You Can Change #6: Negative Emotions?

Warning: long post ahead!

We’re five posts into You Can Change, with only one to go to wrap up the last few chapters. All that and so far I’ve neatly avoided the issue that, to me, was the most confusing and troubling aspect of the book. But now it’s time to tackle it head on, open a few cans of worms, ask a lot of questions, and not give any real answers!

It’s right there in the subtitle: “God’s transforming power for our sinful behaviour and negative emotions”.

I picked up this book knowing that I am susceptible to particular negative emotions that I readily classify as sinful. I expected to come across help for emotions such as anger, self-pity, pride, envy and impatience. I was eager for ideas about how to change my thoughts and feelings as well as my actions.

A twinge of discomfort first set in when I read the suggestions of behaviours or emotions we might like to change. Listed alongside the envy, greed and anger were depression and anxiety (p 25). ‘Hmmm’, I thought. ‘These are not emotions I would normally classify as sinful. Perhaps he’ll define what he means by ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ as the book progresses. Or perhaps he’s not claiming that they’re sinful, but that nonetheless there is help in these pages for those who live with them. I’ll wait for a definition before I get too worked up.’

Just so you know… I have never had depression or an anxiety disorder. I am in no way an expert on the topic. I have always been slightly unsure how to think about depression, and how to love and care for those who are depressed or anxious. While I have no doubt that Christian counsel and theological wisdom can help those who are depressed and anxious, I would generally consider the intervention of clinical psychologists and doctors to form a necessary foundation of treatment. I have no doubt that someone with depression (or any other medical condition for that matter) can act sinfully within that situation, but I would never say that depression itself was a sin. This was the mindset I brought to my reading of You Can Change.

So you can understand how unnerved I was to see ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ listed alongside other sinful emotions time and again (for example pages 68, 72, and 77). Scattered throughout the book are references to people overcoming ‘negative emotions’ that I think of as medical conditions. There is Bob Kauflin (page 51), who experienced ‘a three-year period of hopelessness in his life characterized by depression, panic attacks and itching.’ After receiving counsel from a pastor to rely less on himself and more on what Jesus has done, a light went on and ‘every time he felt anxious or hopeless, he would say to himself, ‘I am a hopeless person, but Jesus Christ died for hopeless people.’’ Then we hear of Lee (page 81) who eventually overcame his panic attacks through relying on catch-phrases such as ‘God is greater than your thoughts.’ and ‘Yesterday was a victory, today is another battle.’ The impression given is that the problems presented were purely spiritual and that addressing them as such was the (only?) appropriate way to beat them.

One thing I learnt during my years on my high-school debating team was the importance of definitions. Careful definitions set you up for a clear and convincing argument. Everyone is on the same page and so meaningful discussion can occur. Sloppy definitions lead to a debate where each team is arguing about different things and no-one ever addresses the other’s argument. I wonder if this is the problem between Chester and me, and the cause of my confusion.

Crucial definitional questions that Chester doesn’t answer with any sort of clarity are:

What is a negative emotion?
Based on the examples of negative emotions that Chester gives (such as depression, envy, anxiety, greed, anger, guilt, bitterness and pride), and in lieu of any solid definition, it seems that Chester thinks of negative emotions as “emotions that make you feel bad”.

Are all negative emotions sinful? Is depression sinful?
This is such an important question to answer. If negative emotions are always sinful, then Chester is telling us that depression and anxiety are always sinful. This would fly in the face of how I have been encouraged to think about these conditions.

At first glance, I wondered if Chester differentiates between negative and sinful emotions. If they are equivalent terms, then why not call the book ‘God’s transforming power over sinful behaviour and emotions’? Perhaps there is a nuance that allows a negative emotion to only sometimes be sinful. This idea is supported by Chester’s acknowledgement of righteous anger on page 74. If anger can be both sinful and righteous depending on the circumstance, does this leave room for depression to only sometimes be sinful?

Chester’s clearest statements about the sinfulness of negative emotions are on pages 81 and 82. The only problem is that they subtly contradict each other. At first Chester says, ‘We sin because we believe the lie that we are better off without God, that his rule is oppressive, that we will be free without him, that sin offers more than God. This is true of every sin and negative emotion [italics mine].’ Turning over the page he says, ‘This is a radical view of sin. It means many of our negative emotions are sinful because they’re symptoms of unbelief- the greatest sin and the root sin. Whenever we’re depressed or bitter, it’s because we believe God isn’t being good to us or that he’s not in control [italics mine].’

It is safe to say that Chester thinks negative emotions are sinful at least most of the time. Depression is consistently listed as a negative emotion, and it is specifically mentioned in the above quote as a sinful emotion. This plain reading of the text tells me that Chester believes depression is sinful.

What does Chester mean by the term ‘depression’?
Experts recognise depression as a complicated term. While most of us will have occasional low feelings, there is a big difference between this and what clinicians call ‘major’ or ‘clinical depression’. On top of this, there are a number of other forms of depressive illness. The situation is similar when it comes to anxiety.*

Chester never clarifies what he means by ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’. He always uses the term without qualification, and does not offer any caveats about clinical illnesses as opposed to everyday low or anxious feelings. From this I have tentatively concluded that Chester believes all depression and anxiety to be sinful.

So where does this leave us?
Because I couldn’t pin down for certain what Chester’s view on depression and anxiety is, I found it very difficult to interact with his argument. Am I getting my knickers in a knot about nothing? Or is his view of and solution for depression and anxiety really as radical as it seems? After calming my urge to throw the entire book away, I did allow myself to be challenged by Chester’s argument. It would be a pity to apply so many qualifications to his argument that we water down its strength entirely.

The key areas that I have been challenged to consider are:
• Feelings of anxiety and depression can be sinful. When it comes to everyday feelings of depression and anxiety, it is important that we examine our thoughts and desires that have led us to feel this way. We cannot simply assume that feeling depressed or anxious is always excusable by our circumstances or biology.
• Even when someone has clinically diagnosed depression or an anxiety disorder, it is appropriate to remind them of the truth about God.

In the areas that I am unable to agree wholeheartedly with Chester, I would offer the following caveats:
• While Christians are able to offer help and guidance for those who are depressed, I would always advise that a depressed person consult either a medical practitioner or clinical psychologist. Chester never once recommends these avenues as being complementary to spiritual counsel.
• I could not recommend this book to a friend suffering from clinical depression. While it offers a necessary kick in the pants for those of us who occasionally give in to feelings of self-pity, I worry that it would just be kicking a genuinely depressed person when they are down.

I feel like I have said too much, and yet there is so much more to say. Did you react as strongly as me to the inclusion of depression and anxiety with sinful emotions? Does your own experience with depression or anxiety allow you to identify times when you really did need to respond with repentance and faith?

* Reference: