I’ve been sent a couple of questions on depression. One was in response to my book, You Can Change, asking if I think depression is a sin. The other is from David Wayne, a pastor in Maryland, in response to my series on communities of grace. Here’s what David wrote:
Here in the US, the therapeutic culture defines and narrates the story of depression. The psychologists, psychiatrists and other therapists are the great high priests on these issues, high priests to whose wisdom we ill-informed pastors must bow. I do know and understand that, by and large, the church and many of us pastors are given to flippant and pious platitudes in response to depression. On the other hand, since the therapeutic culture gets to narrate the story of depression, when we pastors seek to frame a biblical story of depression we are usually ruled out of line and hurtful. For the most part, depressed people in my congregation, or others who are under the influence of any kind of counsellor simply will not listen to me. They will tell me what their counsellor says about how I am to help them and it is my job to receive instruction from them and to never contradict the authority of the counsellor.
Here’s my response to these two questions.
A medical view of depression is not enough
I don’t think that depression is simply a medical condition like breaking a leg. But nor do I think it is a consequence of a particular sin. I think it is more complicated than both of those statements allow. I don’t want to provide a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to the question is depression a sin.
I think a better analogy than breaking a leg might be something like anxiety. An anxious person is failing to trust the sovereign care of their heavenly Father. Jesus tells us worry arises from little faith (Luke 12). Does that mean I condemn an anxious person? Of course not. I sympathize with them. First, because what is causing them to be anxious is real. And, second, because I, too, struggle day by day to have faith in God in a thousand ways. We all do. We are all sinners dependent on God’s grace. So I sympathize with them and I love them. But, because I love them, I also call on them to trust God rather than be anxious. This is where hope is found. This is good news for the anxious person. So I call on them to have faith in God, just as they call on me to have faith in God’s goodness rather than seek pleasure in ungodly ways or to have faith in God’s grace rather than seek to prove myself or to have faith in God’s glory rather than fear people and so on.
The same is true of depression. Depression can have a number of underlying causes – guilt, disappointment, trauma, bereavement, betrayal and so on. (Depression is sometimes linked to chemical imbalances in the brain, but medical science is unclear which is cause and which is effect. In my experience and the experience of others pastors to whom I’ve talked, chemical imbalances are never the only cause. You have to remember that medical practitioners look at all problems in medical terms because that is what they are trained to deal with – they almost inevitably ignore the spiritual dimension.)
We are not responsible for most of those causes. But we are responsible for how we respond to them. We all at different points in our life have to respond to adverse circumstances. Those circumstances may be external (bereavement, failure, disappointment, relational difficulties). They may be internal (illness, chemical imbalances). They may involve both external and internal factors. But we are responsible for how we respond and we will respond with different degrees of faith. Where we are not trusting God’s grace or God’s care or God’s goodness then that response will be expressed in ungodly ways.
The word ‘depression’ covers so much that it is impossible to say depression is a sin or not a sin. Many of those causes (guilt, disappointment, trauma and so on) will make us sad. They may sap our energy and our zest for life. They may feel like an overwhelming darkness. All these are classic symptoms of what people call depression. All of them are, I think, natural and often quite proper responses. But God also tells us to rejoice in the Lord. So in some people features of their depression can reflect a failure to have faith in God in some sense. They may doubt God’s grace and so be consumed by guilt. They may doubt God’s goodness and so be consumed by disappointment. They may doubt God’s care are so be consumed by fear. For some people their depression becomes an identity that enables them to avoid taking responsibility in life.
Does that mean I condemn them? Of course not. I sympathize with them. First, because what is causing them to be depressed is real. And, second, because I, too, struggle day by day to have faith in God. We all do. We are all sinners dependent on God’s grace. So I sympathize with them and I love them. But because I love them I also call on them to trust God and find joy in him. I will do this gently, patiently, persistently. I don’t expect instant change – the Bible does not promise instant change and I know from my own life that change takes a lifetime. But I also want to offer hope. There is good news for the person who is depressed. So I call on them to have faith in God, just as they call on me to have faith in God for the issues with which I struggle.
