Depression, sin and trust issues

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I just wanted to pick up on something I’ve seen suggested a few times namely that depression is intrinsically sinful because it involves a lack or loss of trust in the Lord.   I’ve seen this suggested in the context of medication -that you should be depending on God to heal you but I’ve also seen it mentioned in a slightly broader sense. The assumption is that a person’s low mood indicates a lack of joy and trust in the Lord, that their anxiety is disobeying the Lord’s command not to worry/be anxious.

It’s worth repeating my position on sin and depression which is that both those who would say “depression is caused by sin” and those who insist that we should never talk about sin in the context of depression risk becoming over dogmatic.

It is true that just like with any suffering that you face, sin can play a part in depression. Let me break that down in to two parts. First of all, sin can play a part in causing any form of suffering. If you lost your job because you were defrauding your boss then yes you would suffer hardship and your hardship would be a direct consequence of sin.  Similarly if you crashed your car resulting in whiplash and broken bones because you were speeding whilst under the influence then your suffering would be real but again caused by sin.  However, we can distinguish that from insisting that suffering is caused by and only by sin. We know that people will lose their job, get injured, suffer hardship because of all kinds of reasons and that sometimes they won’t be able to discern a known reason.

Similarly, we can identify ways in which sin might cause, indirectly cause or contribute to depression and other mental health issues. This might include using drugs that have a psychological effect, harbouring bitterness etc. It may also be the case that your depression arises out of one of the examples above so that the sin indirectly causes this form of suffering as a consequence of other types of suffering such as physical injury  or economic hardship.

We also would want to acknowledge that we can respond in sinful ways to suffering including depression and that may well include a wilful failure to trust in God. Though we must also be alert to how medical health can affect thought processes so that we can confuse sinful thoughts with delusions caused by physical/neurological conditions over which the person has no control.  A doctor friend of mine describes a situation where they were called to visit someone who was having a crisis of faith. The person was doubting God and doubting their salvation.  We’ve used this example in pastoral care training. What would you do if called out as an elder to such a situation. It’s tempting to leap in and challenge the person about sin or to go through some apologetic material isn’t it?  Well in this case, the doctor spotted that the person was severely anaemic. Once they were treated for this, their doubts went away.

Or to give another example, I know of a pastor who was approached by another pastor because they found that on Sunday evenings after preaching twice they crashed into an emotional slump.  Again they were tempted to doubt God and his calling on their life.  My friend’s advice to them? 

“When you get home, switch off the phone. Don’t check your correspondence.  Poor a bath and relax.”

But there can be times when our response to a situation is sinful. Indeed when I harbour bitterness that is an example of responding sinfully to things that have happened to me. So, it is important to remember that we are all finite and fallen. We all sin.

Having said that, my experience of depression did not at any point involve a loss of trust in God. Indeed, it was through my sickness that I experienced perhaps one of the most tender and intimate times of refreshing and closeness to God.  Apart from watching some undemanding day time TV, I didn’t have much else to do. I had occasional visitors but I spent a lot of time on my own. I wasn’t up to any heavy duty reading and I wasn’t working.  And that’s the space where I learnt even more to cling to Christ, to express my love for him and trust in him.

We should be very careful about generalising, even from our own experiences. So it’s best not to jump to conclusions about what is causing someone’s depression or how they are responding. This risks placing us in the category of “Job’s comforters.”  Instead, take time to listen to what someone is able to say for themselves about what is happening. It may be that they are really struggling with their faith and relationship with God through their depression. However, it may be that God is deeply at work in their life through it. I would not personally have chosen the trial of depression or the events surrounding it. However, I’m grateful that God used it for good. 

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