It had never occurred to me to think of God as a therapist when I began to spend time at the evangelical church I had come to study. Like many secular onlookers, I was at first interested in belief in the way that people just like me seemed to experience reality in a fundamentally different way. I wanted to know how people acquired evidence that the invisible agent was really there. Soon, however, I became as intrigued by the kinds of conversations people had with this invisible agent, and the way those conversations seemed to change them.
I was spending time in a Vineyard Christian fellowship, which is a charismatic evangelical church. Gently charismatic, to be sure—Sunday mornings were pretty tame. No one fell over, slain by the spirit. Usually, no one spoke in tongues, at least in public. But people expected to experience God as a person. They spoke of having a personal relationship with God. When they talked to God, they expected God to speak back.
What on earth does that mean? People said that God would speak back through circumstances. You thought idly about going on a mission, and two Sundays later you sat next to a stranger in church and she turned out to be arranging a missionary trip to the Philippines. You knew God wanted you to go. People also said that God spoke through the Bible, through verses that seemed to leap out and grab you, so that you knew God wanted you to pay special attention. “I was reading about God raising up elders to pray for the church,” one congregant explained, “I knew that the verse was really important … I just felt it. I just felt like it really spoke to me. And a couple of days later a friend asked me to be on the prayer team and it was like, wow, that’s what it was.” She said yes.
But the most important way that God spoke back was in people’s minds. People needed to think about their minds differently to experience this. They needed to think of their minds as porous, as containing an external person, so that when they daydreamed a conversation they experienced it as different from just talking to themselves. Not any old daydream would do. People talked about developing ‘discernment,’ about learning to pick out which thoughts came from God and which from themselves. Thoughts that came from God were ones that you hadn’t been thinking about; thoughts that gave you peace; thoughts that seemed consonant with God’s nature. “We do not expect,” the pastor explained, “that God would want someone to cut themselves, or tell them to jump off a bridge. That is not God.” They were encouraged, though, to have the daydream: to go for walks with God and to have coffee with God, and to allow themselves to experience the daydream as real. They often had difficulty taking these daydreams seriously at first, and they always treated them with a light epistemological touch. Yet over time, they did find that they came to recognize what they called God’s voice, and they came to experience that inner voice as not their own. “It’s a different sort of voice,” people said.
It was in this context that God becomes a therapist. When congregants talk about their relationship with God, they sound as if they think of God like some benign, complacent psychoanalyst. Sometimes this is explicit. “It’s just like talking to a therapist,” someone told me, “especially in the beginning when you’re revealing things that are deep in your heart and deep in your soul, the things that have been pushed down and denied.” Even when congregants didn’t call God a therapist, they still treated God like one, talking to him about their fears and worries and pain. And just as you expect your therapist to take the rage and still maintain the relationship, congregants would yell at God with a kind of toddler’s rage (as they imagined it) and still their God continued to listen patiently, and to understand. Another woman put it this way: “With God, like I can throw a temper tantrum in front of God and God can say, 'it’s okay to be upset. We’ll resolve it one step at a time.'” She can be childish, insecure, irritable, irrational, outraged. She doesn’t have to worry that God’s feelings will be hurt.
Does it work? For some people, I thought it did, and when I gave Christians standard psychological questionnaires, those people who agreed that “I feel God’s love for me, directly” were also less lonely and less stressed. These daydream conversations are what the psychologist Mary Watkins called “imaginal dialogues,” conversations between self and other that happen in the mind. She thought that they were therapeutic because the reality to which someone responds is always partly of their own creation, and an imagined therapist (an immaterial God necessarily must be imagined) can thus re-create that reality as effectively as a human one. When God becomes that therapist, It’s obviously different from ordinary psychotherapy because the “therapist” is more powerful than any human therapist and also more perfect. Because God is also invisible, human members of the group stand in on his behalf but one does not have to attribute their imperfections to the therapist. But whereas the human therapist coaches the client, takes the client’s money, and goes away, God sticks around for all eternity. And that has its advantages.