St. Peter's Blog 'God and Therapy' from St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church – North Wales, PA's Blog

God and Therapy

Image Wednesday, Feb 11, 2015
Author: Pastor Andreas Wagner

This is a sermon based on Isaiah 40 that features a therapeutic God and deals with our sometimes unrealistic expectations of modern therapy.

 

I was taught in seminary that good counseling is 80% listening - or more, and very little talking. It was presumed - I have no idea why... - that pastors talk too much, that they need to learn to be quiet when someone comes to them sharing a burden. Throughout my practical training this was the creed that was pounded into us: Listen first! Hold your tongue! Hear what people have to say! And it made perfect sense to me.
 
When I read Isaiah 40, my first thought was that God must have missed those seminary sessions. In the 40th chapter of Isaiah God is like a counselor to the people of Israel. The entire chapter is about lifting the people of Israel out of a deep collective depression. It's like a textbook therapy session, with one major difference: God the counselor never shuts up. He keeps on talking, beseeching his people with all kinds of rhetorical finesse - to have hope, to have faith, to believe in a future, to trust. You almost get the feeling that God had heard their troubles and complaints for too many years, got tired of it and thought it was time to speak up.
 
Yet, even for those of us who don't know anything about the historical background of this chapter, one thing is clear quickly: this counselor cares! In fact, this counselor cares so much that he dares to tease and even offend and shake his patient a little bit - out of love! Have you ever shaken someone out of love, or been shaken by someone who cared for you? I can tell you, I have been shaken a few times when I was wallowing in negative thoughts, shaken with words, mind you, by someone who cared for me - and I needed it. May God give us the wisdom to know when we need to speak hope into a human heart, even with a little bit of force or humor or taking the calculated risk of offending!
 
God the therapist offends. Briefly, this sermon In Isaiah 40 takes on a condescending tone. “Have you not known?" the creator asks from up high. Have you not heard? Has it not been told to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” This sounds like that teacher in school we didn’t care for, who - not coincidentally - taught the subject that we weren’t good at, who said to us, ”Don’t you know what the different parts of a molecule are?” “Don’t you know who the 3rd president of the United States was?” I had a math teacher like that in High School. He always let us know that he was smart and that some students in class were on the opposite of the IQ barrier.
 
But it would be wrong to read Isaiah 40 like this. We would miss the most critical element of this speech: the deep sense of care that guides it. These passages apply to anyone who has been through nightmarish experiences and is wondering what's out there. Is there a God? And if so, does it really matter? Through the prophet Isaiah God speaks to people whose spiritual batteries are way down and, like my car battery last week, dead from the cold outside. In fact, this analogy may be right on the money. God is telling them that they need a new battery, a new faith, one that teaches them to believe in a bigger God!
 
“Well: who is God?” We have all asked that question. The answer in Isaiah 40 sounds like this: “It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in.” This statement is still spoken from way above, but ironically now it’s our turn, the turn of modern people, to feel condescending, to look down on God, down on the Bible and religion. The earth - a circle? We are so much smarter than Isaiah 40! We are so much more educated than this 2,500 year old document! Aren't we? But again, to get stuck on this piece of antiquated cosmology would totally miss the point of this passage, which was meant to give people at that time, 500 B.C., a much bigger picture of the world and of God. In fact, in these very chapters of Isaiah the people of Israel are asked to abandon something that was near and dear to their hearts: their tribal concept of God. They are asked to abandon this beloved and comforting thought that God was only "their" God in favor of a much bigger idea: that God created everything, including their enemies. Some 2,500 years later, the creation of "everything" means yet something different for us; "everything" points to a universe beyond our imagination that is far too big for our telescopes and our brains to fathom. But the challenge posed by this passage remains the same: do we think about God big enough?
 
Mother Theresa, one of the great Christian leaders of the 20th century was once asked about the great strength of her faith. Where did it come from? This woman who came from a poor Albanian family built a global ministry for the very poor. At the time of her death in 1997 over one million people were involved in the work of the “Missionaries of Charity,” which she launched in the slums of Calcutta. So, it was a valid question. Where did her amazing faith come from that led her to become such an inspiring and compassionate voice and pretty much made her a saint during her life time. Mother Theresa gave an answer that would make Martin Luther proud. She said, “I don’t have a strong faith." "I am not a spiritual super woman. I don't have a strong faith, but... I believe in a strong God!”
 
I feel it’s the same message that is given to the Israelites here in the 40th chapter of Isaiah – and by extension to all of us: don't try so hard to work on your faith; instead, start expanding your image of God. And as we allow this God who is beyond our understanding, to enter our lives more deeply, maybe we all have to take this lesson to heart that people tried to teach me back in seminary, which I am still trying to learn really - to be quiet and listen. And what I mean by that is this: everyone of us probably gives the voices of worry and doubt and negativity way too much airtime in our heads. We are sometimes too full of negative speech in our heads. Let us learn to listen to the voice of God. Have we not heard? Have we not listened?
 
He is in charge of that very problem you are bending over backwards to solve!

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