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  

1 Comment »

  1. Nope, you are not the first… I’ve heard the same or similar from many people throughout the years, perhaps more so in US evangelical churches that espouse a theology of glory, than Lutherans, but they don’t have a monopoly on it. A theology of glory is a very much me focused thing, as contrasted with a theology of the Cross.

    You might want to review fc5(10) as it hits pretty close to where you are going I think. As an ELCA guy, I don;t spend nearly as much time as I ought to in the BoC. http://www.bookofconcord.org/sd-lawandgospel.php but in addition, for a depressed Christian, the third use of the law needs to be handled very very carefully.

    You might find Joelle’s notes pretty interesting to, once you get through part 3 of your series.
    http://joellesstuff.blogspot.com/2009/02/law-and-gospel-and-contemporary.html

    Looking forward to seeing where you are going with this. Way cool!

    Comment by ron_amundson — March 16, 2009 @ 7:52 pm

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