Monday, April 23, 2012

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.

Dan Marotta is in his sixth year as the High School Youth Director at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, VA. He is a candidate for a Master of Divinity from Denver Seminary.


  1. What a thoughtful and challenging article. I'm guilty as charged in most often making small group prayer time a session to pray about upcoming tests and not much more.

    The part about a therapist and people coming only on their own terms is such a great point.

    Great stuff, Dan.

  2. Great article. Thank you. Forwarding it to the youth staff at 2nd Pres (Memphis). This isn't really just a problem with youth, though. I find myself with this mentality all to often.

  3. It's what's expected of us, in a way. The first time I sat down and had lunch/conversation with my pastor one on one (the one at university), he asked how he could pray for me. I said 2 things: 1) Revival on this campus; the Holy Spirit has been really moving here and paving the way for a lot of people to come to know the Lord. 2) Salvation for my parents and sister. Weeks later, when he introduced me to the congregation before my testimony (he'd asked me to share it after he'd heard it), he shared this story and said how surprised he was by my prayer requests; he'd been expecting something about a relationship or an exam.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Kate. Great story.
      Witherington, I'm thrilled to see you perusing the blog parts. You're a rockstar.

  4. I am a Bible teacher at a small Christian school in California and this is exactly what I hear on a day to day basis. I am trying to get my students out of such prayers but it is so ingrained in them due to years of praying like this and hearing others pray like this as well.

  5. I imagine that Jesus knows well what is in the hearts behind the prayers no matter how they sound to someone else. The Holy Spirit will teach each of us over a lifetime of praying to conform our thoughts with his and the important thing is to just be in prayer and communicating with our God. The Psalms would seem to show us that we can pour out our hearts to God in all our circumstances. No, God does not always give us what we want or what we think will make us happy, but I don’t think he critiques our prayers either. He cares more about our hearts than the actual words we use. Maybe I am missing your point completely and if so I am sorry. I say if they are praying at all they are doing something right, don’t discourage them or they might stop praying out loud in a group or even praying at all.

    1. I think this is a good point. I agree that we certainly do not need to discourage kids from coming to God with everything or get in the business of critiquing prayers. My take-away has been to incorporate adoration of the Lord as a part of our corporate prayer at small group, in addition to supplications kids make for their concerns and needs.

  6. A studied look at the Lord's Prayer should disabuse us of such theraputic notions. Only one line in the entire prayer is devoted to our material wants, and even then only partly: Give us this day our daily bread. The rest is prayer regarding God's sovereignty, His high holiness, our need for help in obeying Him (lead us not in temptation, but deliver us from evil), our need to forgive because of our need of forgiveness ourselves (forgive us our debts as we forgive our debters), etc.

    So, if we need to know how to pray, then we should realize that the disciples (before they were the apostles) asked the same question of Jesus and for their (and our) benefit and blessing He gave us:

    Our Father who art in heaven
    Hallowed be Thy name
    Thy Kingdom come
    Thy will be done
    On Earth as it is in Heaven
    Give us this day our daily bread
    And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debters
    And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil
    For Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory
    Forever and ever, Amen.

    It is not vain repetition if we think about and truly intend to ask in our hearts what that prayer says. Nor is it vain repetition to pray that prayer and realize that we fall short of desiring what it says we desire, as long as we desire to live up to that standard and ask the Lord for His guiding hand to lead us there. If it causes us to leave our boasting of righteousness at the roadside and exchange it for boasting in our neediness of Him.

    For we ought to pray as Jesus taught us to pray. And I say this as one who falls short in that as well, but knows where he ought to be and desires to be.