While modern mental health care has recognized the incredibly dangerous and often paralyzing effects of depression characterized by low self-esteem, feeling worthless, and feeling as if one is being rightfully punished, certain brands of Christian fundamentalism seem to continue to preach a destructive theology of sin that I argue enhances those feelings and increases the risk for suicide.
In my own preparation for ordination in the Lutheran church I have witnessed firsthand the crippling effects of that theology and am choosing to no longer remain silent. Those who preach a theology of worthlessness need to be held accountable to their destructive words.
As a brief background into the diagnosis and treatment of depression, in 1961 Dr. Aaron T. Beck published a 21-question self-reporting questionnaire to measure the severity of depression. This questionnaire, named the Beck Depression Inventory (DPI), was based on a revolutionary concept that is now the basic premise for one of the most effective treatments of depression, cognitive behavior therapy. At the time of the DPI’s release, most mental health care professionals assumed depression was a result of psychological forces that influenced a person’s behavior. The DPI, however, named that the real root of depression was in a patient’s own negative cognitions or thoughts. Thoughts inspire feelings, and feelings can cause prolonged periods of depression. Therefore, an effective treatment of depression is to work with a person’s thoughts and to create new neural pathways of positive self-affirmation.
The DPI’s 21 questions identified a few telltale symptoms of depression ranging from thoughts and feelings (such as a loss of interest in doing things once found enjoyable) to physical symptoms (such as weight loss and trouble sleeping). Among the identifiable symptoms are feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, guilt, shame, and being discouraged alongside having low self-esteem and excessively criticizing and blaming one’s self. Depending on the severity, if left untreated those feelings can lead to suicidal impulses, which pose a significant threat to a person’s life.
A theology of sin that emphasizes and even enhances depression-based feelings of worthlessness is rampant throughout different practices of Christian fundamentalism. Though fundamentalism is a broad term that describes movements throughout a number of denominations, in the Lutheran church it takes the name of WordAlone. WordAlone is a self-described reform movement within the Lutheran church in North America. Its main reform objective is to call the Lutheran church back to its biblical and Lutheran confessional roots, which they argue have been betrayed by liberal Protestantism’s intellectualization of faith in a way that affirms culture. In other words, they argue that more progressive Protestant theologies have used the tools of academic scholarship to favorably reinterpret the supposedly straightforward Word of God that condemns culture and a fallen humanity.
In respect to WordAlone’s theology of sin, there are three basic principles. First, humans are inherently full of evil lust and inclination. In other words, there is nothing inherently good about humanity and humanity is not capable by its own motivation of doing good. Next, human beings must be killed daily (drowned in the waters of baptism) in order to receive a new life that exists only in Christ. In other words, by being entirely decrepit and worthless, the only redemption that humanity finds is one that is outside of itself. Finally, one cannot fully live into the new life of righteousness in Christ without repentance – a full recognition of all of one’s shortcomings and worthlessness.
Not only is this theology of sin dangerous because it externalizes the locus of control by placing one’s very notion of self worth and esteem in the hands of others, but it also dangerously emboldens some of depression’s darkest suspicions: a person really is without worth, hope, and esteem.
Returning to the principles of cognitive behavior therapy, depressed feelings are thought to be caused by negative cognitions or thoughts, which form neural pathways in one's brain. The neural pathways can be formed into a tight-knit pattern that transmits the negative thoughts and further entrenches a person in depression.
A fundamentalist theology of sin that emphasizes one's sense of being worthless, I argue, affirms these negative neural pathways and can further deepen a person's depressive state. It is as if a man is standing in a hole, and a theology of worthlessness comes along and deepens the hole, making it additionally difficult (if not impossible) to get out. Those shovel-wielding theologians would do better to offer outstretched hands instead.