As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.“ (John 9:1-3, CEB)
Try to imagine it today: a prominent Christian dares to suggest publicly that a man born blind, or with some other disadvantage, is being punished for some secret sin, whether his own or that of his parents. Imagine the reaction in the news media, the blogosphere: the Christian would be widely derided for being a simple-minded religious bigot. What an idiot, people would say. Sin’s got nothing to do with it.
Indeed: does sin have anything to do with anything anymore?
Back in 1973 (the year I graduated from high school!), a prominent psychiatrist named Karl Menninger wrote a feisty book called Whatever Became of Sin? He observed that the language of sin seemed to be disappearing from American culture, and with it, a robust sense of personal moral responsibility.
In particular, Menninger worried about the growing use of the language of “illness” to explain behavior. Another psychiatrist, Thomas Szasz, had earlier expressed similar concerns in The Myth of Mental Illness (1960), arguing that his own profession had created something akin to a new priesthood whose power was maintained by pseudo-scientific uses of words like “illness” and “disease.”
We have to remember that psychiatric practice was much different then, when it was common to institutionalize patients. Neuropsychological research has grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades. But I still want to ask the theological question: does sin have anything to do with illness, particularly mental illness?
Here’s a question I’ve posed to my family therapy students. Consider this shortlist of problems that might be seen in a therapist’s office, or even gossiped about in hushed tones at church: marital conflict, divorce, infidelity, depression. To which of these would we feel most comfortable or uncomfortable applying the language of sin?
The vote is pretty clear. It’s easy to think of infidelity as sin. Depression? Not so much–especially if one thinks of depression as a neurochemical imbalance. That’s certainly part of the story, but it’s too easy in the popular imagination to reduce depression to only a problem of biology, solved by the right medication.
How one answers the question, I think, says something about the way we understand sin. Infidelity is sin because it’s something you do, an intentional bad choice, often in violation of one’s conscience. But it’s harder to think of depression in terms of sin, because it’s closer to an illness–something that happens to you as opposed to something you choose.
In other words, we often think of sin as doing something you know is wrong. And again, while that may be part of the story, it’s not all of it. Not by a long shot.
I like Cornelius Plantinga’s way of putting the matter: sin is “not the way it’s supposed to be.” God’s good creation has been spoiled by human rebellion, such that all of creation, including humankind, now groans as it awaits its redemption (Rom 8:19-23).
Jesus spat on the ground to make mud to smear on the blind man’s eyes, and told him to go wash. When the man came back, he could see (John 9:6-7). This healing ministry of Jesus–giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and more–is a proclamation of the coming of God’s kingdom (cf. Matt 11:2-6; Isa 35:5-6; Luke 4:18-19). The good news is that a sovereign and merciful God is busy restoring a broken creation to the way it’s supposed to be.
So, no, I wouldn’t think of depression as being the result of sin in the manner of the disciples’ question to Jesus about blindness. But it is part of the complex reality of what it means to live in a broken world, which includes both the suffering we inflict on others, and the suffering they inflict on us. It includes the consequences of illness, poor choices, malice and ignorance. It includes everything that isn’t the way that God created things to be.
The good news of the kingdom is that God is even now doing something about it. And we’re invited to be part of the work.