The Therapeutic Gospel, Part 2

God gives good gifts. But he also gives the best gift, the inexpressible Gift of gifts.

PART 1: The Therapeutic Gospel »

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 concludes his 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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Is there nothing good about the things people crave? Of course, when they are properly understood. Carefully interpreted, the felt needs make good gifts.

But they make bad gods.

The true God refuses to let your felt needs call the shots. Get first things first. Seek first the Father’s kingdom and His righteousness, and every other good gift will be added to you. This is easy to see in the case of the three particular gifts offered by the Grand Inquisitor’s therapeutic gospel.

It is a good thing to have a stable source of food, “bread for tomorrow” (Matt. 6:11, literally). All people everywhere seek food, water and clothing (Matt. 6:32). Our Father knows what we need. But we’re called to seek His kingdom first. We do not live by bread alone, but by every word out of His mouth. If we worship our physical needs, we will only die. But if we worship God, the giver of every good gift, we will be thankful for what He gives, we will still have hope when we suffer lack, and we will surely feast at the endless banquet in eternity.

A sense of wonder and mystery is also a very good thing. But the same caveat, the same framework applies. God is no Wizard of Oz, creating experiences of wonder for the sake of the experience. Jesus said no to making a spectacle of Himself in the midst of temple crowds. His daily faithfulness to God is the unfathomable wonder. Get first things first. Then we’ll appreciate glory in small ways and large.

In the end we will know all things as wonders, both what is (Rev. 4) and what has happened (Rev. 5). We will know the incomprehensible God, creator and redeemer, whose name is Wonderful.

Similarly, political order is a good gift. We are to pray for the authorities to rule well, so that we may live peacefully (1 Tim. 2:2). We are to pursue justice and mercy for all who are oppressed and helpless. But if we live for a just society, we will always be disappointed.

Again, seek first God’s kingdom. Then we’ll work patiently toward a just social order, enjoy it to the degree it’s attainable, grieve what is not attainable, and have reason to endure through injustice. In the end, we will know unutterable joy on the day when all persons bow to the reign of the true King.

Of course, God gives good gifts. But he also gives the best gift, the inexpressible Gift of gifts. The Grand Inquisitor burned Jesus at the stake in order to erase the Gift and the Giver. He chose to give people good things, but discarded first things.

The things promised by the contemporary therapeutic gospel are a bit trickier to interpret. The odor of self-interest and self-obsession clings closely to that wish list of “I want _____.” But even these, carefully reframed and reinterpreted, do gesture in the direction of good gifts.

The overall package of felt needs is systematically misaligned, but the pieces can be properly understood. Any “different gospel”(Gal. 1:6) makes itself plausible by offering Lego-pieces of reality assembled into a structure that contradicts revealed truth. Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve was plausible only because it incorporated many elements of reality, continually gesturing in the direction of truth, even while steadily guiding away from the truth:

“Look, a beautiful and desirable tree. And God has said that the test will reveal both good and evil, with the possibility of life — not death — rising from your choice. Just as God is wise, so you, the chooser, can become like God in wisdom. Come now and eat.”

So close, yet so far away. Almost so, but the exact opposite.

Five Symptoms of the Therapeutic Gospel

Consider the five elements we have identified with the therapeutic gospel.

Need for love

It is surely a good thing to know that you are both known and loved. God, who searches the thoughts and intentions of our hearts, also sets His steadfast love upon us.

However, all this is radically different from the instinctual craving to be accepted for who I am. Christ’s love comes pointedly and personally despite who I am. I am accepted for who Christ is, because of what He did, does, and will do. God truly accepts me, and if God is for me, who can be against me?

But in doing this, He does not affirm and endorse any ungodly character in me. Rather, He sets about changing me into a fundamentally different kind of person. In the real gospel I feel deeply known and loved, but my relentless “need for love” has been overthrown.

Need for significance

It is surely a good thing for the works of your hands to be established forever: gold, silver, and precious stones; not wood, hay, and straw. It is good when what we do with our lives truly counts, and when our works follow us into eternity.

Vanity, futility and ultimate insignificance register the curse upon our work life — even midcourse, not just when we retire, or when we die, or on the Day of Judgment. But the real gospel inverts the order of things presupposed by the therapeutic gospel. The craving for impact and significance — one of the typical “youthful lusts” that boil up within us — is merely idolatrous when it acts as Director of Operations in the human heart.

God does not meet our need for significance; He meets our need for mercy and deliverance from our obsession with personal significance. When we turn from our enslavement and turn to God, then what we do does start to count for good.

