Is depression sinful?

I have been out of the dark days long enough that I can begin to look back at my depression with an analytic mind. I still remember waking up in the morning and regretting it, dreading the coming day. I remember driving across bridges and studying the rail, wondering if it was possible to flip the car over the rail and down into the river. I remember using coffee as a drug to get started in the morning, and using whiskey or gin as a drug to fall asleep at night. I remember ignoring advice about saving for retirement because I did not expect or intend to live that long.

Some people say that depression is sinful. (I did some internet surfing to fact-check this statement. Some sites are pretty harsh about depression and anxiety, calling them sinful choices and not treatable illnesses.) They quote verses such as Hebrews 13:5-6, Philippians 4:6, and I Peter 5:7 as evidence that, when a person has depression, that person is sinning. I respond that depression, like anger, is not a sin. But depression, like anger, is a powerful temptation to sin. People who have depression are likely to make sinful choices that confound their families and their friends. Depression is not something they choose for themselves; depression is something that happened to them.

Being sad for a few days is not depression. Mourning a loss for a time is not depression. Depression is lingering darkness of the mind and heart. Depression is absence of hope. Depression is desire for destruction, the lack of will to continue living. Depression can lead to suicide. It can lead to other forms of self-harm, including cutting one’s body, abusing alcohol and other drugs, or trying to reinvent one’s self. Depression might cause a person to quit school, to leave a rewarding job, to refuse all invitations to spend time with friends, or to make damaging self-revelations on social media.

Depression is an illness—or, to be more accurate, depression is a symptom that something is wrong. Many causes can lead to depression. They include poor nutrition, lack of sleep or of exercise, and abuse of drugs or alcohol. (Yes—substance abuse can be a cause of depression or a result of depression. It can be both, creating a vicious spiral.) Depression can be the result of a chemical imbalance in the body. It can be a symptom of an illness or a side effect of the treatment for an illness.  Depression can be caused by ongoing stress or by childhood trauma, whether remembered or forgotten. Depression can have genetic causes, as people from some families are predisposed toward depression. Depression can be caused by spiritual problems, such as feeling guilt over one’s sins. Often depression is the result of several of these causes rather than only one of them.

Because depression has many possible causes, different things help different people to battle depression. Medication is helpful to some people but not to others. Counseling helps some people but not others. Prayer and meditation help some people but not others. Finding new hobbies or ways to be active helps some people but not others. When a person has persevered through depression and now feels better, those things that helped that one person might not be any help to another person who has depression.

When one has depression, other peoples’ hope and joy can seem like illusions. Optimists appear oblivious to reality. After all the world is a terrible place, stained by sin, and people with depression find it easy to believe that they are the only ones who see things as they really are. When someone else tries to correct their perspective, that helpful friend is likely to be told that he or she just doesn’t understand.

 Even if it appears to outsiders that a person with depression has chosen to be that way and to stay that way, accusing that person of sinning is not helpful. A sense of guilt has never helped a person shake off depression; being made to feel guilty only worsens the problem. The book of Job is a classic study in depression. Job’s friends were right to sit with him and comfort him with their presence. They were wrong to challenge his perceptions and to tell him that he was causing his own problems. God never told Job why Job was allowed to suffer, but God did say that Job’s friends were wrong and that they would be forgiven when Job prayed for them.

Being present with a person who has depression helps. Listening helps. Caring helps. Judging, arguing, and accusing do not help. Depression is connected to sin, but depression itself is not sinful. Depression is a result of living in a world polluted by sin and evil, just as influenza and cancer and broken bones are results of living in a world polluted by sin and evil. Rather than accepting all these problems, the better approach is to find solutions for these problems, whether or not those solutions include medication, counseling, or prayer. Thanking God for every kind of help he provides, we each do our best to be productive in our own lives and helpful to those around us. J.


Burrs under my saddle

I should be flying high… on top of the world with my head in the clouds… unstoppable with giddy joy. Put me behind the wheel of a car, put that car in traffic, and quickly I find I have burrs under my saddle.

On my way to work, I travel through a place where two lines from the right join with two lanes from the left, but the four-lane highway quickly becomes three-lane because the right-hand lane is “for exit only.” Needless to say, I squeeze into the next lane as quickly as I can, and then sit in slow-moving traffic while other drives zip by on the right. Few of them are using the exit (and, although I have no proof, I think some get off on the exit only to get back on the highway a few hundred feet later, possibly passing a car or five in the process). I would have no objection if the two lanes merged as a zipper—a car from the right, then a car from the left, taking turns as they taught us to do when we were children. Instead, judging by the relative speed in the two lanes, about ten cars are getting through in the right lane for every one that passes the merge in the left lane.

I’m tempted, as always in this situation, to sit close to the car in front of me, so none of those terrible people will take advantage of me. The driver of a large black pick-up truck was bolder than I was and managed to squeeze in front of me at the last second. I guess he cared less about the danger of a collision than I did. I said one of those things I’m not proud of saying—words I’d be ashamed for my mother or my daughter to hear me saying. I think the driver of the pick-up truck could read my lips. His lips were moving too, but I didn’t bother trying to read what he was saying. For all I know, he was singing along with the radio or talking on a handless cell phone.

At least he stayed in front of me. Other drivers kept changing lanes—without signaling, of course—in the hopes that they could get to work two or three seconds sooner. I think that all the traffic would flow smoother and quicker, if people would just stay in the same line, but then I’m not a traffic engineer.

Later the same day, on my way home from work, I stopped to buy a tank of gas. As the gas was flowing and I was washing the windows, I heard an explosion that very nearly moved me to drop to the pavement. It sounded very much like a gunshot, but it was not from a gun. The driver of the motorcycle had started his engine and it backfired, and I’m sure he did it on purpose. On his way out of the station he revved his engine and managed to create two more backfires along with a lot of other unneeded noise.

Later that afternoon, driving to the campus where I teach, I was first in line to turn left when the light changed when I heard a siren. I turned off the radio, looked left and then right, and saw the ambulance coming down the road from my right. Of course the light changed before the ambulance reached the intersection. Of course I stayed where I was, yielding the intersection to the ambulance. Of course the person behind me honked a horn. I pointed dramatically in the direction of the ambulance, and I think that driver got the point; he or she did not honk again.

But when the ambulance had gone through the intersection, the woman facing me decided that if I would yield to an ambulance with flashing lights and siren and honking horn, surely I wouldn’t mind yielding to her. She made her right turn on a red light, cutting me off. I didn’t say anything, but she must have expected some words from me, because she went ahead and made a gesture of contempt in my direction in spite of my silence.

None of these things should matter. They all come from living in a sinful world populated by thoughtless and self-centered sinners. Like the apostle Paul, I could count myself chief of sinners, most desperately in need of redemption. I should be flying high, not complaining about the idiots on the ground.

But haters are gonna hate, and curmudgeons are going to grumble. It’s the way we are. Have a good day. J.