The Lutheran Geek

The life and times of a WoW-playing, Java-programming dude in Chicago

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sin, depression, and norms, part 2

So this morning, I laid out my best understanding of what sin is. Short version: it’s bad, yo. No surprise there.  Historically, there are Seven Deadly Sins:

  • lust
  • gluttony
  • greed
  • sloth
  • wrath
  • envy
  • pride

Really, though, you can boil those Seven down to two: covetousness (lust, gluttony, greed, envy) and self-idolatry (sloth and pride). In my opinion, wrath is not so much a sin in and of itself as it is an overreaction to either covetousness or self-idolatry. What’s interesting is that these are both focused on the self and leave out the most important type of sin that I examined as part of the Ten Commandments: ungratefulness. You could say “ungratefulness towards God”, but really, you don’t even have to be a religious believer to understand that this world is a pretty darn amazing place, and to have a sense of entitlement is ruinous and leads to all other destructive behavior.

(Just so we have our taxonomy complete, here’s where I think the Ten Commandments go here (using the numbering that has the first four as the God-related ones):

  • Ungratefulness: Commandments 1-5 (the four involving honoring God, plus honoring mommy and daddy)
  • Self-idolatry: Commandment 6 (arguable, but murder seems to imply you value your life more than another) and 9 (“I’m too important to be bothered with telling the truth”)
  • Covetousness: Commandments 7 (acting on sexual coveting), 8 (acting on material coveting), and 10 (the act of coveting itself)

A stretch, but eh, I’m no theologian. 🙂 )

Where I’m going with all this is to examine why a focus on sin is harmful towards those suffering with depression, clinical or otherwise. I’ve had many brushes with depression; thankfully they’ve been relatively fleeting and not chronic. My understanding of it will, of course, be colored by my own experience, but I’ll give it a shot.

When you are depressed, everything is seen to be worthless, most of all yourself. Every action you take is surrounded by fear of the consequences of those actions, expecting the worst possible result at every turn. The outside world seems worthless to you; you want to completely unplug from it and from other people. In essence, you become a twisted mirror image of a healthy (albeit still flawed) person: where a normal person has excess pride, you have an excess of self-deprecation; your apathy overtakes any possible covetousness; worst of all, you seem to others to be utterly ungrateful for the world around you, which I proposed is the worst of the three types of sin. It’s a double-whammy: you see nothing good in the world externally or internally, and the world has a large chance of misunderstanding you as being self-centered and ungrateful.

Depression can lead to behavior that can also be seen as covetous or self-idolatrous. In my own experience, depressive thoughts do not fully overtake you, but rather you are left with a longing for normalcy, and in so doing begin to wistfully look at others, thinking their lives to be perfect and free of the same crushing doubts that you are experiencing. In so doing, you are wishing for that which you don’t have in the thinking that it will cure all your ills and return you to the land of the Normal, because it’s more important to be Normal than anything else. (Remember the third word in the title of this post, “norms”? I’ll come back to the issue of norms in my next post, but keep it in mind.) Finally, the very act of being so focused on your own well-being is a warped version of worshiping the self. Even though you are not idolizing the self, but rather demonizing and cursing it, by doing so you put yourself as the cause of all the negativity you experience in your life. You envision yourself as a sort of twisted anti-God: not a Satan, as it were, but a being who inflicts incalculable harm on everything around yourself.

Now imagine having all these burdens put on yourself by depression – seeing yourself as an unintentionally malevolent force, unable to be grateful for all that you have, and longing for a different life. Switch around the attitudes from overly dark to overly light, and you have the standard me-first Westerner: can’t do wrong, master of your own domain (no, not in the Seinfeld sense), always wanting more and more. This is the person to whom the Confession is aimed: it is a chance for a good but flawed person (i.e. most of us) to acknowledge his shortcomings and plead for forgiveness.

However, envision yourself as the depressed person reading these words. In one sense, perhaps you are reading a description of yourself that you already “know”: I fall short, I am a bad person, etc. The depressed person will not see this as cleansing, but as a further trip down that dark path of self-loathing, thinking, “wow, even God thinks I’m terrible”. The damage has been done, and all you can think is about those words you said: “I have sinned…” How hurt and confused you must feel. Once you say those words, nothing else that is said matters; the absolution will fall on deaf ears, in all likelihood, and you will spend the remainder of the time stuck in your thoughts, unable to receive anything good.

Part 3 will examine religious (at least, Christian) norms, how they conflict with the needs of the depressed, and what should change in that regard.

