The Depressed Christian: part 2 – sin

I’m sorry. This post should have been live last Thursday. It was more than writer’s block: I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t open up Scrivener, let alone write the words. It wasn’t just procrastination. Normally I can get going by throwing down a quick first draft, but there were too many ideas, too many doubts. It wasn’t a lack of time, for there was ample, and we give our time to what we care about. The task was just too much. It was a difficult post to write – I joked with a friend that the topic could easily become 73 posts! I somehow pushed through and ended up with a first draft, though it was nowhere near ready to go live. I still feel it isn’t ready: there is so much more to say on the topic, so let’s consider this a starting point for discussion. Nevertheless, apologies for not finessing it and getting it live.

You were expecting a post on Thursday, because I stated I would be posting every Thursday, and I let you down for apparently no good reason. It looks like laziness or procrastination or writer’s block when in reality the stumbling block was my depression. And yet, I feel I need to apologise.

Let’s take another example. On Monday I impressed my wife by leaping out of bed at the sound of my alarm to go for a run. She was less than impressed when a few minutes later I crawled back into bed. I made excuses, of course I did – that I hadn’t slept well enough, that it was too cold. But really, inside I was just low. But is that in itself an excuse? Was I really low, or just demotivated?

And here-in lies the dilemma the depressive has. There is often a felt need to apologise for the depression, because of what it does. But there is a fine line between apologising for the effects of depression and apologising for the depression itself. It’s such a fine line it’s almost non-existent and I’m essentially playing with words. There is also a balance between where normal behaviour ends and depression begins. It is close to the eternal debate: is there any point at which my depression is sin, or sinful?

There are three mistakes we can make with regard to this issue. One is to ignore it completely. The other is to come into it with the assume one way or other, with a lack of appreciation for the opposing view. These are both disasterous because there may be an ounce of truth in the other side. The depressed Christian needs to not only hear but find the truth. This should include thinking through the most bizarre thought processes: for the depressed Christian, this is not a theoretical question postulated by clever theologians in late-night discussions, pipe and dram in hand, but an insanely practical one. It has to do with one’s own salvation, and therefore one’s current and future hope; something which is sorely lacking during a depressed episode. And it is hope that gives reason to keep on plodding forward. Think of it like this: when I was a teen I listened to Led Zeppelin – very very loudly. When asked to turn it down by any family member, I would retort “but it’s Led Zeppelin: they deserve to be played loudly!” A depressed person needs our support, and that means giving them an airing for their inner thoughts: as illogical as they may sound they may have some truth in them.

Some would say that depression in and of itself is sinful. A typical argument would go like this. As a Christian, you are to be joyful. Paul gives the directive, not a suggestion, to “be joyful in hope” (Romans 12:12a). Jesus commands us to lay our burdens down at his feet, and to not worry about what tomorrow will bring. Or again, “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23a). In addition, anyone who is not for Christ is against him. Therefore, if we are not trusting in Him for a time can we still claim to be Christians? This leads to doubt about our salvation, especially if we are depressed and unable to trust anyone. Therefore, if you are not abounding in joy you are a weak Christian. Here’s an actual quote from a web page:

[depression comes because of, among other things]
“7. A lack of faith and trust in God, a lack of contentment and high self-esteem are the root causes of anxiety and depression.
8. The bad news is that non-Christians have no escape of anxiety and depression because they have no one that is looking out for their wellbeing.”

I think the second statement is a very wrong statement to make. It is self-evidently untrue. Non-Christians do have people looking out for them. Indeed, the non-Christian psychologist I saw was most helpful; the non-Christian GPs were all fantastic. What the author is getting at, though, is that Christians have a great friend and helper in Christ. Therefore we have a particular ‘ escape route’ from depression. Yet ‘escape route’ is a faulty image. It suggests the way is well lit, clearly marked, and takes you directly to freedom, when the reality is far different – I’ll be posting more about what healing looks like in a future post. But the rough argument has some truth in it. They are, after-all, direct quotations.


But there is another simple conclusion to draw when we consider the definitions of the issue at hand.

Sin: those things we do or fail to do which displease God, that go against his will. To sin against someone is to do something contrary to their wishes.
Depression: an illness which causes a lowering in mood for a period of time – not just regular ‘sadness’. I like to think of it as an illness which presses down on you and makes all the normal things difficult – responding to emotions properly, making wise choices, getting things done, thinking properly.

