Rediscovering God in the Age of Therapy, Part II


We will now turn our attention to the second question: how do our contemporary counselors use healing nomenclature? The answer is not a simple one, but a survey of two influential “disease” models may help us to find the roots of the therapeutic culture. We begin with the classic formulation of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In the 1930’s, Dr. William D. Silkworth (regarded as one of the ideological co-founders of A. A.) contributed the medical model of alcoholism to the emerging movement: certain individuals are physically/psychologically unable to handle even moderate alcohol use. The alcoholic has a disease of the mind and body – a mind obsessed with alcohol and with taking the first drink, and a body that cannot handle any alcohol without a severe reaction that triggers further compulsive drinking. Alcoholics manifest their disease on three levels: spiritually they are estranged from their Creator through self-centeredness, emotionally they are cut off from human society, and physically they suffer brain damage and ill health. In traditional A. A. teaching, the alcoholic may be out of control, but he is accountable before God and responsible to pursue recovery. While never healed of his alcoholism, he is restored to wellness, one day at a time, through surrender to a Higher Power. [8]

Who, then, is sick? A. A. preaches that a substantial minority of the population has the disease of alcoholism, and that it entails defiance against God. The disease is not universal, nor is it coterminous with what theologians call “depravity.”

But today, A. A.’s disease model has been popularized and mixed with a medical approach to mental and emotional wholeness. The result? “Sickness/disease” has been appropriated for every imaginable life problem, and the sufferers are not necessarily responsible for their actions: thus a generation arose that wailed that they were not sinful, just sick. These fashionable versions of the disease model reach their apex in the Inner Healing program:

– Many people are hurting from their upbringing and experiences; they have been rejected or abused and are “dysfunctional” (originally a medical term!) in one way or another

– They are alienated from God and others, afraid of being vulnerable, and thus unable to love or be loved

– God wishes to bring Inner Healing to all; this may mean grappling with painful memories, but it will lead to a renewed self-esteem and confidence

As far as recent Christian literature goes, one of the most revisionist gospels is from the pen of J.

Keith Miller, A Hunger for Healing (Harper-Collins, 1991). He dubs the whole human predicament as “Sin-disease” although he admits that “the idea of referring to Sin as a ‘disease’ troubles some people (p. 4).” But he defends his language by claiming that “biblical theologians have always known” that sin is like a disease; these theologians unfortunately go unnamed.

Miller himself draws this idea to its natural conclusion: if sin is essentially a disease, then what we really need from God is healing. The “disease” model has snowballed from A. A.’s “the few are sick”, to Inner Healing’s “many are sick”, to Miller’s “really, aren’t we all sick?”


What do we find when the prophets of healing are set side by side with the biblical prophets?

Common decency presses us to point out some hazards of using a “healing” model: (1) the “healing” metaphor becomes increasingly misleading the closer it is to becoming the controlling metaphor for God’s help; (2) it brings along cultural baggage that is contrary to biblical revelation; (3) it misleads people, not about peripheral issues, but of Christian fundamentals: who is God? who am I? what is my standing with God?

We would not read in the Bible that a man is “healed” of, say, drunkenness. However, the language of healing may be used with biblical precedent to describe the results of repentance. Therefore we might use “healing” to speak of the spiritual, physical, economic, and relational blessings that will follow such reconciliation to God. But when “healing” is elevated to the place of the dominant metaphor for God’s help, we may garble the rest of the biblical message of sin, depravity, regeneration, repentance, forgiveness, and sanctification. It is in the nature of metaphors that they not be pressed beyond their limits of usefulness. If we make the healing metaphor more important than the Bible already makes it, we will in the end undo it.

Perhaps a comparison with another Bible metaphor would be illuminating: in a tiny handful of verses, God is compared to a mother. God himself says that “as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isa. 66:13a). The revelation of a nurturing and gentle side of God cannot but give blessing to the reader of Isaiah. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to load this delicate metaphor with more weight than was originally intended.

In the same way, “healing” is an important part of the whole, but that part will never stand the weight of the whole. Anyone who proclaims that our root problem is dysfunction ensures that the vital distinctions between the self-help message and the gospel will be lost. Unquestionably, one of those essentials is the imperative of the new birth: if the underlying need of both saved and unsaved is healing, and both may have it abundantly, then what good is regeneration? And who would bother getting a new life, when the old familiar one is tolerable after minor repairs? Their rejoinder that Christ is an important resource in God’s healing agenda only make matters worse. No gush of admiration for the gospel will save those who damn it with faint praise.

Really, does an evangelical author put matters in their proper place when one must skim his or her book several times and use the index just to figure out where the gospel is even mentioned? The gospel occupies a hall closet, while the house is built on the message of “healing.” One would like to be charitable and chalk it all up to benign neglect, but that would be untenable: even in evangelical literature one finds a consistent pattern of put-downs for Christians who “simply and simplistically” (and Pharisaically) urge the hurting to read the Bible, confess sin, pray (what! prayer, simple?), believe the gospel, trust God. Let’s grant that we’ve all known insensitive Christians who sling clichés, when they should be offering loving counsel, but their answers are at least recognizably biblical.

