In the two chapters I’m going over today– “The Place of Anger in Depression” and “Self-Pity and Depression”– Tim makes an argument based on commonly held attitudes among evangelicals and fundamentalists. As I’ve talked about in the past, the common understanding in Tim’s circles is that there are “good” emotions and “bad” emotions– and the “bad” ones are sinful. In my experience, there are two emotions in particular that seem to be universally reviled in evangelicalism: anger and self-pity. He is building on that assumption, relying on a typical evangelical’s willingness to accept the claim that all anger and all self-pity is sin. That claim becomes the foundation of his argument that all depression comes from sin, because he believes that everyone who becomes depressed were angry and self-pitying first:
A number of individuals with whom I have shared this [claim that all depressed persons are angry] have challenged me, but on further questioning and closer examination, we established the problem [of anger] without exception. (88)
At last we have come to the primary cause of depression … Of one thing I am certain: if the mental thinking patterns of self-pity is not arrested, the person is hopeless. (97-98)
Tim also does something else: he makes his argument unfalsifiable.
I have repeatedly noted that non-depressed people seem to accept this diagnosis [of self-pity] easily. Even individuals usually prone to depression, when not depressed, seldom argue. It is the depressed themselves who seem to rebel against it. (97)
And with that one sentence Tim does what Christians have been doing for millennia: he sets up his argument with the claim that anyone arguing against him proves him right. If I were to approach Tim with mountains of research and personal stories of how depression and self-pity aren’t automatically connected, he would dismiss me outright with “of course you would say that: you’re depressed.”
It amuses (and infuriates) me how people like Tim claim to take the Bible so seriously and yet are completely willing to ignore anything that doesn’t support the argument of the moment. For one thing, Tim says that anger is always sinful (93), and he quotes Ephesians 4:30-32 to support that, arguing that those verses teach that anger always “grieves the Holy Spirit” (92). Except it’s bitterly ironic that he passed over verse 26 to get to there. In case you need a reminder, Ephesians 4:26 says “Be angry and sin not.” That does seem to imply that it’s at least possible to be angry without sinning.
The fact that the rest of the passage includes things like “wrath” when God themself is often described as “wrathful” punches gigantic holes in Tim’s argument, but he desperately needs Christians to skip over the parts of the Bible that don’t agree with him; without that, he can’t rhetorically link anger and sin with depression.
But all of the above isn’t even my biggest problem with this chapter. My biggest problem is that he is incredibly formulaic in his approach to this problem (93-96), and in order to be this reductionist he has to but on blinders as big as barns. People are not formulaic. Problems like depression and mental health aren’t formulaic and simple (an argument he anticipates on 98, calling it an “excuse of the intellectual”).
There are many things that I am angry about. Some of the anger is appropriate, some of it misdirected, and it’s my job as a human being to wrestle with that. Anger isn’t always the correct response, but sometimes it is. Sometimes there are money-changers in the temple. One of the things that I am angry about is the fact that there is so much abuse and violence in the world, and I am utterly confident in the assertion that abuse and oppression make God angry, too.
Hopefully I’ve already established why linking depression with self-pity is wrong– and hopefully that’s obvious as the noses on our collective faces. However, Tim doesn’t even have a consistent definition of what he considers to be self-pity. To most of us, when we hear “self-pity,” we think of someone who sees themselves strictly as the victim of other people or of circumstance and absolutely refuses to take any steps whatsoever that could help improve their life or emotional well-being.
That is Reason #1 that “self-pity” doesn’t fit as a description for people who are depressed: we rarely see ourselves that way. If anything, it’s the exact opposite; the bone-deep conviction that we are worthless tells us on the daily that we are the ones responsible for everything being so miserable– not other people, and not circumstance.
However, Tim only works with that definition half the time. The rest of the time he confuses it with things like entitlement:
One brilliant but depressed scholar I know holds a Ph.D. and has developed a world-renowned reputation. He had as a young man offered great promise and was expected by those in his field to excel. Having a problem marriage, he drifted into serious patterns of hostility toward his wife. These, in turn, caused him to indulge in the habit of self-pity, which demotivated him. After years of such thinking, he came in for counseling. Having written few articles and never finishing a book, this brilliant man had wasted the creativity potential of a lifetime. Naturally he blamed his wife instead of himself. “If it hadn’t been for that woman, I could have realized my potential.” (102)
On the surface, this seems to fit “self-pity”– the man in this story blames his wife for his failures. However, that’s because Tim doesn’t acknowledge the realities of abuse or abusers, and he skips right over the red flags. I believe that this man had a huge entitlement complex– he believed he deserved to have everything he wanted, and like every other abuser on the planet felt entitled in his relationship with his wife. When his wife turned out to be a human being, he resented her for not living up to his expectations. She was supposed to help him be this accomplished scholar– she didn’t, so it’s all her fault.
The fact that Tim never once acknowledges that abuse can play a part in causing depression crops up over and over again. He tells a story of a young woman who wanted to be a virgin when she got married, but had sex with her husband before their wedding. Tim had this to say:
Self-justification is a natural defense mechanism against self-condemnation, of course, so it was easier to blame him than share the responsibility. Before long her hostility produced self-pity, and finally she became depressed. (103)
If you’ve been around here for long, you should recognize what’s happening there. A woman came to him angry and upset that she and her husband had sex– “blaming” him for taking her virginity. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for a woman to willingly consent to sex and then be upset about it later, but those women don’t usually refuse to acknowledge their part in it. Considering that this was the 60s, I’d bet the moon that this young woman experienced some form of sexual coercion– and it’s possible she was raped.
Later on we get this:
One depressed woman spent most of her time in the counseling room dissecting her husband … Knowing the counselee’s husband as I did, fully aware that he was surly, inconsiderate and unkind … I proceeded to explain that the greater her problem, the greater her grace … Instantly the woman snapped, “I’d rather have a kind husband than the grace!” (106)
Her husband wasn’t even kind. That is basic introductory-level human decency, but Tim doesn’t even address the reality that her husband is an jerk, but instead insists that God will use his behavior to “instruct” her.
The reason why Tim can’t address or acknowledge abuse as a cause for depression is that he knows that it would make his theory monstrous. Saying that we need to “count it all joy” and that “trials” are the way we “grow up spiritually and emotionally” (106) turns into something horrific when you say it to a child that’s had bones broken by their father or a woman raped by her husband. “You need to count your rape for all joy because that’s how you’ll mature” is a horrific nightmare of an argument, and he knows it.