. It gets suffering wrong. It gets the gospel wrong.
... I want us to carefully understand what's at stake. I want us to truly see and feel the inner logic of both the therapeutic gospel and the ordinary gospel. We'll start in what might seem like an odd place: in Russia, almost 150 years ago, in the pages of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov. The appeal of a "therapeutic gospel" drives the action in the most famous chapter in all of western literature. In the chapter "The Grand Inquisitor," Dostoevsky imagines Jesus returning to 16th century Spain. But Jesus is not welcomed by church authorities. The cardinal of Seville, head of the Inquisition, arrests and imprisons Jesus, condemning Him to die. Why? The church has shifted course. It has decided to meet instinctual human cravings, rather than call people to repentance. It has decided to bend its message to "felt needs," rather than call forth the high, holy and difficult freedom of faith working through love. Jesus' example and message are deemed too hard for weak souls. And so the church has decided to make it easier. The Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus in His prison cell and interrogates Him. He asks again the three questions the devil put to Jesus in the wilderness centuries before. He argues with Jesus' answers. People are hungry, so the church will give earthly bread instead of the bread of heaven. People need a sense of mysterious powers, so the church will offer religious magic and miracles instead of faith in the Word of God. People need political stability, so the church will exert temporal power and authority instead of serving the call to freedom. "We have corrected Your work," the Inquisitor says to Jesus. In each of His answers to temptation, Jesus set the bar too high for normal people.
The Inquisitor's gospel is a therapeutic gospel. It's structured to give people what they want, not to change what they want. It merely makes people feel better. It centers exclusively around the immediate welfare of man and temporal happiness. It discards the glory of God in Christ. It forfeits the narrow, difficult road that brings deep human flourishing and eternal joy.
This therapeutic gospel accepts and covers for human weaknesses, seeking to ameliorate the most obvious symptoms of distress. It takes human nature as a given, because human nature is too hard to change. It does not want the King of heaven to come down. It does not attempt to change people into lovers of God who embrace the truth of who Jesus is, what He is like, what He does.
..In this new gospel, the great evils to be redressed do not call for any fundamental change of direction in the human heart. Instead, my deepest problems are merely limited to what has happened to me. It's not something about me that has also gone woefully astray. It's only about my sense of rejection because others have not loved me thoughtfully and well. It's my corrosive experience of life's vanity, because I haven't been able to have the impact I want, to be recognized as Somebody Who Matters. It's my nervous sense of self-condemnation and diffidence, because my self-esteem is wobbly. It's the imminent threat of boredom if my music is turned off. It's how so much of life is routine; I love the adrenaline rush, and I don't like it when a long, slow road lies ahead. The gospel is enlisted to serve these particular cravings; Jesus and the church exist to make you feel loved, significant, validated, entertained and charged up.
This gospel ameliorates distressing symptoms. It makes you feel better. The logic of this therapeutic gospel is a Jesus-for-Me who meets individual desires and assuages psychic aches... [It] downplays the agency of the sinful human heart. It says "You are not the agent of your deepest problems. You might have some outward sins, but you are a mostly a sufferer and victim of unmet needs." The offer of a cure logically skips lightly over the sin-bearing Savior. It's more important that He meets your sense of need than that He was crucified in your place. Repentance from unbelief, willfulness and self-centeredness is not really the issue. Sinners are not called to a U-turn and to the new life that is life indeed. Such a gospel massages self-love. There is nothing in its inner logic to make you love God and love any other person besides yourself. This therapeutic gospel may often mention the word "Jesus," but He has morphed into the meeter-of-your-needs, not the Savior from your sins. It 'corrects' Jesus' work. The therapeutic gospel unhinges the gospel.
Because the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, we keenly feel a different set of needs when God comes into view and when we understand that we stand or fall in His gaze. My instinctual cravings are replaced (sometimes quickly, always gradually) by the growing awareness of true, life-and-death needs:
I need mercy above all else:
"Lord, have mercy on me."
