Thoughts on desiring God, well-being and sin

edenI’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 ConnectionIn 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.

BUT

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.

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2 comments
  1. Hello, Firstly I’d say that you don’t necessarily have to be healthy physically or mentally to have a good, strong relationship with God, if it is then as the possessor of a number of chronic illnesses I haven’t a hope of ever having a healthy relationship with God. Indeed I’ve been the closest to God at times when I’ve been most ill, it can have a remarkably clarifying effect on that relationship and bring it into sharper focus as the one thing that matters.

    Secondly I find that thanks to depression I have no trouble acknowledging my sin and my sinful nature, it is inescapably there, there are days when I cannot stop thinking about it. I frequently feel like a complete failure and am grateful again and again for Jesus’s incarnation, death and resurrection, for his forgiveness and mercy. From my experience of depression and talking to other depressed Christians a focus on sin is about the last thing needed – we have it in spades!

    Of course sin is incredibly important, it is central to the Gospel, because of it grace can abound, but we are more than just sinners, we are *forgiven* sinners and people God loves and those last two aspects do not always get the attention they deserve. I will admit that my heart sinks when someone says “but we’re not focussing enough on sin” or words to that effect, sin does need attention, I do not deny it, but sometimes we need some hope too, especially in depression.

  2. Thanks, Stephanie, I think we agree. My point is not that depressed people can’t have a relationship with God nor that they need to think more about sin. I’m saying (as one who has suffered from periods of severe depression) that we should recognise the moment of truth in depression, which is the insight into sin you describe, and that, as Kierkegaard said, despair is the necessary precursor of faith. We can’t fully grasp God’s grace until we recognise how badly we need it..

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