I’ve heard it said that depression and anxiety are sins. How should I respond to this? Is there a biblical basis for this, or should it be corrected?
The answer is: “It depends.” So, I want to answer this question in three parts. First, I will look at what is natural given the circumstances in which we live. Second, I want to address the problem of medical and physical problems. Finally, I want to see what can be said about the spiritual conditions that might be considered sinful. In all of this discussion it is good to keep in mind Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” This verse is commonly misused. So, we also need the admonition to judge “righteous judgment.” (Jn 7:24, NASB) To do this we need first of all to know what is meant by “depression” and “anxiety.” and something about the circumstances that result in these conditions or feelings. Therefore, we must do a little digging to see whether or not it is reasonable to say “depression and anxiety are sins.”
First, depression and/or anxiety may be transitory and connected with real events. “That you may not grieve as others do” (1 Thess. 4:13) implies we do indeed grieve, just not as those who have no hope. So we see that Scripture does not disregard the human side of feeling. The Lord Himself, the perfect Man, “sighed deeply in his spirit [or, groaned, DBY]” at the sorrow around him. (Mk. 7:34; 8:12) In the garden, he was “in agony” (Lk. 22:44). So, circumstances may bring very severe emotional and psychological distress. The spiritual state of a person influences this. How much do we know about this? This is where the admonition to “judge not” may be relevant. Have we taken the person’s general and usual condition into consideration?
Second, do we know what extenuating circumstances exist? A person’s medical and psychological condition is relevant. It might be helpful here to distinguish between the spirit, the mind,1 and the brain. The spirit is the immaterial aspect of our being which God gave to Adam (Gen. 2:7) and which we likewise receive from God. It is what makes us spiritual beings able to have fellowship with God. The mind is often used synonymously with spirit. But in some cases this can be a source of confusion; so I will distinguish them here. The brain, of course, is the physical part of us that processes sensory information for the mind. The mind is what I am consciously. This includes my perceptions as well as volition.
What is important for this discussion is to see the dependence of the mind on the brain. This is evident in an experience induced by psychoactive drugs. It is possible to actually see objects or hear sounds (for example) that do not exist. These are actual experiences.2 If such experiences happen without being artificially induced, but are instead brought on by the misfiring of neurons or a chemical imbalance, then medication might be available to correct the processes occurring in the brain to normalize the experience of the mind.
To the point brought up by the question asked, such an experience may be itself depression and/or anxiety. Such “floating anxiety” (i.e., not directly tied to an actual event) can be very disturbing. Yet, it has no actual external cause and thus no remedy outside of having a specialist prescribe an appropriate medication to correct the operation of the malfunctioning brain.
The distinction between the mind and the spirit is also important to remember. It may be the case where the experiences of the mind are severely distorted by some damage to the brain. A person may be spiritually in fellowship with God, even though the external evidence of that fellowship might be lacking or inconsistent.
Finally, is there a case where depression and anxiety is actually a sin? It might be more correctly asked: Are there spiritual attitudes that lead to depression and anxiety? The reason I have considered the cases above is to clearly distinguish this situation from those discussed above. Attributing non-spiritual causes for depression and anxiety to spiritual causes only intensifies the distress of the afflicted individual and cannot have a beneficial outcome.
At the beginning of this answer, we looked at the natural result of distressing events. If an individual is not well-grounded in the grace of God as taught in Romans 6-8, then the result of distressing events may be guilt and self-denunciation to the point of bringing on general depression and anxiety. In this case, the remedy is good and compassionate instruction in the goodness of God in providing a complete salvation.
In addition, sin in a person’s life may lead to distress. This is the case described in First and Second Corinthians. (1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 2:5-6; 2 Cor. 7:9-11) The Corinthians were slow to judge evil and then were slow to comfort when it was needed. Note particularly, 2 Corinthians 7:11. In all cases, understanding of the person and his circumstances is necessary. “You brought this on yourself” is sometimes a needed “wake up call.” But, sometimes the same words lead to a downward spiral that is difficult to recover from. Wisdom from God is always needed. (Gal. 6:1)
Many passages encourage a trust in God which minimizes the effects of non-medical depression and anxiety. Romans 8:18 tells us that even the troubling things in our life will have an eternal benefit. Romans 8:28 gives us confidence that God is working always for our benefit. Philippians 3:13 encourages us to not dwell on the past. Philippians 4:8–9 tell us what to focus our thoughts on. It actually turns out that these recommendations are consistent with good secular counseling.3
Although I have divided this discussion into three distinct parts, this is oversimplified in order to lay out the general circumstances. Sometimes in life, we experience serious trauma, physical or mental, which results in a collapse of our ability to cope with the normal responsibilities of living. In these cases, we would find the categories above not so easy to distinguish. Persisting in thinking negatively about our circumstances can actually result in physical changes which in turn worsen the psychological condition. Medical and/or psychological (counseling) help—hopefully temporary—may be needed to regain our independent stability. The amazing healing ability of the body means that the reverse of this downward spiral also can happen. Our physical bodies (brain) can heal by having good and true thoughts. Indeed, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. (Ps. 139:14)
- The life of William Cowper, the writer of some well-known hymns, offers a good illustration of one who was used by God for the blessing of many in spite of suffering deep depression. His story is instructive. Childhood trauma, bullying, a sensitive personality, and an extreme Calvinistic belief that lead him to doubt whether he was of the chosen all contributed to his suffering.
- Sims, Andrew, Is Faith Delusion? (New York: Continuum, 2009).
Andrew Sims was a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Leeds and the past president of the Royal College of Psychiatrist. He wrote this book as a rebuttal to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. The book contains a wealth of information showing that religious belief supports good mental health; it does not undermine it.
1. I could, perhaps, use “soul” for mind, but that might entail baggage that I want to avoid here. For a detailed examination of this topic see F. W. Grant, Facts and Theories As to a Future State. https://stempublishing.com/authors/FW_Grant/FWG_Future_State.html (accessed 10/5/2020).
2. I could say “experiences of the mind”, but in this context I think that would be redundant. All I know about the external world I know in my mind. This may seem strained, but it becomes important in the case of false memories which are very significant in some problems that people have. Such a memory must be treated as a real memory even if it does not correspond to an event in the real world.
3. I only recommend Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I do not know of any other counseling methodology that has real empirical support. Choosing a good CBT therapist is more important than finding a “Christian counselor”, many of which are not actually effective counselors.