We recently wrote an article entitled “God and Culture” where we argued there is a certain folly and falsity to think one can live in a place without being shaped by it. One of the ways the church is unwittingly influenced by secular culture is through the psychotherapeutic revolution. The triumph of the therapeutic shifted the understanding of what’s wrong with humanity from something moral to something that has happened to us. In 1945 Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “Of course, there are bad boys … But what has made them so?” She answered that bad boys are caused by the lack of “proper food,” susceptibility to “physical and mental trouble, particularly where medical care is also not available.” So, the problem with the world isn’t defined by a moral category, but by nutritional deficiencies that handicap education. The New Yorker’s film critic, Pauline Kael (1919 – 2001), spoke similarly when she wrote that it was self-evident that “crime is caused by deprivation, misery, psychopathology, and social injustice.”
The psychotherapeutic revolution redefined moral issues as mental health, psychology, psychiatry, and/or psychoanalysis. For example, Sigmund Freud said that most sexual issues are rooted in therapeutic questions, not moral ones. It’s the belief that something has happened to us. It could be biochemical, relational, or environmental. Moral issues are redefined as health. What the Bible describes as sin the therapist describes as sick. The assumption is that material factors compel certain behaviors, thus people are not responsible for their behavior. The problem with this is that when Adam and Eve first sinned, they lived in Paradise—a sinless environment.
While Christians believe that one’s environment helps form one’s character (Gal. 1:14), we don’t think that material categories erase moral ones. There is such a thing as nature and nurture. There are environmental factors that are part of everyone’s story. But there are also duties and obligations, wrong appetites and right ones, and sinful acts done by sinful people.
What happens to God in the psychotherapeutic world? The God of the Bible is uninteresting because he is outside and distinct from the self. More interesting is a God accessible through intuition. Personal wounds are the interpretive lens for God, who is on a one-year “prove it” contract. If God can resolve the trauma without me admitting moral fault and turning from sin, then he gets another one-year contract. It’s theology with set boundaries: The self is at the center and God is at the periphery, permitted to stay there as long as he makes me feel good.
What happens when Christian faith has a psychotherapeutic disposition? The turn to the therapeutic means that right and wrong is based on emotional hurt and psychological healing, love is based on listening and acceptance, and holiness is based on uninviting rules that miss the spirit of enjoyable life. In other words, a therapeutic vision of personhood replaces the moral vision. If there is no moral existence, then there is no evil, only inward aches calling out for a technique to heal the pain. If there is no evil, then there is no sin, only preoccupation with the self. If there is no sin, then there is no redemption, only coping therapies that simultaneously overcome and reinforce the misery of narcissism.
What happens to the gospel in the psychotherapeutic world? Salvation implies saved from and saved to. A psychotherapeutic gospel saves people from failure before man, from not measuring up to the more talented person, from feeling sorry for self, from the need for future obedience, and from the personal slight of the guy one cubicle over. It saves people to the freedom to feel no failure before man, freedom to feel like “you being you” is enough, and freedom to boost self-esteem.
What happens to the Christian life in the psychotherapeutic world? Since the goal is to feel good rather than be good, there can be no holy God, there can be no moral accounting, and there can be no divine summons. Since a loving God wouldn’t go around delivering commandments, there can be no burden to listen to his commandments. When faith takes a turn for the therapeutic, the emphasis is not on faith in the God of Scripture but psychological survival. In other words, religious faith becomes useful to the degree it assists with the personal pains of the modern world.
In the psychotherapeutic world, personal grievances are collected into group histories that are greased to make orthodoxy look slippery. Lived experience is the authoritative framework for interpreting the self and the Bible. What’s the solution for Christians who are nurtured in a psychotherapeutic culture? Christians must make a concerted effort to recenter themselves in the truth of God’s Word. When they do, they’ll remember that their relationship with God is not based on their psychology, but their sin, what God has done about it in Christ, and if they believe what God has done.
Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.
David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients our World (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2014), 102, 110, 126.
 Nothing in this essay is intended to discourage Christian from seeking biblical counseling if necessary.