Was it St. John Chrysostom who said that the church is a hospital for souls? Sanctification – growing to maturity – is a form of healing, is it not? Therefore, Christian discipleship is really a kind of therapy.
This thought prompts me to consider how most of pop culture (even in the church) runs counter to this notion. Think about how we use the term “mental health” in a clinical way, shorn of any explicit theological content. Think of “life coaches;” consultants, industrial and sport psychologists all standing ready to assist people in working through their problems.
Some people readily include “spirituality” in the mental health medicine bag. Nurses in hospitals can receive training to employ the individual spiritual beliefs of a patient to help in the healing process. It has become normative in various forms of the healing arts. It is based on the “scientific” notion of an empirically-based understanding of human nature and what ails us. In this view, “spirituality” is an empty container into which one pours one’s own particular beliefs and values.
This model of mental health is not so neutral as it seems. As numerous Christian thinkers have pointed out, it harbors a number of theological assumptions and depends upon biblical concepts to do its work. Virtually all the empirical literature on spirituality makes references to concepts like love, goodness, hope and compassion. Healthy spirituality from this view always looks suspiciously like mature Christian discipleship, without the “Christian” part, of course. But to have hope in a good (or improved) future one really needs to believe in a transcendent source of goodness, probably even a Transcendent Creator who is personal, who loves the creation and works in it to bring about good. So, even in the allegedly neutral, empirically-driven spirituality literature, there is, upon examination, a fairy identifiable theological framework in play.
Sprinkled all through our society, therefore, is a vast array of options for what turns out to be a much reduced (and tamed) form of discipling. What is therapy, after all? A person, with her or his therapist or counselor, develops an honest, transparent relationship (the therapist must be honest and transparent in a professional way, in order to have the trust of the client), into which conversations take place and guidance is offered for strategies to improve a person’s life. Sounds a lot like Christian discipleship, without the “Christian.”
In our world, therapy has taken the place of discipleship. Of course, I am not suggesting that we quit doing therapy, for it does provide help to many people. But this therapy is just a party of the journey. We should think about what we’re actually envisioning in therapy and we should also notice that there is precious little in the way of real, extensive, long-term growth in Christian discipleship taking place in the church. Perhaps we have given away too much?
When people commit to following Jesus in all aspects of life; when life in the Kingdom of God is truly paramount; when people pray for and seek and yield to the work of the Holy Spirit within a community of such humble, open disciples, therapy happens! Healing takes place.
Without shutting down the therapy-as-discipleship paradigm, I do think we should reverse the order: discipleship-as-therapy. I think we’d have healthier people in the church and, long-term, a healthier world.