Pastors deal in the spiritual, in how God has created all that was, is, and will be. They look at the fall with sin, the life of man in that sin, the redemption through Jesus, and the time to come. They have a say in morality, parenting, personal salvation, hermeneutics, and so much more. But there is still a disconnect when it comes to mental illness when we talk about faith that is the purpose of this website. One of the biggest issues is where sin is and is not a part of the aspects of one’s recovery.
This is not our first conversation on the topic of sin within the world of mental health. Previously we have talked about if suicide is an unforgivable sin as well as if drinking is a sin. What we have found is that many times, pastors are adding to the stigma of mental illness, others are adverse to even talk about mental health, and others are giving very un-Biblical and theologically unsound responses.
Unfortunately, the example below is of such a time where a 140-character tweet does more harm than good.
If I’m being honest, I don’t know Justin, I’m not looking to dog pile on him, or go after him personally. But the notion that anxiety is a sin is not a new concept.
Is Anxiety About Not Trusting God?
This is a very fully discussed topic within pastors and I wonder where the voice of the Christian counselor is within this. John Piper identifies anxiety as very much a sin and then specifically delineates anxiety disorders at specific phobias as “unusual cases,” which in the realm of diagnoses, disorders are a break for the normal. Pastor Warren, who recently retired and his wife and him are champions for mental health within the Church after their son committed suicide in 2013, talked about 4 steps to stop worrying using the very verses our tweet references, though we see context and compassion in Warren’s words.
But maybe the most thoughtful, yet concise response I have seen online is from Joe Carter of The Gospel Coalition who write:
Depending on the context, fear and anxiety may be one of four types: (1) a God-given emotional response for our benefit, (2) a disordered physiological response that is not sinful, (3) a natural consequence of sin, or (4) sinful responses to God’s providential care. Let’s consider how we can distinguish between the four types.
The act of worrying is what Pastor Warren notes in his article, what the Scripture says in the context of Matthew 6, is about not trusting God. Anxiety and trauma disorders, in turn, are an involuntary, physiological response by the autonomic nervous system to a real or perceived threat which can save our life in a dangerous situation.
Lieryn Barnett, in a different article on The Gospel Coalition, shares a grace-filled quote that I feel rounds this out:
Of course, sin can exacerbate mental illness, or stir up depression or anxiety. Sin spreads the infection of the darkness, which is why it’s so important to have people point you to Christ.
Not trusting God is a sin and my own worry and stress that does not come from a disorder is there fore a sin.
May We Have More Grace, Less Stigma
My biggest issue with this presentation from the tweet is the lack of grace and ineffective dialogue that comes from it. In fact, the tweet is thrown up, never responded at all, and appears to be more about shock to be seen than anything else. Throw out something you think is sound theology and never look back to see the harm it has done.
Dr. Grcevich’s previous article we cited has a perfect quote I would love for pastors to hold on to more and more.
As church leaders, we may recognize situations in which symptoms associated with a mental health condition may be exacerbated by patterns of thought or behavior that can be characterized as sin. We may also see evidence in those struggling with mental illness of an absence of coping strategies available to those with more mature faith. But we’re clearly guilty of a lack of sensitivity in how we communicate with and care for our brothers and sisters with mental health condition as well as parents of kids with emotional, behavioral or social challenges.
I also do see that too many people are focused on the debate that they believe anxiety is a sin and less about helping the person resolve that anxiety. If you read the sermon notes of Chuck Smith on the Matthew 6 passage, he has a great quote:
Most are worried about the future. Yesterday is past, today is almost over. I am still, here, I have made it this far. I had dinner tonight. I have a place to sleep tonight. But what about tomorrow? How will I survive, how will I eat, how will I pay the bills, how will I pay the rent?
Incidentally, if any of you are hungry tonight because you did not have money for dinner, see me after church and I will see that you have dinner tonight.
What Do Christian Counselors Say
I did share this tweet to a couple of Christian counseling Facebook groups as I wanted to have them speak up. As I said before, I wonder where the voice of Christian counselors are. Keep in mind, I did not share any of this research, simply the tweet as well as the following questions after reading the quote:
- What do you think and feel?
- If you got to talk to him directly, what would you say?
- If your clients or congregation members read this, what would be your response to the individuals reading this?
I think it is important to hear from some of the experts who operate in these two realms.
Theologically, for something to be a sin, it must spring from one’s own free will. People with anxiety disorders don’t have the ability to choose to not have it (without treatment). Infirmities are not sins and equating them with sin only adds more shame and thus contributes to the problem rather than offering hope.Tres Adames, Pastoral Counselor
I’m not sure a statement such as what this person tweeted embraces the whole canon of scripture…
One might also suggest that Jesus’ sweating blood in Luke 22:44 could have been hematohidrosis, a rare clinical phenomenon caused by stress and anxiety. Jesus was fully human and fully God. He experienced stress and anxiety yet he was sinless.
The issue of anxiety being a sin is not a foundational tenant of the faith so I hold my position with open hands to accept the thoughts of others. However, I believe that scripture allows for anxiety to be experienced outside of sin. Anxiety is a warning system that should attune our need to discern where we should seek the intervention of the Holy Spirit in our life at that moment.
I do not believe that Jesus ever sinned. Most professing Christians would agree there. Jesus DID experience extreme anxiety in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus had perfect trust in the Father and still sweat blood in anticipation of the cross. We also experience anxiety, at times, because of our biological mechanisms for survival (which we know we don’t choose if we study the neuroscience here). Tweets like this are so irresponsible and unnecessary.
As for myself, I believe that people assume anxiety disorders are just like every day stressors and worries, which they are not. I also believe that the immediate reactions of a situation can be born out of our sinful nature but also out of poor brain chemistry. In fact, for those who have anxiety disorders, it does not dismiss them from stressors and worries where they stop trusting God and need to work on this as well, but this is a spectrum where God’s sovereignty and grace comes in.
I am reminded of a therapeutic perspective from Dialectic Behavioral Therapy that looks at our understanding of pain and suffering which I talk about more here. When you understand the context, it is easy to see how our immediate response to pain, emotional pain that is inflicted on us from an anxiety disorder or trauma event does not lead us to sin. But our lack of acceptance, our not giving it over to God and denying our trust in our Savior and Protector is sin.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments down below.