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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

The Therapeutic, Ctd.

March 22nd, 2023 | 5 min read

By Jake Meador

Last year we raised a number of concerns about the ubiquity of therapeutic discourse within the evangelical movement.

In particular, a number of writers associated with Mere O, including myself, are alarmed by two things in particular:

  • First, the ways in which therapeutic techniques seem to be replacing Christian discipleship as the means for pursuing personal growth.
  • Second, with the ways in which categories of mental health and wellness seem to be replacing Christian maturity as the chief end of that growth.

And so when I see projects like this and language like this, well, I think my friends and I are rather vindicated in those concerns:

With the help of the Enneagram, powered by the gospel, you can experience transformation.

04. Be Transformed
And finally! You’re on your way to transforming your life and relationships.

In some sense, many of the people falling into these habits of thought have been somewhat ill-served by the church. We are now 40 years into the seeker-sensitive liturgical experiment and the results, with regards to discipleship and catechesis, have been fairly abysmal. If our churches have behaved as if “Christian discipleship” largely consists of “holding the right ideas in your head” and “consuming the right content,” then it isn’t terribly surprising that many Christians would encounter the difficulties of life and feel radically unprepared for them. Their churches didn’t teach them to expect suffering, didn’t give them models for resilience and dependence on God, and didn’t provide practical guidance in mortifying sin and offering oneself up to God. So of course we now have many Christian people who are a bit at sea, particularly given how chaotic, angry, and uncertain this cultural moment has become. In such a scenario, techniques like the enneagram have an obvious appeal.

And yet the way of imagining the Christian life as conceived by this particular sort of approach to the enneagram seems hopelessly compromised to me. For 2000 years Christians have seen transformation through the Gospel without availing themselves of the enneagram. They have endured torture, persecution, the loss of family and status, and much else besides and have done it all without the aid of modern therapeutic technique. So while I understand that the failures of the attractional model created a vacuum that therapeutic technique has rushed in to fill, I also know that the cost of allowing therapeutic technique to persist in this work is far too high.

What is that cost, exactly? The cost is that the people of God would forget how to understand themselves using the language that the people of God have always used. A friend recently shared this quote from the theologian William Placher with me which gets to the concern quite well:

Christians today often think of their world in the vocabularies of contemporary politics or popular culture. But the Bible offers us an alternative. Those poor folk across town are not just “welfare recipients” or even “fellow citizens”; they’re “neighbors.” That action wasn’t just  “inappropriate behavior” or even “crime”; it was “sin.” When we use such a vocabulary, we find ourselves thinking about the world in different ways—and sometimes, at least, we may find common ground with other Christians from whom we were divided when our only language was that of contemporary politics. To trust the Bible, to let it define our world and provide a language for thinking about the world, can transform our lives.

In other words, language itself is catechetical. When the default terminology we use for understanding personal growth is therapeutic, we are teaching ourselves to imagine that growth means a greater sense of internal peace, personal wellness, and so on.

But sometimes the Gospel doesn’t lead us toward those things, or at least not as those things are often understood today. Jesus says he came to bring a sword, he said that all those who love him will suffer for his sake. If our vocabulary for talking about how we grow and what we grow toward is unable to accommodate these realities, then that vocabulary is not Christian, even if we ourselves are church-going people who love Jesus. Part of Christian maturation is learning to conceptualize personal growth in ways that align with Scripture.

And this is absolutely essential to understand because I promise you that this life will wreck you at some point. You’ll sit with a doctor as they tell you your parent who you saw just the night before might never wake up. You’ll lose your job. Your child will become severely ill. A friend will betray you. You’ll hear the words “the tests came back positive,” or “early-onset Alzheimers.”

When those things happen, if you lack ways of seeing the hand of God even there, ways of recognizing that suffering is a real Christian vocation, ways of being resilient with the aid of God and the ordinary means of grace, then your suffering will be worse still. The testimony of Scripture and of the church catholic coming down to us across centuries is that Christ is sufficient to transform, grow, and preserve us throughout this life. When we water that truth down by adding things to Christ, we will eventually lose him because Jesus will not be placed on the same level as anything else. He will be your lord or he will be nothing to you. He will not consent to being used as a technique in concert with other techniques.

None of this is inherently to adopt a nouthetic approach to counseling and mental health issues, by the way. It is possible to be informed about mental health, personality, and related things without giving yourself over to them as a dominant, totalizing moral vision. If your child is struggling in school and you can put a name to that suffering and benefit from a specific treatment known to help that specific thing, that can sometimes be a great blessing. To avail yourself of these resources in limited, specific ways is no bad thing. We are embodied, human creatures whose bodies need certain things to be healthy. It is not a capitulation to technique to try and understand that and provide the support or help your body needs, anymore than it is a capitulation to technique when a doctor advises you to get proper sleep and eat well in order to be healthy.

What is a capitulation to technique is to say things like, “with the help of the enneagram powered by the Gospel you can be transformed.” If your vision of growth and maturation is inextricably bound up with therapeutic technique, that is a capitulation. When conferences are being organized around these themes with the support of prominent Christian leaders, then it is entirely reasonable to conclude that we are totalizing therapeutic rhetoric rather than merely learning from it in limited, specific ways.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).