One of the keys to the Christian life is getting the right balance between confessing personal sin and lamenting the universal consequences of sin. This is especially important in the area of suffering. Too much emphasis on personal sin and we blame everybody for everything. Too much emphasis on the corporate consequences and we blame nobody for anything.

In Depression, Sin & Self-Reformation Byron Yawn contrasts these two emphases when comparing pietism (which he equates with American evangelicalism) with reformed theology. He says:

While [pietism] fully confesses the concept of depravity on the individual level, it pays little attention to the universal consequence of Adam’s disobedience upon his posterity. On the other hand, reformed theology (covenant framework) pays equal attention to the universal “misery” of mankind.

He works this out over a number of excellent paragraphs which he sums up by saying, yes, we are morally responsible for our sin and we must fight against it; but we are also victims of sin (my emphasis):

Sin is also a general condition. In this sense we are victims. We are victims of our general context. We are the victims of Adam’s sin. We are the victims of death in all its ugly forms. We are victims of the curse and its effects upon our human frame. We carry the weight of sin around in our persons. It is our misery.

Yawn wants Christians to understand this larger category of human misery in order to break down an overly simplistic approach to Christian life and its problems, and he concludes with an important application to depression.

Before quoting some of his closing words, I want to say that I do believe personal sin, for which one is morally responsible, can result in depression. This is especially so when there has been a stubborn pattern of willful sin that is deliberately persisted in and not repented of. Some of Yawn’s expressions seem to deny or, at least, play down that possibility. However, his words are still a helpful corrective to the idea that all depression is the result of personal moral failure. I’d recommend you read the whole article for context, but here are the important closing paragraphs:

Everyday numbers of Christians suffer depression to greater or lesser degrees. In certain cases it is possible for a born again Christian to be paralyzed by the effects of clinical depression. Depression may be brought on by any number of factors such as trauma, stress, or chronic physical pain. Or, it may result, not from one event, but the accumulative effects of numerous events over a period of time. At other times, there is no explanation for its presence. Some people are simply predisposed to melancholy and fight against it their entire lives. Generally, the effects of depression are both physical and emotional. This is why anxiety often accompanies depression. The ability for reasoned responses to normal life circumstances is lost under the duress of certain stressors. Panic sets in when there is no apparent reason to panic. Since we are not Christo-Platonist we realize sin has affected our immaterial part in the same way it affected our material part. Our emotions are as fallen as our bodies. It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that part of our struggle would exist in the arena of emotional health. How could it not? Depression is part of this our fallen reality.

Yawn critiques pietism’s tendency to over-spiritualize depression, likening the search for a sin-cause to medieval superstition rather than biblical spirituality. He then moves on from depression to PTSD to make the same point (my emphases in bold):

Let’s imagine for a moment a Christian who is a soldier in active duty. He has spent months on the frontline of active combat in the Middle East. While overseas he prays and reads his Bible everyday. And, at the same time, everyday he is exposed to the horrors of war. He sees things no human being should see. After returning home, the effects of Post Traumatic Disorder begin to set in. Among the symptoms are depression and anxiety. Let’s say he’s your close friend. In a moment of honesty opens up to you about his pain. What do you tell him? Do you tell him that his depression is a sin and he needs to repent? No. Of course not. That would be ridiculous and unkind. His depression is not a spiritual failure. It’s reasonable physical, mental and emotional reaction to the unbelievable traumatic experience of war. The absence of sympathy in this situation would be a form of unspeakable cruelty. Such is the typical response within pietism, “Get better.” This mixture of categories is a fatal flaw of this system and where pietism fails in its view of the Christian life. There is simply no action to take. Trust, time, compassion and common sense are the needs. There are seasons when everyday life takes its toll on good and godly people. It does not take active combat to wear a human being down.

I’d urge you to read the whole article and pay attention especially to the last sentences. As I said, in correcting one error, he sometimes overstates his case. But it’s an excellent example of how theology impacts our practice, and how important an accurate hamartiology (doctrine of sin) is for our anthropology (doctrine of man).

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  • Les

    This part of Yawn’s article really stood out to me since I was exposed to pietistic teaching when I was young: “What a depressed believer is lacking most is hope. This hope can only be found in God’s triumph over what’s underneath depression. You may call a depressed person to repent, but you’ve no clue what your doing. If repentance would relieve their darkness, there would be no hesitation. But in depression faith and not contrition is most often the need.”

    I’ve been sick the past few days and have finally gotten around to reading this article. I have treatment resistant major depression and have been told that I have a secret sin and even been accused of maybe having a demon. It was/is very rare for anyone to point me to Christ and His glory and mercy. The worse part is that most people don’t realize that guilt is one of the most debilitating symptoms of major depression. Christian self help books generally left me feeling hopeless while books by Bunyan and Owen have been and are the most hope generating, like an oasis in a desert.

    • David Murray

      Yes, Les, there were so many good lines in that article. So sorry to hear of the additional suffering that has ben heaped upon you by ignorant people. May God continue to bless the Puritans to you.