By Stephen W. Hiemstra
We live at a time when discussions of faith focus on our emotions and relational response to God in Jesus Christ. A subtext in these discussion is what will God do for me, not as a member of a family, but as an individual? While emotions and our relationship with Jesus are clearly important, how can we trust someone intimately who we know little or nothing about?
The Therapeutic Gospel
The therapeutic gospel fosters this attitude by focusing heavily on God’s love and seeing the role of the pastor through the lens of a counselor. In this context, Sunday morning worship becomes a group therapy session helping parishioners to purge anxiety through upbeat, uptempo music and an uplifting and witty sermons (all within a one hour timeframe of course) that provide nice to know religious information devoid of prescriptive advice. The triumph of the therapeutic gospel has come at the expense of traditional moral teaching.
If you do not believe me, consider some recent observations by one pastor about the difference between churched and unchurched young people in his youth group. The churched kids knew “how to get drunk, have sex and smoke marijuana without their parents ever knowing about it.” Meanwhile, the unchurched kids were “mostly fatherless boys and girls, some of whom [were] gang members, all of them completely unfamiliar with the culture of the church.” and did not even try to hide their sinful activities. (Moore 2015, 70-71) These observations suggest that in the absence of moral guidance, we all gravitate towards hypocrisy.
The love promoted in the therapeutic gospel is motherly love (or grandfatherly love), not fatherly love. Mothers love their children unconditionally while a father’s love is conditioned on the need to learn discipline and prepare them for adulthood. Both types of love are needed, but motherly love in the absence of fatherly love does not prepare a child for the hard realities of adulthood. Adulthood provides independence, but only in the context of discipline and limitations. If you have never been denied anything growing up, how are you to learn to live within a budget or to deal with disappointment? Written large, the same problem faces our nation—how can our politicians ask for sacrifice when people think that their are entitled to free education, health care, and other public services?
Problems with the Therapeutic Gospel
Already in the 1930s, theologians, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1995), warned about the problem of cheap grace—forgiveness without confession. Closer to home, Richard Niebuhr (1937, 193) warned of the development of: “A God without wrath [who] brought men [and women] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
What we have in the therapeutic gospel is a kinder, gentler Jesus, but without the possibility of salvation because this Jesus did not die for our sins. This is because we don’t believe in sin, which precludes the need for forgiveness. We just need a bit of therapy from a good counselor—all we need is love, to quote John Lennon.
Clearly, the focus on emotions to the exclusion of theology leads us somewhere that we do not want to go.
The Cognitive Theory of Emotions
In his path-breaking work on emotions in the New Testament, Matthew Elliott (2006, 46-47) outlines a cognitive theory of emotions that “reason and emotion are interdependent.” The alternative is to argue that reason and emotion are independent of one another, a key assumption of the therapeutic gospel because emotions are believed to rule our lives. Elliott notes that the God of the Bible only gets angry on rare occasions and his anger (or wrath) is focused on examples of when people have disobeyed the covenant or expressed a hardness of the heart, as in the case of Pharaoh (Exod 4:21).
Significantly, the only example of Jesus being described as angry is in Mark 3:5 after the Pharisees displayed a hardness of the heart with respect to a man with a withered hand. If God himself gets emotional about things that he believes are important, then clearly his emotions and reason are interrelated. By contrast, other gods in the ancient world would get angry spontaneously and did not limit their anger to matters of principle.
Perceptions, Learning, and Decision Making Introduced
If our emotions are to follow from things that we feel are important, then theology (our understanding of God), not emotions, should come first in our faith walk. How we perceive the world, how we learn, and how we make decisions remain more important than our emotional assessment of them.
 When we see Jesus clear the temple, he is shown angry, not described as such.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig. pub. 1937). New York: Simon and Schuster.
Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional.
Moore, Russell. 2015. Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group.
Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1937. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
Why Think About Faith?
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.