Secondly, there is the question of our message becoming entangled with unbiblical cultural baggage. Consider that a Christian today cannot quote Exod. 15:26, “I am the LORD that healeth thee (KJV),” and expect that biblically illiterate Americans will recall its meaning in context. We live in the Age of Therapy; we will instinctively take it to mean that God will ease our inner hurts, our dysfunctional upbringing, our low self-esteem. How long before the gospel accounts are transmogrified into parables of Inner Healing? Lazarus may still walk out of the tomb, but he will “come forth” to a healthier sense of self-worth.

It might be objected that counselors are doing what theologians have always done, that is, using words with a meaning that does not exactly square with biblical usage. A close parallel is this: the Bible defines “redemption” rather tightly, as the work of God in delivering His people from bondage unto himself; as such it is one salvation word among many. But theologians, who have long known this, use the word to describe the whole process of salvation from beginning to end (cf. Scroggie’s, Unfolding Drama of Redemption). So what, then, if “healing” in the Bible means the easing of the physical and spiritual effects of rebellion through the covenant; may not counselors broaden it into the release of all human distress and pain, without worrying about a precise biblical definition?

In fact, there are major differences between the two cases. When theologians use “redemption” to describe God’s whole saving work, they may be coloring outside the lines, but they could hardly be accused of skewing the Bible’s message. It is that threat of distortion that sets the safety limits for our religious vocabulary. Although metaphors are not to be taken “literally”, they are to be taken seriously. The metaphors we choose may clarify or warp our proclamation; they must be handpicked with an eye to their exactness.

The semantics of “healing” grow murky, because those who use it are bound to commit the fallacy of failing to recognize distinctions – that is, to reason that if x and y are alike in some ways, then they are alike in all ways. [9] Inevitably it will be assumed that if sin is like a disease in some ways, it is like a disease in all ways.

How is sin like a disease? Like a disease, sin gets worse with time; particular acts of sin are symptoms of a larger problem.

But sin, according to the Bible, is unlike a disease in other respects. The underlying assumption is that each individual is born already sinful. Meanwhile the premise of most “disease” models is that we need recovery from a dysfunctional environment, with the implication that we are born good.

That is why it is thought that the deeper we can go into our selves, the nearer we will be to God. It does little good to build a Christian ministry upon the ideals, methods, and goals of Inner Healing and then to add, belatedly, that the Bible says we’re ruined from birth. The idea of depravity is not a trifle for which a slight course correction must be made – it is a foundational truth which must pervade and shape any Christian’s system of thought. Of course, we could use “healing” terms with a careful definition and suitable caveats; but a metaphor that needs a thousand qualifications has probably outlived its usefulness.

This brings us along to the third risk, that the preoccupation with the “healing” metaphor leads to confusion not about peripheral issues, but of Christian fundamentals, such as the nature of God himself. What happens if we envision God to be mostly like a therapist – even conceding that he is a very good one? To be consistent, we would need to imagine God as chancing upon people who have been beat up by life, and he is of course glad to offer help. In this representation, he is unsettlingly like the Good Samaritan, a man with no agenda of his own beyond being kind. God then will seem unloving if he does not give whatever help we feel we need, with our methods, to our ends, no questions asked. Although we might like to imagine otherwise, a divine Therapist cannot at the same time be the holy creator who punishes all who rebel. In a perilous quest for healing on its own terms, the ego enthrones itself as the focus of the universe, and the God-centeredness of the Bible is lost.

Finally, let’s affirm Christians who proclaim that God is not just interested in the bit of us called the “spirit”, but in the liberation of the whole person. This is certainly true, but the rules by which the game is played are revealed in the Bible. It is the Bible that draws us to the truth that all models of recovery must begin with theology, with the question “who am I in the sight of God…or is there in fact a God?” It is dangerous to answer that God only wants what we want, namely Inner Healing and personal growth. Let the false gods be merely “good for what ails you”; the living God, for his own reasons and to his own ends, makes radical demands on his creatures even as he brings them to restoration.


[8] A. A. co-founder Bill Wilson blended Dr. Silkworth’s insight with the spiritual disciplines of the Oxford Group program, the “twice-born” model of William James, and the psychology of Carl Jung. From these ingredients he created A. A.’s 12 Steps. The A. A. model is best explained in Alcoholics Anonymous [popularly called “the Big Book”] (3rd. ed., New York: A. A. World Services, Inc., 1976), pp. xxiii-xxx, 17-29, 58-60.

[9] See D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Baker, 1984), p. 97.

“Rediscovering God in the Age of Therapy” by Gary Steven Shogren

Published in Journal of Biblical Counseling 12, No. 1 (Fall 1993): 14-19.

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