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Rethinking How We Discuss the “Sins” of Anxiety and Depression

This is an excerpt from my newly-released book, Anxiety and Depression Are (Not) Always Sins. It is available here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07KKYPGPP/

 

“The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” – Proverbs 12:18

 

I think a lot of Christians don’t know what to do with anxiety and depression. Are they sins? Many Christians seem to think so. But if they are sins, how do we address them? Most Christians seem to address them this way: since they’re sins, stop doing them. Stop being depressed—it’s sinful. Stop being anxious—it’s sinful. Why do you still look so down? Stop it. You’re not believing God. You know His promises; is it that hard to pick your head up, be happy, and believe?

I think this mindset mostly comes from a misunderstanding in our culture from people who have never struggled with anxiety or depression or who just don’t have any education about their effects. They feel perfectly fine; they have no trouble having fun and being happy; they straight up don’t get it when they see someone with his or her head down. Life isn’t that bad; what’s the problem? Cheer up.

Of course, there are also many Christians who do understand, either because they’ve been through the same thing themselves or because they’ve received mental health education or because they’re gifted in empathy.

As someone who has struggled with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and depression for the past 10+ years, I remember worrying that I was making God mad with my depression and constant anxiety. I tried really hard to stop. But it wouldn’t go away. In my head I thought God was upset with me for it.

This is a big issue. A pastor in California recently committed suicide after openly battling depression. That’s not the first time that has happened. Pastors and laypeople alike battle the destructive effects of the stigma attached to mental illness—from other Christians. And I keep reading articles and hearing about it on social media: people who have struggled with these issues talking about how they’ve been hurt by the pervasive rhetoric that anxiety and depression are sins and you just need to believe God more and get through it. The result of that rhetoric has and always will be that people feel they’re not good enough, they don’t have enough faith, and God is mad at them for their lack of faith. When you have a depressive disorder or anxiety disorder or both, you can’t just make the depression and/or anxiety go away. You may have an extraordinary amount of faith, but you’ll always be left wondering why you can’t trust God. You’ll always be wondering, “What’s wrong with me?” And, unfortunately, things can easily get worse from there.

During some of the hardest periods of my OCD, I attended a great church. This church is known for exceptional Bible teaching, community outreach, and strong community within the church. For someone who attended such a church to still have a misunderstanding of the relationship between anxiety, depression, and sin is revealing. Maybe the church addressed it, and I just don’t remember or I just couldn’t bring myself to believe. But 1.) They didn’t talk about anxiety and depression much, and 2.) The predominant communication about sin was basically believe God’s promises and stop sinning.

Now, I’ve always had a problem with being too hard on myself, and this was certainly part of the issue. I don’t want to just throw that church under the bus and say it was all their fault. My point is this: when applied to anxiety and depression, the way churches discuss sin is destructive.

Here’s the problem. We want to put anxiety and depression in the “Don’t Do” list and say, “Stop it.” We want to look at the scriptures where Paul and Jesus exhort us not to be anxious and say, “The Bible says don’t do it. Therefore, it’s a sin to do it.” But for anxiety and depression, it’s more complicated.

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Poem: The Night I Died Inside

This is a poem I wrote many years ago when I was first struggling with depression. I hope you enjoy it. – W.R. Harris

 

The Night I Died Inside

 

Insects consumed my heart

The night I died inside.

They made my blood defunct,

And all light seemed to hide.

 

Contaminated chaff,

My blood crept through my veins.

It deadened nerves and sight

And cast my hope in chains.

 

The bugs exulted in

Their lofty victory,

But to the bugs surprise

They died inside of me.

 

Though haunting still remains,

Hurt still tries to abide,

Rebirth transformed my heart

The night I died inside.

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Yelling at God

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – Matthew 27:46

“God, always the last resort of the helpless—God is sometimes so slow to act!” – Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur

This is a subject I want to address because I think people sometimes feel guilty about it. As with anxiety and depression, this can be sinful, but it can also be perfectly fine.

I know I yelled at God more than once during my bouts of depression and OCD. Sometimes you’ve been bent so much you feel you’re about to break. The natural response is to question God and/or yell at Him. Perhaps you’ve been in the same situation and you yelled at God and now you feel guilty. It happened to me. On top of all the other shame and depression and guilt I felt, I felt guilty about yelling at God. I thought He was looking down at me saying, “Jeez, will this guy ever get it together?”

Granted, you can hate God from the bottom of your heart and curse Him. That’s sinful, and perhaps some of you reading this book have been there. The good news is God always offers forgiveness. But you can also yell at God in distress, opening up to Him about your deepest thoughts and fears and frustrations. You can honestly question God to His face and tell Him why you don’t understand His reasoning. You can scream at Him to look at you and help you—you can even tell Him you’re frustrated at Him for not helping.

The sort of uber-spiritual, fundamentalist, puritanical theology discussed in the previous chapter would probably tell you you’re sinning and you wouldn’t do this if you actually trust God. But that’s a lie from the pit of hell. How do I know? Let’s look at Jesus.

On the Mount of Olives in the most difficult situation in history, Jesus prayed to His Father. Jesus knew what was about to happen; as God, He knew the future, so He knew He was going to follow through and hang on the cross. But the weight of punishment for humanity’s sins was so distressing that He prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

Jesus cried to God in His distress. What a wonderful Savior He is. He didn’t stroll happily under the guise of “I trust God, so I don’t need to be stressed.” Our Savior is not the spiritual guru of unattainable spirituality that you can’t relate to. He does not look at you in your struggles and say, “Ah, humans…” with a smile and a shake of His head. You are not alone in your suffering. Christ does not just understand your suffering, He has suffered with you. I wouldn’t want the savior of the uber-spirituals.

And look at David in the Psalms. He questions God and lays his heart bare before Him. He doesn’t always understand God’s ways.

I think God wants us to be completely open with Him. I’ll even go as far as to say I think God wants us—at least sometimes—to question Him. There is little in life that brings us closer to Him.

Talk to God. Open up to Him, even if it’s ugly. He can handle it. And if it’s done with a good heart, don’t feel guilty. Don’t let anyone else make you feel guilty about it either.

This is an excerpt from my book Anxiety and Depression Are (Not) Always Sins, which can be bought on Amazon at this link: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B075Z17W11