I don’t think a lot of Christians know what to do with anxiety and depression. Are they sins? Most 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. So 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 and understanding. Perhaps what I’m talking about isn’t all that big of an issue. Perhaps it has improved significantly in the past few decades.
But I still think it’s an issue. 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.
And I keep reading articles and hearing about it on social media: people who have struggled with these same 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?”
During some of the hardest periods of my OCD, I attended a great church. This church is known in the Austin area 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 in sermons, 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: I don’t think the way we discuss most other sins applies well to anxiety and depression, at least in some cases. For most people, if you’re being mean, meditate on how God is gracious to you when you don’t deserve it, pray, forgive, and treat others better. If you’re being arrogant, realize that you’re sinful, study Jesus’ humility, and put that humility into action.
Here’s the problem. We want to put anxiety and depression in a box with the other sins 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 than that.
This is an excerpt from the introduction of my upcoming book. The book challenges current theological views on anxiety and depression and argues that they are not always sins (though some Christians and pastors say they are). It is still in progress and I do not yet have a title for it. My books are under the pen name W.R. Harris.