Hi Mr. Evan.
I heard about you from a friend of mine and she said you were accepting questions. I have a question for you.
One time years ago, I heard a pastor’s sermon about depression and anxiety. I was surprised when he said that being depressed and having anxiety is a sin. He said that a depressed person does not trust in God’s promise, that’s why he/she is depressed. And having anxiety means a person is disregarding Jesus’ command to not be afraid or worry. He said it also means a person is doubting God if a person has anxiety.
As someone who has both, I feel really disturbed by this sermon. I tried not to think about it but I always wondered if the pastor was right. The things he said also seemed to have a point, but I persistently refused to acknowledge it over the years. Is being in depression and anxiety being in a state of sin? Is suffering from these a sinful state to be in?
I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you.
As someone who suffers from crippling OCD, anxiety, and ADHD, it really makes my blood boil to hear such talk coming from Christians, especially pastors who influence their congregations. The problem with atheists is that they act like we’re just organic robots causally determined by our brain chemistry, firing neurons, and DNA. A lot of religious fundamentalists go to the opposite extreme and, at least act like we are just purely spiritual entities. The truth of the matter is that we are body/soul composites. We are literally embodied spirits. There is plenty of evidence both in philosophical arguments and from the text of scripture that humans have/are souls as I point out in my blog post “Q&A: Biblical Arguments Against The Soul?”
But it is even more evidence that we have bodies. Far too often Christians (particularly fundamentalists) act as though mental illness is a conspiracy of “secular science” (and by that, they mean the field of psychology and nueroscience); that every problem you have can be attributed to sin in your life, demonic oppression, or what have you. No doubt demons and fallen angels can cause affliction. One only needs to read the book of Job (the text is clear that Satan was the cause of Job’s boils) or Luke 13:11-13.
The latter passage says “and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, ‘Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.’ Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.”
We also have biblical evidence that an affliction could be the result of sin. In John 5:1-13, Jesus healed a crippled man. And in verse 14, Jesus told him to stop sinning or something worse may happen to him, implying that his sin got him into that mess.
But not every affliction can be attributed to supernatural entities or being a bad follower of Yahweh. Mental Illness is a real thing. We are not just Souls. We are souls with bodies. We have brains. That’s that little pinkish-grey thing that sits between your ears. It’s the logo of my ministry. The brain is wired. It’s got chemicals and firing neurons. And sometimes brains can go wrong. Sometimes brains are misformed through fetal development. Sometimes something else happens to throw off the neurology. And sometimes it has nothing to do with sin or the devil. Sometimes (often times) you’re not afflicted by a demon.
It is scientifically proven that most cases of depression are caused by a chemical imbalance. According to this article from Harvard Medical School’s website;
“It’s often said that depression results from a chemical imbalance, but that figure of speech doesn’t capture how complex the disease is. Research suggests that depression doesn’t spring from simply having too much or too little of certain brain chemicals. Rather, there are many possible causes of depression, including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, medications, and medical problems. It’s believed that several of these forces interact to bring on depression.
To be sure, chemicals are involved in this process, but it is not a simple matter of one chemical being too low and another too high. Rather, many chemicals are involved, working both inside and outside nerve cells. There are millions, even billions, of chemical reactions that make up the dynamic system that is responsible for your mood, perceptions, and how you experience life.
With this level of complexity, you can see how two people might have similar symptoms of depression, but the problem on the inside, and therefore what treatments will work best, may be entirely different.
Researchers have learned much about the biology of depression. They’ve identified genes that make individuals more vulnerable to low moods and influence how an individual responds to drug therapy. One day, these discoveries should lead to better, more individualized treatment (see “From the lab to your medicine cabinet”), but that is likely to be years away. And while researchers know more now than ever before about how the brain regulates mood, their understanding of the biology of depression is far from complete.
What follows is an overview of the current understanding of the major factors believed to play a role in the causes of depression.”1
The article goes on to talk about the science of neurologically induced depression in detail (click here to read it). I’m not surprised that the pastor didn’t know this. Scientific illiteracy is rampant in the church. The persistence of Young Earth Creationism is but one of the many symptoms of this illiteracy.
Depression and Anxiety are often not because the Christian hasn’t said the right incantation to get rid of the so-called demon. It’s not because they’re living in unrepentant sin. It’s not because they don’t have enough faith in God. It’s because they have messed up brains. Now, I said at the beginning of this blog post that this ignorance on the part of the fundamentalists makes my blood boil. It is not for the mere fact that they are factually wrong, but because this whole idea of “Well, if you just had more faith in God, you wouldn’t be so worried all the time.” is damaging. As your own e-mail attests, not everyone knows better. And for someone who legitimately has some kind of anxiety disorder, this mindset can be spiritually damaging. Christians can pray, pray, pray, pray until the cows come home but they don’t feel any happier. They can pour over the scriptures, memorize them, and try to find peace there, but alas, it’s no good. Some of these start to become bitter towards God. Perhaps they’ll even start to doubt the existence of God. And why? All because of scientific ignorance with half-true theology.
It is not a sin to have a mental illness. And Clinical Depression is considered a mental illness by medical professionals.2 So is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which I have, which is accompanied by severe anxiety.3
In other words, it’s not a sin to be sick. Jesus did command us not to worry. In Matthew 6:25-34, He said “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
In Philippians 4:6, we are commanded, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
Given that The Bible commands us not to worry, is it therefore a sin to worry? Well, that depends. Is one overly anxious because of a mental disorder? Then no. Again, it’s not a sin to be sick. God understands how the brain works better than the best neuroscientists on the planet. He understands that we can’t always control our thoughts.