So from that the obvious answer would be that it is not a sin to have depression, any more than it is sinful to have a broken arm. Depression is something that happens to you, for whatever reason. You cannot control depression happening to you.

But I think there’s more to the story.
Let’s consider the above quote.

“Depression comes from a lack of faith and trust in God, a lack of contentment and high self-esteem.”

Let’s focus on high self-esteem.
Timothy Keller once argued in a sermon that although we as a society hold low self-esteem to be the root causes of many of our social ills, it is actually the opposite and that we are really only society to hold this view. Is this as bonkers as it initially sounds? It sounds wacky, because we are so assured in our own belief, but it does make some sense. If I were to break into someone’s home, do I think highly or lowly of myself? I would be thinking that I am better than you, and that your security and feelings of safety are not worth my salt. If I were shout at my wife, would that come from thinking nothing of myself? Not really, because in that situation I would be believing that I am right about this issue, regardless of whether I am actually right or not.

But what about other symptoms of depression, such as self-harm (I write as someone who has self-harmed). Do we harm ourselves because we think too highly of ourselves or too low? Too lowly, most would assume, as I used to. You can’t think highly of yourself if you are willing to harm yourself – surely that says you believe you are not worth anything? No. I harmed because I felt I had no other way to release my emotions. I felt that cutting would help, more than any other methods. My way of dealing with my emotions was right, and I refused to listen to the people telling me it wasn’t the best way. If I had been more humble, I would have tried other methods.

Low self-esteem does cause issues, that is true. People hold very real fears about not being good enough for a certain task. Runners get this – “I’m too slow to call myself a runner!” Heck, Dick Beardsley thought as he was standing at the start, right before his 1982 Boston Marathon, “what am I doing here, with all these great elites…”

It is too high a view of ourselves that makes us think that we are right, and that others are wrong. This goes for out attitude God. When Adam and Eve first ate the fruit in the Garden, they said that God’s way was not the right way. If they weren’t thinking of themselves they would trusted God, not the serpent.

So high self-esteem causes some problems, specifically not trusting God – the first sin. In that sense the author is correct. But does it cause depression? Not in itself, but if it leads us to not trust in God, this causes sin, and this can cause depression. Or to say it another way, this can cause depression.

Spiritual depression

In our medicalised society we have tended to shy away from the idea of spiritual depression. I haven’t, as far as I remember, heard a live sermon on it. I think this is because we are frightened to suggest it exists, because we are frightened of the consequence – that the depressed person will spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find solace by examining their sins, repenting, and yet not seeing freedom from their depression. We are so assured that all depression is physical, we forget this exists. In my next post I’ll be discussing other types.

Yet spiritual depression is one type of depression. Physical depression is another. Martin Lloyd-Jones has an incredibly helpful series on the matter. It was recorded long before Led Zeppelin, probably on an 8-track. The quality is therefore understandably poor and you will need your best speakers turned up louder than I used to listen to Led Zep just to be able to make it out. But in his gentle way he acknowledges that a Christian can be ‘unhappy’ (a term which was a great deal stronger than our current definitions), but can find joy. Check the whole series out here. Alistair Begg also touches on the issue here.

All I can really do here is remind us of Psalm 32, with two clear caveats.

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

– Psalm 32: 1-5

In the first part, the symptoms of the unconfessed sin match very closely with that of depression. “my bones wasted away… my strength was sapped… your hand was heavy on me…”

This makes it clear that:
1. Our sin can cause depression, but remember, not all depression is caused by sin.
2. We mustn’t be afraid of introspection. If sin is the cause of a depression, we can only find this out through prayer, introspection and talking things through. We should help a depressed Christian think through their innermost thoughts while reminding them of the greater truths. A very fine trick if you can do it: throw them a life-ring, encourage them to put it on, but allow them to swim to safety at their own rate.
3. if the depression is not caused by a sin, that will become apparent with time. God forgives. So if having repented we are still not free from the depression, there must be some other reason.

I have been disuaded from introspection both from friends and the pulpit. I have always attended churches which proclaim Christ and Christ alone as our savour and hope, but is realistic about our sinful nature. I have heard people promote the idea that for every time we look inward we should look ten times at Christ. But there is a danger in this truth, in that people tend to spend so much time looking outward they forget about looking inward.
There is lots more to say. Next week, I’ll be considering the same issue from a slightly different point of view. For now, let’s remember that depression in and of itself is not sinful.