The gospel of Jesus and the fruit of faith are not tailored ultimately to “meet our needs.” He frees us from the tyranny of felt needs, remakes us to fear God and keep His commandments (Eccl. 12:13). In the divine irony of grace, that alone makes what we do with our lives of lasting value.

Need for self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-assertion apart from Christ

To gain a confident sense of our identity is a great good. Ephesians is strewn with several dozen “identity statements,” because by this the Spirit motivates a life of courageous faith and love. We are God’s — among the saints, chosen ones, adopted sons, beloved children, citizens, slaves, soldiers; part of the workmanship, wife, and dwelling place — every one of these in Christ.

No aspect of our identity is self-referential, feeding self aggrandizement. Our opinion of ourselves is far less important than God’s opinion of us, and accurate self-assessment is derivative of God’s assessment. True identity is God-referential. True awareness of ourselves connects to high esteem for Christ.

Is it really self-confidence that we want? Or is it a deep confidence in Christ that correlates to a vote of fundamental no confidence in and about ourselves? Either way we might strike others as “a confident person,” but those are two utterly different kinds of persons. God nowhere replaces diffidence and people-pleasing by self-assertiveness. In fact, to assert our opinions and desires, as is, marks us as a fool.

Only as we are freed from the tyranny of our opinions and desires apart from the Authority are we free to assess them accurately, and then to express them appropriately.

Need for pleasure

In fact, the true gospel promises endlessly joyous experience, drinking from the river of delights (Ps. 36). This describes God’s presence. We are made for such joy.

But as we have seen in each case, this is keyed to the reversal of our instinctive cravings, not to their direct satisfaction. The way of joy is the way of suffering, endurance, small obediences, willingness to identify with human misery, willingness to overthrow your most persuasive desires and instincts. I don’t need to be entertained. But I absolutely need to learn to worship with all my heart.

Need for excitement and adventure

To participate in Christ’s kingdom is to play a part within the Greatest Action-Adventure Story Ever Told.

But the paradox of redemption again turns the whole world upside down. The real adventure takes the path of weakness, struggle, endurance, patience, small kindnesses done well. The road to excellence in wisdom is unglamorous.

Other people might take better vacations and have a more thrilling marriage than yours. The path of Jesus calls forth more grit than thrill. He needed endurance far more than He needed excitement. He needed the patience to love slow-movers more than He needed adventure. His kingdom might not cater to our cravings for derring-do and thrill-seeking, but “solid joys and lasting treasures none but Zion’s children know.”

Good Goods, Bad Gods

We say “yes” and “amen” to all good gifts.

But get first things first. The contemporary therapeutic gospel in its many forms takes our gimmes at face value. It grabs for the goodies. It erases worship of the Giver, whose greatest gift to us is mercy toward those whose desires are disordered by instinct, enculturation, choice and habit. He calls us to radical repentance.

Bob Dylan described the therapeutic’s alternative in a remarkable phrase: “You think He’s just an errand boy to satisfy your wandering desires” (from “When You Gonna Wake Up?”). Second things are exalted as masters of Number One.

Get first things first. Get the gospel of incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and glory. Live the gospel of repentance, faith and transformation into the image of the Son.

Proclaim the gospel of the coming day when eternal life and eternal death are revealed — the Day of Christ.

Which Gospel?

Which gospel will we need? Which gospel will we live? Which gospel will we talk about, sing about, teach or preach? Which needs will we awaken, affirm and address in others? Which Christ will be our Christ, our churches’ Christ, our friends’ Christ? Will it be a made-up jesus who massages felt needs? Or the Jesus Christ who turns the world upside down and makes all things new?

The Grand Inquisitor was very tenderhearted towards human felt need — very sympathetic to the things that all people everywhere seek with all their heart, very sensitive to the difficulty of changing anyone. But he proved to be a monster in the end.

There’s a saying in mercy ministries that runs like this, “If you don’t seek to meet people’s physical needs, it’s heartless. But if you don’t give people the crucified, risen and returning Christ, it’s hopeless.” Jesus fed hungry people bread, and Jesus offered His broken body as the bread of eternal life. It is ultimately cruel to leave people in their sins, captive to their instinctive desires, always self-preoccupied, under curse.

The current therapeutic gospel sounds tender-hearted at first. It is so sensitive to pressure points of ache and disappointment. But in the end it is cruel and Christ-less. It does not foster true self-knowledge. It does not rewrite the script of the world. It creates no prayers or songs.

We must be no less sensitive but far more discerning. Jesus Christ turns human need upside down, creating prayer. He is the inexpressible Gift of gifts, creating song. And He gives all good gifts, both now and forever. Let every knee bow, and let everything that has breath praise the LORD.

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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.

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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.

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