Setting the Agenda for Faith Therapy

Parents have a great power: setting the agenda for their children’s future therapy. This may include, but is of course not limited to:

  • What they did that hurt
  • What they didn’t do, but we needed them to do
  • What we still do because of what they did or didn’t do
  • They didn’t understand my generation/situation
  • Or did they understand but didn’t care or were powerless to affect the change I needed?

No surprise here, that these are some of the same questions we ask about God, whom we (with Jesus) think of as our Heavenly Parent. What if church is not a habit, or place we go because “that’s how we were raised,” but we are actually there for group therapy, of sorts? We can sort through together our perceptions of what our Parent has done/not done and how that affects us. Our lead therapist can call us out when we are being obtuse, and redirect in healthy directions. We might help each other realize that deeply complicated relationship is affected by many layers of interpretation (ours and others’) about perceived supportive or toxic divine parenting. We can grieve together what we don’t understand, or bewail that the precedent or guidance we have from Our Parent seems not to address the nuances of our generation. We may even delve into difficult theological questions such as: Is Our Divine Parent all-loving or all-powerful?

Even those raised in healthy, well-adjusted households need the ability to reflect on: What of who I am and how I act comes from my family of origin? How can I choose to keep or leave elements behind? So it needs to be said: There’s no shame in going to therapy, or in this case, church.

Some of what we need to talk out might be the damaging interpretations of churches or individual Christians in our past.
Your Divine Parent is angry angry angry!
You better not risk the wrath of your Parent!
God hates this, that, and the other. (But what if one of those categories describes me, yet I cannot be someone else?)

Churches could recognize part of our calling as helping those whose relationships with their Divine Parent or brother Jesus have been damaged by previous churches, bad theology in the media, the culture or from Great-Aunt Gertrude at a time of crisis. So we start a “Theology Pub” or coffeehouse, a way to have initial conversations without the atmosphere of that previously threatening situation. We can talk about spiritual damage and how to address it from the pulpit. We must be vehemently public about no tolerance for physical/sexual/emotional abuse associated with the church, but then more subtly, we need to be self-aware about when group faith talk reveals a need for the services of trained therapists for certain individuals.

But here’s the rub, and perhaps the reason we are hesitant to embrace the role of congregations in running group therapy for our relationship with God our Parent. It’s this word I learned in Psych 101: “transference.” For many of use who recognize our relationship with God as that of parent and child, the Church is in the middle of that relationship. To criticize God is to criticize the Church, and vice versa. Who seeks out their own negative feedback? Not us. What do you want to leave behind from that relationship? Ummm… can we even talk about that or will there be a mass exodus from the church? Most of our baggage with God is in fact baggage from “God’s people” acting or speaking while bearing God’s name. Churches won’t provide the therapy necessary for children of God to pursue healthy, healing relationships with God the Parent – unless we are ready to engage in confession ourselves. We must risk self-reflection when it could very well lead to begging for forgiveness. But if we don’t we’ll never get past the baggage in the doorway.

There are alternative therapies, of course, to unpacking our issues with God in a congregation. Asking deep questions with friends can be much more effective than half-listening to a sermon or responding to questions from a hat with near-strangers. Following a blog or twitter feed or reading books by people who have worked through similar issues could be therapeutic. But then we need to get our own thoughts and feelings down on paper or the keypad, and communicating on the internet is far less likely to be therapeutic than talking to someone trustworthy in person. I remember a professor of Bible saying about the different translations/versions: “Well, a Bible you are reading is better than one you’re not reading.” So I say, “faith talk therapy you’re participating in is better than one you’re not.” However we do it, we have to get past secondhand experiences to get to the core issues in our relationship with God our Parent:

  • When do you feel closest to God, and why do you think that is?
  • How open are you to other interpretations of how God acts?
  • For what do you blame God, or yourself in your relationship?
  • What are you going to do about it?

We all want to develop a healthy relationship with our Parent. Faith talk therapy could really help.

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