At one extreme we can see that we each need to take responsibility for our own lives. We all made choices, whether good or bad, and then we have to live with the consequences of those choices. If we have problems in this world, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
At the opposite extreme, we can see that we are all victims. We are shaped by things we cannot control: by DNA, by our environment, by chemicals in us or around us. When we make mistakes, and when we have problems, we deserve compassion rather than judgment.
We all land somewhere between these two extremes. Sometimes when we try to talk about responsibility, we talk past each other, addressing ourselves to the extreme position we think we are hearing rather than to what the other person is actually saying. What can be said, then, to try to find a meeting point where genuine discussion can take place, consisting more of light than of heat?
- A sin is still a sin. When any of us does what God forbids, or fails to do what God requires, God holds us responsible. He does not allow us to blame the devil, or the way our parents raised us, or television, or video games, or whatever chemicals might have been involved.
- Sin damages creation, including people. “The wages of sin is death,” and all the other pains and sorrows that afflict people in this world are likewise the results of sin. There is no one-to-one correspondence between sin and suffering, though. Sin can be regarded as a pollution that corrupts the entire world and harms all people.
- Life is not fair. God is just and fair, but evil is random and unfair. God limits the harm done by evil, but he permits evil to happen so people can see the difference between good and evil and prefer what is good. Moreover, if God were limited to being just and fair, the sacrifice of Jesus could not redeem and rescue sinners. God permits the injustice of evil so he can provide the greater blessings prompted by his love, his grace, and his mercy.
- In one sense, every problem in this world is a spiritual problem. Because all problems flow from sin—from rebellion against God—the only ultimate solution for all problems is the righteousness of Christ and his redemption.
- On the other hand, we are living in a material world. Nearly all of our problems will have a material component. In this sin-polluted world our bodies are vulnerable to accidents, injuries, diseases, allergies, poisons, and the like. In addition to the benefits of God’s grace to take away our sins, we need doctors, nurses, therapists, pharmacists, counselors, and other professionals to help us with our problems. At times we need medicines, casts, crutches, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and other material assistance to support us with our material problems.
- Mental and emotional sicknesses, including anxiety and depression, also have material components. Among the possible causes of mental illnesses are poor nutrition, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, current stress, previous trauma, abuse, chemical imbalance, physical illness, side-affects of treatment for physical illness, guilt and shame over ongoing sins or past sins, and many more.
- Among the appropriate responses to mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression, are a physical check-up, faith-based counseling, secular counseling, medication, and hospitalization. Because these illnesses have so many different causes, no single response deals with all cases. A medication or a faith-based counselor that restores the health of one person might be unable to help another or even harmful to another.
- Mental illness is not a choice. While it might appear that one can address another person’s eating disorder by providing him or her with food, much more is happening inside that person than a choice not to eat. People with depression do not want to feel depressed; they want to feel better. While examples can be given of mental illnesses that began with bad choices—substance abuse and addiction, for one—the person with the illness cannot and should not be expected to fix his or her problems by his or her own strength.
- Healthy living and good choices can reduce a person’s vulnerability to many illnesses, including mental illnesses. However, they do not guarantee perfect health. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or depression can all strike a person who has made good and healthy choices for a lifetime. None of these illnesses is the result of a particular sin or of committing more sins than the healthy person without that illness.
I could go on. Much more remains to be said. Perhaps this is enough, though, to begin a useful conversation. J.