The Therapeutic Gospel, Part 1

In the therapeutic gospel, my deepest problems are merely limited to what has happened to me.

We’ve invited Dr. David Powlison to begin a discussion on counseling from a biblical perspective by writing a series of articles for Boundless. This is a conversation starter: We believe that thoughtful discussion of significant issues is crucial to the flourishing of the body of Christ.

Focus on the Family does not promote one particular model of Christian counseling, but earnestly seeks that we all grow in wisdom together. As with any article on Boundless, publication is not meant to be taken as an endorsement of its content. It is our hope that you are challenged to consider the relevance of Scripture, the importance of balance in the counseling process, and to better understand the Lord’s concern and power when it comes to understanding the real life problems that we all struggle with.

This article begins the second series on biblical counseling. You may want to read the first series of articles (part 1, part 2, part 3) and a clarification from Dr. Powlison before continuing.

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In an earlier article we looked at how God interprets what goes wrong with human desires. Our desires run off into bad zeal and selfish ambition. What I want becomes a small god, becomes dictatorial and destructive. Among His many gifts, Jesus sets about to change what we want. The Holy Spirit rewrites the script of our hearts, so new desires begin to operate within us. He changes what we deep down want.

It’s an amazing thing, inexplicable to those still captivated by the inherent plausibility of what they crave.

When Jesus takes us as His disciple, when our Father takes us as His children, we no longer need to be consumed by the craving to be loved, to make money, to be comfortable, to be beautiful, to find sexual ecstasy, to be successful, to control our world. We no longer need to prove that we are superior beings, righteous eagles who for too long have had to hang out with all the turkeys and other assorted idiots.

Of course, our renegade desires don’t just give up on the spot and quit causing mischief. An inner battle ensues (Galatians 5:16-17). But by God’s mercy, we deeply long for the kinds of things that wise men and women long for in the psalms and prayers of the Bible. The dictatorship of previous longings for love, achievement, self preoccupation and other garden-variety human wants is overthrown by grace.

God doesn’t gratify our instinctive longings. He forgives them, and then changes what we most want. This is one facet of the Gospel taught in the Bible.

But in our culture — even in the church — this isn’t the usual way that problematic human desires are interpreted. 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.

But I’m not going to throw rocks. 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.

The Contemporary Therapeutic Gospel

The most obvious, instinctual felt needs of 21st-century, middle-class Americans are different from the felt needs of the peasants that Dostoevsky tapped into. Most of us take food supply and political stability for granted. We find our miracle substitute in the wonders of technology and entertainment. Middle-class felt needs are less primal. They express a more luxurious, more refined sense of self interest:

  • I want to feel loved for who I am, to be pitied for what I’ve gone through, to feel intimately understood, to be accepted unconditionally no matter what I do.
  • I want to experience a sense of personal significance and meaningfulness, to be successful in my career, to know my life matters, to have an impact.
  • I want to affirm that I am OK, to feel good about myself, to have a sense of self-confidence, to assert my opinions and desires no matter how I may be living my life.
  • I want to be entertained, to feel pleasure in the endless stream of performances that delight my eyes and tickle my ears and warm my belly.
  • I want a sense of adventure, excitement, action and passion so that I experience life as thrilling and moving.

The modern, middle-class version of therapeutic gospel takes its cues from this particular family of desires. It appeals to psychological felt needs, not the physical felt needs that typically arise in difficult social conditions. (The contemporary health-and-wealth gospel and obsession with miracles express something more like the Grand Inquisitor’s older version of therapeutic gospel.)

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.

Medical or Pseudo-medical?

The therapeutic outlook is a good thing in its proper place. By definition, a medical therapeutic gaze holds in view true problems of physical suffering and breakdown. In literal medical intervention, a therapy treats an illness, trauma or deficiency. You don’t call someone to repentance for their colon cancer, broken leg or beriberi. You seek to heal — literally.

So far, so good.

But in today’s therapeutic gospel the medical way of looking at the world is metaphorically extended to these psychological desires. If I experienced betrayal and rejection, my heart was broken and wounded. Like with a broken leg, I need healing. If my need for love was not met, then, as with a vitamin B1 deficiency, I become sick. I won’t become better until the deficiency is made up for and the need is met.

These psychological experiences are defined exactly on the pattern of medical problems. You feel bad; the therapy makes you feel better. The definition of the disease bypasses or downplays the agency of the sinful human heart. 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.

The Once-for-All Gospel

The real Gospel is the good news of the Word made flesh, the sin-bearing Savior, the resurrected Lord: “I am the living One, and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore” (Revelation 1:18). This Christ turns the world upside down. One prime effect of the Holy Spirit’s inworking presence and power is the rewiring of our sense of felt needs.

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?) What I want for me, I want for us, and we want for each other, all of us together. Lord, have mercy on us. Kind Savior, give her courage in her sufferings, and wipe away all her tears.

Just as prayer expresses what I need, so song expresses gladness and gratitude at desire fulfilled. Song expresses your felt sense of who God is and all that He gives. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.

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.

PART 2: The Therapeutic Gospel »

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Focus on the Family has counselors and care specialists who are available weekdays to talk with you, provide information and encouragement, suggest resources, give referrals and pray with you. If you are struggling, and would like to talk with one of them, you can find more information here.

Copyright 2008 David Powlison. All rights reserved.

About the Author

David Powlison

David Powlison has worked at CCEF since 1980. He edits the Journal of Biblical Counseling and teaches counseling at Westminster Seminary. His writings include Seeing with New Eyes, Speaking Truth in Love, and numerous booklets and articles on dealing with life problems. He and Nan have been married for 30 years, and they enjoy three adult children, a son-in-law, a daughter-in-law and a granddaughter.