(As a postscript, I strongly suspect I am not the first person to pursue this line of thinking, and I’m sort of winging it right now. Suggestions on outside sources would be most welcome as I seek to explore this matter further.)

posted by Peter at 5:10 pm  

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sin, depression, and norms

It’s Lent, which means that it’s time to fire up the Sackcloth and Ashes Machine in most mainline Christian churches. Now, the Catholics have this area pretty well perfected compared to most Protestant churches (I can’t speak to Orthodox faiths and their attitude towards sin, but never mind). However, we Lutherans like to dwell on sin as well. Most long-time ELCA Lutherans can recite the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness from memory. Here’s the money paragraph:

We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you [God] in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

That’s pretty standard wordage among the various ways to do mass confessions in various churches. The church I’ve been attending, Immanuel Lutheran here in Chicago, tends not to do the Confession on most standard Sundays. However, during Lent, they’ve broken it out. It makes sense as Lent is supposed to be a more somber time, meant to encourage self-reflection on the nature of our humanity. Even still, I am uncomfortable about this sort of self-flagellation. Granted, merely confessing our shortcomings falls way short of, say, whipping your back with a chain. But my problem is that, for someone suffering mentally and thinking themselves to be a permanently defective person each and every day, a recounting of how awful we are doesn’t help. It should be noted that the Order mentioned above is for confession and forgiveness; that is, the pastor announces the absolution of all our sins. But I will hope to explain why this is unsatisfactory in my mind to say “yeah you suck, but hey, God loves you anyway”.

First, we need to define the nature of sin. There’s about 2000 years of theological thought that I would have to cover to see the evolution of thought about what sin is, but I think I’ll just stick with a definition from Luther:

…we deny to those propagated according to carnal nature not only the acts, but also the power or gifts of producing fear and trust in God. For we say that those thus born have concupiscence, and cannot produce true fear and trust in God.

“Concupiscence” basically means lust, greed; it encompasses the desire to cling to earthly things. This clinging is thought to be the root of (or at least a fairly large contributor to) all earthly sin, and is explicitly stated as such in the writings of Paul:

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, in their eagerness to get rich, have wandered away from the faith and caused themselves a lot of pain.

Thus, sin is turning away from God in order to pursue earthly goods. What is frustrating to me is that most superficial investgations of sin that I have heard about in the past stop here, and assume that the reader understands that ignoring God is the worst wrong that a person can do. Let’s go a little further and understand what is meant by this, and try to make our definition of sin a little more concrete.

A good place to start, of course, is the Ten Commandments:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

These are the basic rules we are expected to live by, handed down by God to the Hebrew exiles during the exodus, and passed down to us today. We can split them into two chunks; the first through fourth Commandments which dictate our relation to God, and the remaining six which dictate interpersonal relationships. These latter Commandments are easier to understand, since they have clear social utility by laying out a basic minimal definition of justice. You could argue that honoring your parents are not strictly necessary to have justice, and while true, there is quite a bit of social utility in keeping your parents in high regard: it provides an incentive for people to have children and to raise them well, knowing that their children, if they are instilled with a sense of justice, will be able to care for them when they age and are no longer able to look after themselves. The other of these latter commandments speak for themselves: murder (premeditated or otherwise), adultery, theft, false witness, and covetousness are uniformly ruinous to societies, and must be proscribed.

Let us examine the first four commandments: you shall have no god before God; you shall worship only God; you shall not misuse God’s name; you shall keep the Sabbath holy. God provides a justification for these rules; God states that it was God who created the world in six days and rested on the seventh; who brought the Hebrews out of slavery; who ultimately is unwilling to tolerate those who would consider any other entity greater than God. All this presupposes the existence of God and all seems a bit harsh in the light of the Christian message of absolution, but let’s take a broader view of what God is asking here. (The first two Commandments are actually a bit redundant; in fact, the Catholic and Lutheran tradition is to combine them into the single First Commandment, and later break the sentence describing covetousness into two Commandments, first proscribing coveting your neighbor’s house, then coveting your neighbor’s possessions.)

God is basically commanding a sense of gratefulness here. God is saying, “Look, the world is an amazing place. You were born into it, and have all these resources at your command. The work you do is certainly important, but the very existence of the world is something you should recognize and always keep at the forefront of your mind. To that end, don’t be flip about all of this; don’t instill yourself with a sense of entitlement. Be grateful! You have been given these amazing gifts; recognize them as such and don’t take them for granted.”

Ignoring this message is the main source of what we should consider to be “sin”, and it’s very important for certain to recognize that a sense of me-first entitlement is what leads us to destructive behavior. But what is ignored in all this talk about sin, entitlement, self-destruction, and so on, is a discussion of what people with real self-hatred – that is, depression – go through. What does this talk of sin do for them to build them up? Can it do ANYTHING to build them up? That’ll be covered in my next post…

posted by Peter at 11:26 am  

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