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Answered by Jim Sire

Isn't Christian faith just a psychological crutch? This is a real question from someone who has been surfing the web and finding The Mars Hill Forum. When I am talking with university students, I frequently hear precisely this question or ones very like it. It merits an answer.

Actually, the simple answer to this question is no. Hardly anything is "just" some other fairly simple thing. Whatever else Christian faith is, it is not "just" a psychological crutch. But other questions on the same issue should not be dismissed so easily. Try these, for example: (1) What is Christian faith? (2) What is a psychological crutch? (3) When, if ever, is Christian faith a psychological crutch? (4) Is it ever only a psychological crutch? (5) How can we keep Christian faith from being only a psychological crutch? Those questions are more fruitful and are worth addressing at some length. Let's take them in turn.

(1) WHAT IS CHRISTIAN FAITH? My answer will be brief, focusing on the issues relating to whether it is a psychological crutch. Christian faith is personal trust in the God of the Bible, the Trinity--Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The center of this trust involves a personal relationship with God, one in which we recognize our dependence on him not just for our existence but for our salvation. We acknowledge that we are not the people we were created to be, that we have abandoned God and gone our own way, and we rest in the assurance that Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection has reconciled us to God. As a result we are able to be honest about who we are (rebellious and broken people in need of healing and a transformation of character), and we are able to hope, to have a growing confidence that Jesus Christ is sovereign over all of reality, that his kingdom is being realized, and that he is indeed returning us to the arms of the one holy and loving God.

(2) WHAT IS A PSYCHOLOGICAL CRUTCH? This is certainly not a technical term; in fact, the term is often used as a put-down. It implies that no one should rely on such a device, that instead we should be brave and face the cruel facts of life. We should cope with reality on our own. But let's look again. An ordinary crutch is a device that allows us to stand or walk when one of our legs is broken. If our legs can't hold us, we don't hesitate to use a crutch. Our only question is, will it do the job? That is, does it fit? Is it strong enough to hold us? Now, what if psychologically we are so emotionally upset that we can't cope? Surely, if we are psychologically weak, the right kind of psychological crutch would help. Of course, our hope in both cases is that our legs and our emotions will heal. We don't want to be on crutches forever, though better to be on crutches than spend our lives in a wheelchair or on a psych ward. So let's call a psychological crutch something that allows us (as broken people seeking healing) to cope with life.

(3) WHEN, IF EVER, IS CHRISTIAN FAITH A PSYCHOLOGICAL CRUTCH? In one sense, Christian faith is always a psychological crutch. This side of heaven, we are never fully healed--emotionally, spiritually or physically. None of us is able to stand on our own, guiltless before a holy God. As much as we as Christians can and do mature in our relationship to God, we never achieve perfect spiritual health. We must always lean on Christ. It's when we think we can go it alone that we fall flat. It is only while we are on crutches that God's healing hand restores us and finally brings us in transformed, resurrected glory to himself. Many Christians have been comforted by Jesus' words in Matthew: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV)

Of course, Christian faith is much more than a psychological crutch--so much more that most of us find it odd to use the term. Christianity, we believe, is simply the truth about reality. It is the truth about God, about us and about the universe. It seems strange to use the word crutch about the truth. But the truth of the matter is that for us the truth is the crutch that holds us when we otherwise would sink even more deeply into the pit of error. Of course, we seldom refer to our faith as a crutch. We don't like the connotations of the term. Rather, we talk about growing in Christ, of deepening our relationship with God, even of occasionally being swept up in ecstatic worship of our Savior and Lord. We forget the crutches when we are walking and even running with Jesus--even when we are running with crutches.

(4) IS CHRISTIAN FAITH EVER ONLY A PSYCHOLOGICAL CRUTCH? It can be for some people--for anyone actually. It is only a crutch when we are looking only for a way to cope with the world. It is only a crutch when we do not care whether Christ is real, so long as we feel better by believing he is real. It is only a crutch when we fail to obey his commands. It is only a crutch when, after it has got us through a bout of depression, we throw it away. Of course, Christian faith can "just be a crutch." But when it is, it is worse than useless. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that it is "our" faith in Christ that has brought us through the deep valley. If we have come through the valley, it is Christ who has led us through, not our faith. When we throw him away, we throw away life itself.

(5) HOW CAN WE KEEP CHRISTIANITY FROM BEING ONLY A PSYCHOLOGICAL CRUTCH? Many, probably most, maybe all, of us come to faith in Christ because we know we lack something and we see something in Christianity that looks like it will fill that lack. This puts us on the way to Christ. There we find what we long for. As Augustine put it, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." We find that rest. But soon after, we also come to realize that there is more to Christian faith than getting what we want. We come to see that life with Christ is a rich personal experience of seeing truth and righteousness in action. Christian faith is not just a crutch; it is a whole way of life.

We can keep Christian faith from being only a psychological crutch by following Jesus, reading the Scripture, praying, doing deeds worthy of the kingdom of God, fellowshipping with other Christians and worshiping together. Frankly, most Christians, even new and immature believers, soon act as if their faith is much more than a crutch. All it takes is engaging in the disciplines of the Christian life, in short, doing what we come to know is right to do.

Further Reading:

If you'd like to find out more about Christianity, take a look at one or more of the following books.

Any and all of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Stott, John R. W. Basic Christianity, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1971).

Sire, James W. Discipleship of the Mind. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1990).

James Sire, formerly a senior editor at InterVarsity Press, is a frequent guest lecturer at colleges and universities in the United States and Europe. He has written written many books and Bible studies. Copyright ©2002 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. Permission kindly granted to Faith and Reason Forum by InterVarsity Press.