Evidence of a Therapeutic View of Jesus in the Prayers of Teenagers

If you search through your church’s website, you probably won’t find this kind of language listed under “theological beliefs.” But listen closely to the prayer requests of students and evidence of a therapeutic view of God comes into focus.

In a culture that offers a different form of therapy for “whatever ails you,” can we really be surprised when a teenager’s view of God is primarily therapeutic? If you’re physically injured, you need physical therapy. If you’re emotionally distraught, you get counseling from a therapist. When life gets really hard, it only makes sense to turn to a spiritual therapist – Jesus Christ. Unfortunately this attitude toward God fits into the all-ready-too-compartmentalized lives of most American teens. Jesus falls somewhere between A.P. European History class and soccer practice as the go-to therapist who is available to listen, sympathize, and offer guidance for life’s tough challenges. He’s always there when you need him.

“Lord, please help me find a summer job.”

“God, help me to overcome depression.”

“Jesus, tell me which college I should attend.”

“God, please help my parents stop fighting.”

“Jesus, I need help to do better in school.”

“Please let me get an A!”

Are any of these prayers sacrilegious? Of course not. However, it is troubling when 80-90% of student’s prayers are for personal struggles that, if answered positively from God, would result in increased happiness. This is the litmus test for therapeutic prayers. If God flat out gave the student what he or she wants, what would be the result? If the answer is that he or she would be instantly happier, than the prayer is therapeutic in nature.

The long-term fruit of such a view of God is, ultimately, a disregard for God’s authority. Our culture loves therapists because we come to them on our own terms, they offer suggestions, and then we walk out of their office with the ability to choose to either follow their advice or not. Therapists are not authority figures. We are not compelled to obey them. This explains one of the reasons why students and even most adults are offended at the idea that God is a judge who rules over humanity. We don’t want a judge, we want someone to talk to who will sympathize with us, make us feel better about ourselves, and ultimately give us the freedom to decide what is best for ourselves.

This is what many church and para-church student ministries implicitly teach teenagers about God through prayer. Often, in our attempt to help students understand prayer in a relevant way, we remove the “reverence” aspect of talking to God (the creator of the universe, Lord of all, judge of everything) and only focus on the humanity and gentleness of Christ (Jesus is my best friend). Could it be that Christian youth workers, parents, pastors, elders, and deacons could play an important role in combating a therapeutic view of God simply by praying in light of our full relationship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? What if, instead of only focusing on God’s ability to fix our problems, we broadened our prayers to include His holiness, His righteousness, and His justice? Students are listening, watching, and learning from us. May the Lord give us the grace to pray in the fullness that He desires.

D. J. Marotta is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and rector of Redeemer Anglican Church in Richmond, Virginia. His wife is gracious and his children are clever.

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