But if a person is mentally stable, and if their worry is actually a legitimate lack of faith in God’s providence, then I would say that it is indeed a sin. Consider when the Israelites were wandering through the wilderness. On more than one occasion, they were afraid that Moses had brought them out there to die! They even explicitly said that they were better off in Egypt! (e.g Exodus 14:12). Think about that for a moment. They were better in Egypt where they were in slavery, ruled by harsh taskmasters? If that’s not a lack of faith, I don’t know what is! And even after witnessing all of the miracles of the Exocus plagues and the Red Sea crossing (Exodus 14:21-22), they still didn’t trust Yahweh to take care of them. In Exodus 16:3, we read The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” In the following verses, we read that God provided the Israelites mana from heaven. God gave them plenty of mana to sustain them during their wilderness wanderings every single day. And yet, they still grumbled against Him (see Exodus 17).
Did God consider their worrying sin? You better believe it! The Israelites were not suffering from mental illness. They were genuinely in unbelief. They did not trust God to provide for their needs and protect them.
Well, that deals with anxiety, but what about depression? Again, if this is due to having messed up brain chemistry, it’s not. God understands. But I’m not even certain non-mental illness induced depression is a sin. If one isn’t depressed as a result of being mentally ill, then it will be as a result of circumstance, say the death of a loved one or the loss of a job, or a series of unfortunate events. Non-clinical depression is just severe sadness. There is nothing wrong with being sad. I can’t think of a single verse that would give me any inkling to the contrary.
We live in a world of pain (Genesis 3:14–19; Romans 8:20–22), and Jesus wept over the coming destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). There is no need to always put on a happy face and pretend that things are okay when they are not.
As GotQuestions.org points out, “There are many biblical examples of men of God struggling with sadness, even to the point of depression. David wrote, “Record my misery; list my tears on your scroll—are they not in your record?” (Psalm 56:8). David, a “man after [God’s] own heart” (Acts 13:22), did not gloss over his sadness; he expressed it to God. Both Moses (Numbers 11:15) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:3–5), two heroes of the faith, confessed to God that they preferred to die than live in their current reality. Neither was rebuked by God for his feelings; rather, both were met with God’s love and provision. The Bible is not shy about admitting the realities of human emotion. Sadness is part of life, and it is not condemned.”4
In Elijah’s case, he was met by “the angel of the Lord” (a.k.a “the second power in Heaven”, “the Second Yahweh”, “The pre-incarnate Christ”). The Angel of The Lord didn’t wag a finger at Elijah and scold him for his depression. Instead, he gave him a meal, and assured him that although it looked as though Jezebel and the god Baal had all of Israel under their thumb, He reserved for Himself thousands who refused to bow the knee to Baal. (All of this in 1 Kings 19). That’s the kind of Jesus I serve. And The Bible says that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). When we are depressed, like Elijah, Jesus meets us with love and compassion. He opens his arms of love to us. He does not look over us with a scowling disapproving gaze. Instead, He weeps with us as He wept with Martha and Mary at the death of Lazarus (John 11).
In conclusion, don’t let that pastor’s misinformed sermon disturb you. If your anxiety is mental illness induced (as mine is) rather than a lack of distrust in God, you’re not sinning. And as far as depression goes, neither clinical nor circumstance induced depression is sinful. God never said, “Thou shalt not be sad”. We live in a fallen world. We’re going to be sad. Sometimes deeply sad. It’s inevitable. And it would be unreasonable for God to expect us to be happy, happy, happy 100% of the time.
Now, how should a Christian deal with anxiety and depression of any type? In 1 Peter 5:7, we are instructed to “cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” We should pray for healing and guidance, for comfort and for support. Moreover, we need to be open to the fact that God’s answer could either be supernatural or natural. Perhaps God’s answer to the prayer is therapy or medicine…or both. As I’ve stressed on this blog in the context of the creation/evolution debate, God works through natural means just as He does through supernatural means, through scientifically explicable processes as well as scientifically inexplicable processes. God’s answer might not be to snap His finger and make all the pain go away. He didn’t for me. The answer for me was Peroxitine and Clonazepam. Those two medicines did a world of difference in helping me deal with my anxiety. It didn’t help me with the billions of repetitious ritualistic disorders that go along with OCD, but at least I’m no longer constantly having panic attacks and fearing that my world could come crashing down at any moment’s notice.
As much as Paul emphasized the power of God, he still told Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach and frequent illnesses (see 1 Timothy 5:23).
We need to stop being “Theistic Epicureans” as New Testament scholar N.T Wright calls it. We need to recognize that God is just as much work in the ordinary process of the functioning cosmos as He is dramatic, sudden, and inexplicable acts of miracles. God cure your anxiety by poofing it away or through the help of your doctor or therapist.
I hope this helped you. God bless you, sister in Christ.
1: “What Causes Depression?”, June 24th 2019, — https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/what-causes-depression
2: See this article from Mayo Clinic. –> https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/expert-answers/clinical-depression/faq-20057770
4: “Is It Wrong For A Christian For To Be Depressed” –> https://www.gotquestions.org/Christian-depressed.html