This post is from 2005, and refers specifically to a discussion on another blog which unfortunately is no longer available. Without reference to those earlier posts, my comments here are easily misunderstood, as I was dealing with specific questions they raised. If you want a more thorough and more helpful answer to the question Tim Chester examines “Is depression a sin?” far better than I did here.
This posting has been sparked by two posts on Steve Leher’s blog (1, 2). Specifically, Steve states that depression is a sin, a position on which he is later challenged by a reader (whom he calls ‘Bob’). Bob helpfully summarises the disagreement like this:
The basic point of disagreement we have is whether depression or manic depression are illnesses. Maybe I’m overlooking something but I didn’t notice where you said they were not that you were able to support that Biblically or otherwise to my satisfaction. It’s basically your opinion which you can have but which I can also disagree with.
Unfortunately, this discussion (like so many) boils down to definitions. In his article (PDF link) Steve borrows Robert Smith’s defininition of depression as:
a debilitating mood, feeling, or attitude of hopelessness (despair or joylessness), which becomes a person’s reason for not handling the most important issues of life.
Now it doesn’t take a genius to work out that that is sinful. Simply not handling the “most important issues of life” is (by definition) sinful. It’s also a somewhat pejorative definition. Had it read “which means a person is unable to handle the most important issues” then perhaps Bob would be able to agree with it. As it stands the definition deliberately implies that depression is not a genuine reason, it is only given as a reason.
Like Bob (I’m not sure about Steve), I do believe that there is such as thing as a mental disorder. That is, there are some people whose brains are wired in such a way as they find it difficult (perhaps almost impossible) to stop falling into deep depression (depression is of course only one example of a mental disorder). Incidentally, I am very aware that ‘wired’ is a completely inadequate word, but for the sake of simplicity I shall not try to expound it.
The reason that their brain is ‘wired’ in this way may be due to past sin (theirs, or often anothers), present sin (sinful actions or thoughts), or just their physiological makeup. Usually it is a combination of all three. Frankly to expect all brains to be wired perfectly in a fallen world stretches the doctrine of common grace far beyond all reasonable expectations.
Having your brain wired in such a way is of course, not a sin, though it may be a result of sin. This ‘wiring’ is (I think) what Bob is referring to as depression, and the reason why he got so steamed up when he read Steve’s article. For a sufferer, it means that your whole being seems to be tempting you into darker and darker thoughts, and it seems futile to resist. Again this temptation is not sinful. Temptation never is.
What is sinful, is the giving into that temptation. It may seem as though there is no escape, no other option, but there always is (1 Corinthians 10:13).
There are those whose minds often tempt them into depression. Likewise, there are others whose minds often tempt them into violence. But violence is always wrong, even if there are mitigating psychological factors (hence the British courts will often pass a verdict of ‘manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility’ for a murder committed by someone suffering from a psychiatric disorder). Whilst I am by no means suggesting that the sin of being depressed is in any way as serious as the sin of murder, I think we can draw a parallel. Succumbing to the temptation of depression is wrong, even though there are mitigating circumstances. (Of course, this does not mean that ‘being sad’ is sinful, and neither Steve nor Bob would say that. Sadness and depression are not the same.)
If I can be allowed to mediate between Steve and Bob, can I suggest the following?
- We refrain from calling depression an illness, and refer to it as a disorder. This may be semantics, but the discussion’s easier if we all agree terms
- We accept that due to physiological and psychological makeup (which may be the result of sin, or simply living in a fallen world), some people are much more prone to succumbing to depression than others.
- We accept that succumbing to depression is wrong. I think that Bob is almost accepting this when he says “Terrific! I’m not responsible for my behavior because I’m “sick”. I often wish that were true. I often end up saying I’m sorry for something I’ve done or not done while challenged by my condition.”
If we can agree that, I think the discussion can continue with even greater understanding.