“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” – Matthew 11:28-29
Perhaps we don’t have a great understanding of sin. It seems we think of it as a list. Here’s the list of sins. Don’t do them.
If this is the case, we’re in error. The point of understanding sin isn’t just so we don’t do certain things, it’s so we can love and glorify God.
God is interested in our hearts. From the beginning of Scripture, He says, “I am a jealous God.” That is, He wants us focused on Him. Not because He’s a petulant child, but because He knows that’s best for us. God wants us happy—not in the material, prosperity-gospel sense, but in the deep, profound, loving-our-Creator sense. Why does Paul say he is content in all circumstances (Philippians 4:11-12)? Because no matter what happens in life, whether we’re wealthy or healthy or not, we have joy knowing God loves us unconditionally.
So when God tells us to not do certain things, it’s because He wants our hearts set on Him. When we lie or deceive people, our hearts have become twisted. We’ve made an object or a status or ourselves into a god, and we devise evil schemes to attain what we want. But whatever it is, it cannot bring fulfillment. It will prove empty, and we’ll be left with an itching, insatiable desire to try the next thing. If we keep up the cycle, we’ll be miserable, even if we seem fine on the outside.
Sin is perversion. It’s a heart matter. It’s not a list. Indeed, if we are charitable and help those in need, but we do it out of a burning desire to receive praise, we’ve sinned. Yes, you did something from the “holy” or “good” list, but you did it for the wrong reasons. Ostensibly, you did nothing from the sin list, but you were prideful and vain. Paul’s quote from Psalms in Romans 3 now makes more sense: “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).
You may have heard that pride is the root of all sin, and I think that’s true. Sin, at its core, is saying, “Not your will, God, but mine be done.”
So how does this apply to anxiety and depression? First of all, anxiety and depression can be sins. God’s word tells us multiple times to have hope and to not be anxious (John 14:27, 1 Peter 5:6-8, Psalm 56:3, Philippians 4:6-7). God wants our happiness and He looks after His children (Matthew 6:25-34). By trusting Him, we glorify Him because we deem Him trustworthy. Conversely, when we trust in ourselves and other people and things for provision and happiness, we basically tell God, “I don’t need you. I’ll do this my way.” Even someone who refuses to hope in God through the midst of depression says, “I’d rather wallow in my self-pity and hopelessness than hope in You, God.”
It comes back to the heart. Do we deliberately and consistently push away God’s offer for peace and freedom? Do we find ourselves saying, “I don’t want to believe that you’re good, God,” and then spend the day wallowing or anxious? Whether wallowing or anxious, we had the offer of greater peace, joy, and freedom, and we refused. We chose to be miserable. That is sin.
If this is what we do, we need to repent. At this point, rejecting friends’ and family’s exhortations to faith is essentially making excuses. You’ve really no right to complain. The Author of Goodness keeps offering you a better life—never giving up, always eager to hear you say Yes—and you keep saying No.
For most readers of this book, I assume that’s not your situation. Like me, you beg God for faith, you follow Him with all your heart, you read His Word, but anxiety and/or depression still comes. Some days you feel exhausted for no reason. You feel like stopping everything to sit and cry. That one thought rears its head again, and you immediately feel your body tense up. You pray, you quote Scripture in your head, you focus on God…and it’s still there.
What’s the difference? How can anxiety and/or depression be sinful one time and not sinful another? Again, it comes down to the heart.
Like I said earlier, I have problems with OCD and depression. I often worry about my wife and my family’s safety. I’ll be going along with my day and then my mind randomly presents tragic scenarios in my head. “What if he or she gets in a car wreck? What if they develop severe health problems? What if, what if, what if?”
These thoughts pop up randomly, and there’s literally nothing I can do to stop them. Now, I can choose how to respond—whether to engage the thoughts or not. Nowadays, since I’ve gone through counseling and know how to deal with my OCD, I rarely engage them. Sometimes they go away as fast as they came. But sometimes they gnaw at me. I don’t engage any of them, yet they keep pounding in my head. I can be talking to someone or be wrapped up in an activity, but they’ll keep coming. I can almost feel them in the back of my head while I try to focus on something else.
In that instance, what am I doing wrong? If anxiety is always a sin, then it follows I’m doing something wrong, that I’m displeasing the God of the universe. But with the part of me I can control, I’m focusing on God, asking Him to help me trust Him. With my heart set on God like that, how can I be sinning? Here’s my answer: I’m not.
Sin is saying, “Not your will, God, but mine be done.” That’s not at all what I’m doing in my example. In fact, my heart is on God. I’m quoting His promises to myself, I’m praying, and I’m straining myself to reach above my anxiety and grasp Him. The anxiety is still there because of my disorder. But I am not willfully choosing anxiety.
Similarly, there are days I feel exhausted for no particular reason. I don’t feel like doing anything, and it seems to take every ounce of energy in my body to move. All I want to do is sleep. I don’t feel inclined to joy or hope. I can feel my mind want to sink into despair.
Just like with my OCD, going through counseling gave me the tools to deal with those days. I fight hard not to sink into a hole, and I think nowadays I avoid that fairly well.
But that doesn’t make my depression just go away. It still lurks. It tries to pull me down over and over again. Sometimes my exhaustion makes me want to just sit and cry. Even though I pray constantly and focus on God, a tear rolls down my cheek. I try hard to avoid it, but I feel so exhausted and it just happens. Is God mad at me for that?
I remember how hard it was before starting medication. I know some people—perhaps some of you reading this book—have tried medication after medication and nothing has helped. You’ve sought the help, you’ve tried everything, and yet your depression is barely any better, if at all. Whenever I hear people, especially theologians and pastors, perpetuate the fallacy of “if you’re depressed you’re sinning,” I think of you folks and my heart breaks. That’s why I get so upset at those Christian leaders.
Though our depression may not go away, we have a choice. We can succumb to the despair or we can fight to rise above it. One of those choices, I think, is sinful; the other, I think, is not.
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Anxiety and Depression Are (Not) Always Sins, which will be released by mid-November 2018 (hopefully earlier). If you are interested in potentially being a part of the book’s launch team, please email me at email@example.com.