I’ve been reading a couple of things that deal with well-being and mental health in a faith context. Katherine Welby’s blog, which attracted a good deal of attention recently, is consistently interesting and engaging on these matters (find it here).
I have also been reading James Nelson’s influential book on masculinity, sexuality and spirituality, The Intimate Connection. In it Nelson draws on Nancy Chodorow’s ideas about the different ways boys and girls develop to make an argument about a set of specifically male characteristics in regard to both sexuality and spirituality. He suggests we need to overcome some of these that work to block our emotional and spiritual development in order to open ourselves to one another and to God.
In many ways Nelson’s book and Welby’s blog operate in similar territory:
- they take seriously the connections between our personal development and our faith lives
- they believe that a healthy self and a healthy relationship with God depend on one another
- they stress the possibilities of health and well-being and have a basically optimistic view of human nature (or at least what it can be)
- they are unafraid to draw insights from each side (the psychological and the theological) and apply it in the other domain
These are all highly valuable characteristics and to be applauded. I find myself strengthened and encouraged in reading them.
What troubles me is the lack of any explicit focus on the question of sin. There is nothing inherently problematic about taking seriously the idea that processes we can understand and respond to have causal influence in the formation of our characters (in the way Nelson does). Our responsibility for ourselves as sinners does not preclude explanatory stories about how we come to be who and how we are. For Christians, though, it seems to me that there is an absolute requirement, at some point, to take responsibility for it all, for ourselves. This does not mean, as Nelson seems to thing, loving ourselves (although we should). It means being aware of being accountable for what we do with what we have been given.
For me this is the real meaning of repentance and of being born again. It is a moment (or a continuous series of moments) in which we grasp what we are and turn (the root meaning of metanoia/repentance). We don’t become new people but we do enter into a new relationship with the person we are.
Crucial to this new relationship is that it is not a direct relationship between “I” and “me” (in Freudian terms the ego and the id). It is a relationship in which God comes as the third term. Our relationships to ourselves in Christ are relationships through Christ. It is Christ who enables us to take responsibility for what we have become, to be made new, to be born again.
Which brings me to the real nub of what I want to say. As we have become, as sinners, as fallen broken people, we are not lovable in ourselves. This is the great moment of truth in depression. In the depressed state we see that the world we inhabit and we ourselves are not good as creation was good when God made it. The Fall has marred it so that in itself it is meaningless and empty.
God’s love for us does not discover goodness in us, it puts it there. God does not love us because we are good, we are good because God loves us. All that is of value in creation comes from God and depends on God. This is the meaning, I believe, of “by grace alone”.
This does not at all mean that there is no goodness or value in the world. It means that goodness and value can be discerned only in and through God. All our happiness, all our love, all our joy and delight are works of the Spirit and are to be understood as such.
For me this is a great message of hope. Our failings, our weaknesses, our incapacities do not, ultimately, matter. The work of restoration and redemption is God’s not ours. We can do nothing but turn to God in our despair and rely on God’s love to make us lovable.