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Let’s say that Mable was a victim of abuse and as a result, she has gone through many years of depression. The question is whether or not her depression is sinful. At the heart of this matter requires complete views of anthropology (the study of humanity), soteriology (the study of salvation), and hamartiology (the study of sin).
And you must also determine your presuppositional starting point. If you come from a naturalistic, materialistic view of humanity, you will interpret this situation through an evolutionistic, secular lens. If you come from a biblical starting point, you will see humanity as fallen, spiritual beings who need a redeemer for salvation and sanctification. I cannot overemphasize how your “starting point will determine your ending point” (your conclusions).
Back to Mable – To say that Mable is volitionally sinning is missing the mark of what could be happening to her, as well as unhelpful in that you might condemn her while not providing a fuller explanation of the interplay between anthropology, soteriology, and hamartiology. Let me illustrate.
Suppose you had a ball made out of paper mache and you placed it on hot asphalt during a thunderstorm. You can imagine how that “mache ball” would deteriorate. Imagine if you had another ball sitting beside it, but it was a ceramic ball. Of course, that ball would experience little harm.
But those two balls do not represent our Christian life on earth accurately. Here is the theologically accurate picture: You are a paper mache ball on the inside (born in Adam) but have case-hardened ceramic on the outside (born again in Christ). Meaning, being a Christian does not make you perfect through and through. You’re still subject to old, Adamic (paper mache) ways of being, thinking, and behaving, as you actively choose to sin while also passively responding to sin’s mysterious machinations that wreak havoc on your soul.
To put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:22-24
It is Christ that makes us different from our non-Christian counterparts, but we don’t have glorified minds or bodies until after we die. If we had glorified bodies, we would be a “pure, ceramic ball” without the inner, active, and passive temptations that can captivate us. (See James 1:14-15; 1 Thessalonians 5:14)
Thus, when someone abused Mable, she felt all sorts of awful things inside of her, but that does not have to mean that she was actively choosing sin. It means that she is a fallen human; the paper mache ball on the inside did what it was supposed to do, which includes active and passive actions. Any person who goes under such evil things will have “fallen reactions” (voluntary and involuntary) because that is who all of us are. Paul talked about it this way.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. – 2 Corinthians 4:7-10
You see the interplay between the “paper mache” and the “ceramic.” Both of them are very much present and active, but it’s the “ceramic” (Christ) that makes all the difference. The individual that God is restoring through salvation and sanctification has divine power to be victorious, even though they will always live in this body of death (Romans 7:21-25).
Where some folks become confused is that they don’t fully understand the interplay of those three doctrines that I earlier mentioned. Meaning, if you’re born in Adam, you can respond with fear, anxiety, and worry, which is normal. Where depression comes into play is after an extended period of not knowing how to deal with what is happening to you effectively. When hopelessness, despair, anger, guilt, disappointment, and a few other things come and stay, it may lead to depression, though I’m only interacting with one possible cause of depression.
In this instance, depression, as I have outlined here, is not necessarily because Mable did something wrong but because of what others did to her. It is though they “activated Adam’s fallenness” (sin) inside of her, and that fallenness did what it does for any of us. It does not have to make her guilty but merely affirms that she is a fallen person like the rest of us. She would be “abnormal” if she did not struggle. Of course, the more she learns how to process her past and the abuse biblically, she will become “abnormal like Christ.”
But rather than condemning Mable, Christians should come alongside her to help her live more effectively according to the “ceramic” that Christ gave to her when He made her a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Summary – Paul is saying in Ephesians 4:22-24 that though Mable is a Christian, she continues to have “paper mache” inside of her, which works passively and actively. And she needs to learn how to put off, renew, and put on a “ceramic” kind of life.
All of us have had various thunderstorms rain down on our lives, and because nobody has perfect sanctification, there can be adverse reactions—willful and not willful. But condemning these folks for being human is not wise. You want to come alongside them and enter into their story, so you can care for them by teaching them how to access the power of Christ that enables fallen people to be more than conquerors (Romans 8:37-39).
One of the most vital things you can do for them is to come alongside them and weep with them (Romans 12:15-16). Let them know you love them and you want to “enter into the prison” of their pain (Hebrews 13:3). And as you do this, help them in practical ways, too. Give compassionate, competent, and courageous counsel to them.
Additional Reading – From David Powlison’s article, The Ambiguously Cured Soul, in the Spring ’01 Journal of Biblical Counseling:
Amelia’s psychotherapy mingled these two myths into her self-understanding: a faulty view of personal history and a faulty view of the heart. Her counselor also failed to address two other problems that lie on the surface of her story. First, her repeated assertion that lesbian attraction was something she “never consciously chose,” that it was discovered not decided, is significant. She reiterates that she was the unwitting recipient of lesbian desires.
The therapist’s notion of a passive, history-determined heart persuasively mapped onto this experience—and blinded both parties to the fact that Amelia’s experience needs to be reinterpreted biblically, not taken at face value. A common misunderstanding of the nature of sin seems to have reinforced the psychological theory. Amelia thinks like Pelagius, not like Augustine and the Bible. Presumably, her therapist thinks the same way, because he did not help her think more deeply about herself and her experience.
Under the Pelagian construct, for a pattern to count as something we are responsible for, it must be a matter of conscious volition. If “I consciously decided to be a lesbian,” then it would count as responsible choice and as culpable sin. But if “The decision was made for me,” then a causality outside herself explains her deep-seated, compulsive, and mysterious problem.
In fact, our core sin patterns rarely arise only from conscious consideration and decision. Which of us ever initially decided to be proud, or comfort-loving, or people-pleasing, or rebelliously self-willed, or perverse in our romantic and sexual longings? We do not need Nike to tell us to “just do it.” Sinners sin instinctively.
That Amelia can remember no conscious moment of choosing lesbian lust is no particular surprise. Some people can remember a fork-in-the-road moment; others can’t. Sexual lust is polymorphous and promiscuous. In most significant sin patterns, we witness a combination of specific choices and seeming just-thereness. As Amelia’s self-knowledge deepens, what now sounds like “Who me?” and “Why me?” will become “Yes, me. And praise God for incalculable grace.” But her counselor did not help her grow in true and profound self-understanding of Coram Deo.