"For Your Name's sake, pardon my iniquity for it is very great."
I want to learn wisdom, and unlearn willful self-preoccupation:
"Nothing you desire compares with her."
I need to learn to love both God and neighbor:
"The goal of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith."
I long for God's name to be honored, for His kingdom to come, for His will to be done on earth, for His whole church to be glorified together.
I want Christ's glory and lovingkindness and goodness to be seen on earth, to fill the earth as obviously as water fills the ocean.
I need God to be my refuge and deliverer, setting me free from enemies, sufferings, sorrows, death, temptations.
I long for the Lord to wipe away all tears.
I need God to change me from who I am by instinct, choice, and practice.
I want Him to deliver me from my obsessive self-righteousness, to slay my lust for self-vindication, so that I feel my need for the mercies of Christ, so that I learn to treat others gently.
I need God's mighty and intimate help in order to will and to do those things that last unto eternal life, rather than squandering my life on vanities.
I want to learn how to endure hardship and suffering in hope, having my faith simplified, deepened, and purified.
I need to learn, to listen, to worship, to delight, to trust, to give thanks, to cry out, to take refuge, to obey, to serve, to hope.
I want to attain the resurrection to eternal life:
"We groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body."
I need God Himself:"Show me Your glory."
"Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus."
Make it so, Father of mercies. Make it so, Redeemer of all that is dark and broken.
Prayer expresses desire. Prayer expresses your felt sense of need. I've phrased these requests in the first person singular — I, me, my — to highlight the contrast with the list of psychological desires. The singular is not wrong as far as it goes. But each renewed desire functions on behalf of others also. (This stands in profound contrast with the psychological felt needs, which are always and only first person singular. Which of them ever becomes a felt longing for someone else to have gratified desires?!)
...There are no prayers or songs in the Bible that take their cues from the current therapeutic felt needs.
That mere fact should give serious pause to anyone drifting in the direction of a therapeutic understanding of how unexamined desires link up with Jesus' gospel. Imagine, "
My Father in heaven, help me feel that I'm OK just the way I am. Fill me with self-confidence. Protect me this day from having to do anything I find boring. Hallelujah, I'm indispensable, and what I'm doing is really having an impact on others, so I can feel good about my life."
Have mercy upon us! Instead, in our Bible we hear a thousand cries of need and shouts of delight that orient us to our real needs and to our true Savior.
...the diagnostic labels (and street wisdom...) never mention the E-word: evil. What distorts our lives? Evil. What breaks our lives. Evils, both inside and out. Something very dark and very complex is going on. Bad stuff comes at you, and bad stuff is an operating system inside you. No one can fail to see evidence of evil. You feel it. You participate. But people don't want to name it for what it is. We might admit the evil of a Hitler or a suicide bomber killing innocent children. We fail to see the evils operating in normal problems. ..If you acknowledge the scope of the problem of evil, then you realize you need a Savior. If evil infects us all, then someone not under the power of evil must bring light and life from outside the system of darkness and death. That person is Jesus Christ. ...God sees what's operating on the inside, as well as what's oozing out for all to see. He sizes it up for what it is, and then helps us to understand life the same way he does.
These patterns of inner motivation are what the Bible calls your "heart." We generate substitutes for God. The false masters are "little gods" that become 'I GOTTA HAVE THAT!' Our blind, misplaced devotion enslaves us. We express our submission to little gods by destructive lifestyles, by our emotions, thoughts, words, and choices that the Bible calls foolish. God wants us to see our hearts the way He sees us. Inside and out, this is exactly what Jesus came to forgive and aims to transform.
Jesus died to overthrow the dictatorship of the flesh
Jesus died so that you won't die clinging tight to your idols
Jesus died so you won't waste your life massaging and refining self-preoccupation
Jesus lives to become your true Master
Here's the whole message in a sound bite:
"He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves
but for Him who for their sake died and was raised"
~ 2 Corinthians 5:15