On Second Thought, Don't Tell Me About Your Mother

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The therapeutic establishment has changed its mind. Your psychotherapist doesn’t need to hear about your mother after all. Neither does the psychologist need to hear about your father’s temper or your disappointment with Christmas. It turns out, according to this morning’s New York Times, the vast majority of mental health professionals have concluded that “understanding the past is not required for healing.”

At first glance, this should neither surprise nor concern us. The “mental health profession” has been continually changing its mind over the past century. And their minds will change again.

But we should be aware that the previous understanding of “coming to grips with the past” has had a considerable impact on our cultural discourse, including in the way we view Christian sanctification. How often have we heard Christians tell us they are “seeking to find closure” by sorting through the intricacies of a past hurt? How often do churches seek to call a sinner to repentance only to find ministers wading through recounting of childhood hurts and parental failures. Our people speak this way, not because they have read the DSM-IV or the latest psychiatric studies, but because they hear it all around them in the culture from daytime talk shows to coffee shop conversations with friends.

I think there is a deeper reason why Americans seek to talk through the origins of their problems. The psycho-therapeutic industry tapped into something the Creator designed, and repackaged it for an American individualistic milieu.

“Detailed narratives about the past can be assumed under a larger rubric of trying to find meaning or trying to impose order, and thereby controlling one’s world and experience,” Harvard professor of psychology Richard McNally told the Times. “People say, ‘At least I know why I’m unhappy in life.’ ”

The Bible does indeed point sinners to detailed narratives about the past, but they point sinners to a cosmic narrative of the Fall, in which the sinner finds his own curse in the story of an ancient conspiracy against the lordship of God (Rom 5). Moreover, the biblical pattern finds sinners understanding their own personal realities through the acknowledgment of personal transgression before God (1 John 1:9) and to one another within the Body of Christ (James 5:16). The narrative then does not seek to evade judgment (“the parents thou hasn’t given me, they did tempt me and I did eat”). Instead it judges my sin personally, fits it within the universal story, and crucifies it with Christ.

Could it be that the reason the search for closure through exploration of childhood trauma didn’t work is because, first of all, childhood trauma isn’t the ultimate issue for most of us? Yes, Scripture tells us that parents train up children in the ways they should go, and gives us pointed warnings that this can go in either direction (the Book of Proverbs, for example). But it does so in the context of moral formation, not primarily emotional satisfaction or trauma.

Moreover, could it also be that the psychiatrist’s bench has tried to mimic badly the Roman Catholic confessional or the evangelical altar call? The “confession” of the anxious American couldn’t find “closure” because it never confessed sin and because it never closed in forgiveness through a Mediator. After all, “confronting” one’s dead mother for her emotional aloofness or her drunkenness might seem cathartic, but the anxious daughter knows there is no one listening.

The artist formerly known as Prince seemed to sum up the pop culture appropriation of the “closure” viewpoint when sang in the 1980s: “How can you just leave me standing alone in a world that’s so cold/ Maybe I’m just too demanding; maybe I’m just like my father too bold/ Maybe you’re just like my mother; she’s never satisfied/ Why do we scream at each other? This is what it sounds like, when doves cry.”

Perhaps millions of troubled Americans would have found real “closure” in the lyrics of another narrative song: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me/ I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”

For some strange reason, this makes sense to me. But, then again, I actually like the way my parents reared me, so perhaps there is some more psychological exploring to do. Come to think of it, why didn’t my father buy me a sportscar for my fourteenth birthday?

You are part of a family and family is difficult because family – every family – is an echo of the gospel.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral and public policy agency 
of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.