This is how Steve Timmis put it to me in an email: “I think the most significant issue with depression is that people actually ‘feel’ sad, down, lifeless, disinterested, apathetic and it won’t disappear. There is nothing imaginary about it; that’s the way it is. But I have yet to find someone whose depression is non-circumstantial. In my experience it is always in some way responsive. However, because the incident or situation invariably strikes at the core of who I am and what I cherish or worship, the emotions will not disappear at the wave of a wand, or the reciting of a text or the rehearsal of a truth. But the texts and truths are salient to my circumstances and response to it, so they need to be massaged deep into my heart by me, my brothers and sisters, and through prayer.”
Depression in a community of grace
Let me add – and this brings more directly to David’s email – that I am always surprised that people are so reluctant to say that sin might be involved in depression. People seem to think this is cruel. But it should not be shocking to evangelicals to discover that we are sinners, and that our sin affects us in profound and significant ways. And seeing the sin that is involved also offers profound and significant hope because we have a Saviour who rescues us from the penalty and power of sin. Often the process of change is slow. Complete change takes a lifetime. But change is always possible because of Christ’s work for us and the Spirit’s work in us. That is not cruel. That is good news.
We have two people in our congregation who have been on medication for depression. These are the truths that have brought hope and change to their lives.
I don’t think it is ever a case of repent of your sin and all will be well – if by that you mean that change can be instantaneous or easy. Change is is a daily struggle and a lifelong struggle.
On the subject of medication, I’m not a medical doctor so I am always reluctant to give advice. I fear medication is too often seen as a quick and easy way for the medical services to mask the problem and avoid the time involved in addressing the underlying issues. But I also think medication can alleviate the symptoms of depression and create space to tackle the real issues. Therefore it can play a welcome role. So follow the advice of a medical doctor when it comes to medication, but also seek to address the underlying issues through the gospel care of the Christian community.
The telling statement in the email from the person who asked whether depression is a sin was one in which they said that someone with depression is viewed in the church as ‘less a Christian’; that there is a stigma attached to it. I am really sorry if this has been people’s experience. Really sorry. It is simply not true that Christians with depression are in any way lesser Christians. In fact it’s a horribly, ugly distortion of the gospel. But the issue is not whether some people think depression is a sin or not (as if Christians without depression are not sinners in a myriad of others ways?!). The issue is people believing anything we might do could make us more or less a Christian. That is the lie. I guess it’s a lie many people operate with, but it is a lie. Our identity is entirely based on God’s electing love, Christ’s finished work and the Spirit’s regenerating power. I can’t add to that and I can’t take away from that.
So the real problem, I suspect, are performance-oriented churches where people pretend to be okay because their standing within the church depends on it. A ‘sorted’ person is seen as the standard or the norm, and anyone who is struggling is seen as sub-standard or sub-Christian. I can see that in that kind of environment that to acknowledge that you are a sinner is difficult and distressing. But this is the opposite of grace. Grace acknowledges that we are all sinners, we are all messed up people, all struggling, all doubting at a functional level. But grace also affirms that in Christ we all belong, all make the grade, all are welcome, all are Christians (there are no lesser Christians). Imagine such a church for a moment. Here is Andrew: he sometimes uses pom because he struggles to find refuge in God. Here’s Pauline: she sometimes has panic attacks because she struggles to believe in the care of her heavenly Father. Here’s Abdul: he sometimes looses his temper because he struggles to believe that God is in control. Here’s Georgina: she sometimes has bouts of depression because she struggles to believe God’s grace. When they come together they accept one another and celebrate God’s grace towards each other. They rejoice that they are all children of God through the work of Christ. And they remind one another of the truths each of them needs to keep going and to change. It’s a community of grace, a community of hope, a community of change. ‘Blessed are the broken people for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:3).
The question about depression that really matters
In summary: Is depression a sin? The question only matters if you are part of a performance-based community. If you are part of a community of grace then the question that matters is: What gospel truths do we need to remind you of as we love you?
David ends by saying:
Frankly I think it is often hard for the depressed and “psychologized” person to avail themselves of what a true community of grace might offer. The story they are told by their therapists is that their sufferings are unique and they are fragile and the church community will very likely be harmful to them since the church community probably can’t offer them what they need nor understand them. Because of that they often can’t come in as participants in the community of grace – they often have to stay at arms length because of the harm that may come to them from others … I deeply long for the kind of community you are describing, but have been terribly frustrated at the fact that many expect the community and it’s leaders to submit to the conventional wisdoms of the therapeutic culture.
Recommended books on depression
If you want to follow this up further here are my top book recommendations: