The tragic suicide of Robin Williams left Americans grieving for one of its most beloved entertainers. Soon, media outlets and social media were discussing depression, its effects, and its role in suicide. Some Christian bloggers took the position that depression is a sin. As someone who has experienced bipolar depression I have my own perspective on the issue. To be up front, never in my experience with depression did I ever consider killing myself. I had long before determined that murdering myself was a sin and a violation of God’s plan for my life. However, in 2008, for a period of several months, I was in a severe state of depression. I was mostly nonfunctional. My perspectives were all screwed up. I had a wrong view of myself, my family, my ministry, my life. Though I would not intentionally kill myself, I still wanted to die. If something bad had happened to me, then I would not have done anything about it. I would have let happen whatever would happen, even if it meant letting me die. I suppose that’s as close to suicide as I had ever come.
During my time of being treated by a doctor and going through counseling I was also reading books about how the brain functions, what it needs to stay healthy, and how certain mental disorders can permanently change the brain, literally causing physical damage to the brain. Everything we feel and experience centers on our brains. With our brains we experience the world around us, the world inside us (whether real or imagined), and how we feel about our experiences. If the doctor could come up with the right cocktail of medications we could alter my perceptions, minimize my mania and depression and get me thinking straight again. I was one of the fortunate ones. Finding the right mix, along with counseling, brought me back to a healthy mental state in a matter of months. For many people suffering from bipolar disorder the treatment can take years.
When I was suffering from depression I felt strongly that I was in sin. I reasoned that if I had faith in God and believed his promises that my depressive feelings were a failure on my part to trust God with my present and my future. Taking that view did not help me. In fact, it only made things worse. It became a spiral until I sank deeper and deeper into depression that kept me from functioning. But when I began to understand that the interaction of chemicals in my brain was a significant factor in my depression I reasoned that perhaps depression is not a sin after all. If I am prisoner to my body and to my brain how can I feel anything other than what my brain chemistry makes me to feel?
I came away from the experience with the understanding that depression is not a sin in the way that adultery is a sin, or murder is a sin, or lying is a sin (except when I persisted in lying to myself, which depression can cause). In fact, let me say it more clearly. Depression is not a sin. There can be a spiritual dimension to depression, but depression is not a sin. At first you might think that this idea would actually excuse whatever we do as a result of depression. But that is not the case. What it does is free us to understand that what we feel and what we do are two different things. One we are always responsible for, the other we are sometimes responsible for (which I’ll explain shortly). In thinking through my experience and the experiences of others whom I have read about or talked with, I have come up with six important principles regarding our view of sin and depression.
My take on this is a little forensic, but that’s how I tend to explore things. Perhaps what I share might not be helpful to you. But if it is I hope you come away with the understanding that a person who suffers from clinical depression or bipolar depression is not a person sinning. The person suffering needs help, compassion, expressions of love and care and to walk with them through the darkness (as my wife, my pastor, and my doctor did for me). Depression can lead to sin, but by itself, depression is not a sin and does not necessarily mean that we are not trusting God for the outcome of our lives. We may take drastic action because of our depression that does violate trust in God, but that is different from the depression itself.
I hope what I have to offer helps you. Here are six things we should understand about sin and depression.
First, you are not a spiritual being in a body. You are a composite being of spirit and body
This is an important truth to recognize because Christians are often tempted to view the depressed person as not being responsible for his actions while in a depressed state. This is because the view that the body is only a shell for our spirit means that if our brain is malfunctioning then we are not responsible for the sin that we think originates in the brain, but not in the spirit. I don’t believe this is a biblical view. Our bodies are not simply shells in which our spirit, the real person lives. Our bodies, specifically, our brains are part of who and what we are. Everything we experience we experience with our brains as well as our spirits. All of our memories are stored in our brains. Brain injury and brain surgery can radically alter a person’s perceptions and even personality. We are, therefore, composite beings made up of both body and spirit (Genesis 2:7). We can argue that emotional states leave us without control to some degree, but I don’t think that we can persuasively argue that that loss of control is total or absolute even if we have chemical imbalances in our brains. There are always some levels of control we have and thus we still bear responsibility for our actions (though not our depression).
Second, sin is not a condition of the spirit only, but is a condition of spirit and body
This goes hand-in-hand with my first point. The sin nature that Paul talked about in Romans 7 and Galatians 5 is not of the spirit only or the body only, but is characteristic of our entire being. We are sinful through and through. Our spirit is corrupted but so is the body; from our genes to our chemicals to our neurons. This is the reason why Paul talks in Romans about the trap of our sin. We are sinful in every way, body and soul. Depression is not sin. But the sin nature can facilitate and magnify depression in a way that is difficult to bring under control because it is a condition of both body and soul. Therefore, though depression is not sin, on the other hand it is a trap and one that few escape without proper help.
Third, depression is an emotional state, not an action of sin, but it does not excuse our actions
If a depressed person, acting from his depression, kills someone, most of us would agree that he must be held accountable for his action. We don’t regard him as a victim but as a victimizer. But we do not hold him responsible for his depression. This is also true about other mental or emotional states. For instance, we know from extensive research that some people are hard-wired for violence (link). They have short fuses and can blow up easily and even cause harm to others. Regardless of his emotional state we agree that his actions have legal consequences and if he hurts others he must be held accountable. Some people have imbalances that bring about unhealthy attitudes about sex (link). Yet, we don’t sympathize with the adulterer or excuse his betrayal of his wife. He is responsible for his actions no matter what his brain chemistry may be. These problems in the brain are just as real and powerful as that which brings on depression. Yet, we don’t use them as an excuse to pardon destructive behavior.
The fact is, every emotional state has foundations in our brain chemistry. Whether tweaked one way or another, no matter how we are wired, no matter the severity of our sinful state, God always holds us responsible for our actions. Have you ever noticed that when Judas betrayed Jesus he was possessed by Satan (John 13:27)? Yet, Judas was still responsible for his actions that lead to Jesus’ murder (Matthew 26:24). Why then is it different for the person who commits suicide? Biblically speaking, it is no different. It is tragic. It is horrible. It is hurtful. But suicide his not an act without moral responsibility.Remember that Job rebuked his wife for suggesting he should kill himself (Job 2:9). If suicide was an act without moral responsibility, then virtually anything a person might do can be excused because they are “wired that way.” The fact is, no matter what kind of sin you are dealing with, you are “wired that way.” That is part of the reason why Jesus died. To bring a remedy for sin and the eventual doing away of its overreaching consequences.
Fourth, the depressed person who sins while in depression is still responsible for his sin though not for his depression
The only time we can hold a depressed person guilty of his or her depression is when he or she consistently over time refuses to get help while knowing his or her condition (Exodus 21:36). If you rationally or intuitively know something is wrong with you and with your behavior and you do nothing to even try to remedy the situation then you are responsible not only for your actions, but also for your emotional state in as much as you are willing to let it exist without corrective measures—assuming you knew and understood your condition. However, if you have tried to bring your depression under control through whatever means, whether you succeeded or not (like Robin Williams) then you are not responsible for your depression. You are responsible for your actions, but not your depression.
Fifth, depression is not a sin anymore than happiness is righteousness
Plenty of happy people sin. Plenty of depressed people do not sin. Remember Job of whom the scripture says he “did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10). If there was anyone in scripture that we might excuse for sin because of depression, it is Job. No other person in the Bible suffered so greatly in such a deep, far-reaching, and destructive way. Yet, Job himself did not use his depression to sin.
Depression is an emotional state with its foundation in our brain chemistry. We have other emotional states that may lead to negative or sinful acts, but we don’t call those emotional states, sin. Anger is not a sin. But anger expressed wrongly is a sin. Jealousy is not a sin if we are jealous for the right things. Sexual desire is not a sin. But wrongly expressed for a non-spouse or as adultery is a sin. So too, depression, grief, sorrow, these are not sins whether to the extreme or not. They can lead to sin, but are not sin themselves. Sin can lead to depression just as righteousness can lead to happiness. But depression is not sin.
Sixth, the depressed person who harms himself is both the victim and the victimizer
Not all suicides are depression motivated, though by far that seems to be the biggest facilitator (link). Depression completely changes a person’s perspectives. Our perceptions turn inward. We usually don’t recognize this when we are in a state of depression. But the reality is that when we are depressed the focus of most of our thoughts revolves around “me.” Where narcissism also focuses our thoughts around “me,” it elevates our view of ourselves wrongly whereas depression lowers our view of ourselves wrongly. But depression is a greater trap than narcissism because it can motivate us to harm ourselves. We are victimized by our depression, but we also become the victimizer when we succumb to it and do ourselves in. The sad truth is that we are unable to recognize this and think that we are doing to ourselves something good when we commit suicide. We think it will free us from the overwhelming burdens we feel. But that is a lie. If we take our lives but have not surrendered ourselves to Christ then our troubles are just beginning. Only an eternity of torture awaits us. But, depression removes this realization and we deceive ourselves. We become our own victim and have no way to escape. Though depression is not a sin, it can be insidious.
If you suffer from depression then you must seek help. Perhaps you suffer from mild bouts. Regardless of the severity you must talk with someone who can let you lay out your feelings freely without condemnation. Secondly, you must consider God’s love and plan for you. Many Christians do suffer from depression. But that depression does not change the fact of God’s love and his redeeming work on the cross. “Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).