On Sin and Mental Health (Some Thoughts from the Therapist’s Seat)

Sin and Mental Health

.Aw, hell, guys. I have tried three different times to write a pithy and deeply philosophical piece on the concept of sin and how it affects mental health, and have written zip, zilch, nada that is worth sharing. So let me try again to talk about the relationship between sin and mental health, and this time lose the serious ‘voice’.

The concept of sin (vs. virtue) talks about behaviors as objectively bad (or good). Sin is not an exclusively Christian concept, or even an exclusively religious concept, though it tends to be framed that way. The most basic way of thinking of sin is of actions that hurt others or yourself unnecessarily.

The concept of mental health, on the other hand, talks about behaviors in terms of whether or not they improve a person’s inner life and functioning in society. There are correlations between religion, spirituality, and mental health, but not always where you’d expect them to be. Mental health is simply that mental state of being during which a person has the optimum chance of happiness and success in their life goals.

Both perspectives have their uses. The sin perspective is especially good for setting up boundaries in society, a giant sign stating ‘You shall not pass’, like Gandalf keeping the Balrogin the deeps. It sets rules that you shouldn’t violate thoughtlessly, without very good reason. It sees behavior as a product, something that simply is and should be dealt

with as it appears. It is relatively inflexible and judgmental.

sin and mental health

The mental health perspective, on the other hand is more like Shrek. You know, with layers like an onion. Or an ogre. Or something. The mental health perspective looks at the behavior, looks at the boundaries, and asks the question ‘Why does this person keep crossing that boundary? What is he getting from that? Why does she keep doing thing that causes her so many problems? It is relatively flexible and non judgmental.

Sometimes, I meet someone with a sin perspective in therapy, and that perspective is very, very useful to that person, replacing a personal moral compass that got badly damaged somewhere along the way with one which, while rigid, generally points the person in the right direction and helps that person get pretty decent results in life.

Sometimes I meet a person whose sin perspective has badly damaged him or her, where the rigidity of their belief system has instilled a deep sense of shame that prevents movement toward changing the behavior that instilled the sense of shame in the first place.

Sometimes, very rarely, and almost never in therapy, I meet someone who has integrated their concept of sin with their concept of mental health so thoroughly that both are enhanced. This is that happy, productive person who knows that the upstanding citizen the world sees is largely the same as the inner person that builds joy and happiness in life.

This is that person who looks at ‘what’s right’ and also sees ‘what will make my life better’, and acts, almost instinctively, to marry the two. This is the person who without thinking finds a wallet with thousands of dollars and an ID, and turns it in, just because she’d feel bad if she didn’t. Or the person who fosters children from damaged homes because of the joy it gives him, even though it means a much more complicated (and expensive) life than he had anticipated.

sin and mental health

I like to explore the nature of sin and how it impacts peoples’ lives in terms of happiness and success, by whatever measures you define them. Most commonly, what I find is that concepts like the Seven Deadly Sins correlate pretty strongly to actions that generally lead to imbalance and unhappiness in life.

So what do you, a person of faith (or not) do with all that guilt and shame that comes from almost certainly at some point violating some precept of your moral code that makes you feel ‘sinful’ (and not in a good way)?

First of all, if the behavior is causing you or someone else pain, stop the behavior. Don’t keep stealing your co-workers’ lunches. Break off the affair. Stop buying clothes you can’t afford and then not paying the bills. Yes, I know it’s not really that simple. I’m a therapist, remember? So don’t stop. But at least begin thinking about stopping.

Second, make amends to those you have harmed. Sin largely consists of hurting others, and sometimes consists of hurting yourself. In either case, do something about it. My Name is Earl had the right idea, and a hilariously bad way (mostly) of going about it. Call up the neighbor you screamed at over the fence, apologize (leave a message if they won’t answer) and offer to make amends. Take the clothes you charged back to the store and go thrifting instead. (And good old Earl had a blast doing it, for the most part. Even if he didn’t admit it.)

Finally, forgive yourself. If you are a spiritual or religious person, ask your God or gods to forgive you. Make the amends that are appropriate in your spiritual tradition. And get help if needed, mental health help, spiritual help, or both.

There is no such thing as a ‘life without sin’, even if you, like me, define it as a life where you don’t hurt others or yourself unnecessarily. But there is, and can be, a life that is conscious of the boundaries of behavior within a society, that seeks to live within those boundaries and do right by others and themselves whenever possible, and that reaps the rewards not only in a future life, but in this one as well.

I’ll be continuing this series irregularly over the next couple of months or so, focusing on each of the Christian seven deadly sins and then on the seven sins of the a pagan path (which are very different and less familiar to most of you). I welcome lively, respectful discussions.

Whew. Finally, something worth writing. I guess fourth time is the charm.

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About Maureen O'Danu

Maureen O'Danu is the webmistress of Am I the Only One Dancing? where there is a new discussion every day on any one of dozens of topics and ideas, as well as reviews, geekery, family, fun, and enough politics to season the pot.
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  • http://kcpolymath.blogspot.com/ Kit Peters

    small point of order: there’s no one “pagan path” for there to be any number – seven or otherwise – deadly sins of. But I’m still interested to see what they are. :)

    • http://www.amnottheonlyone.com/ odanu

      You’re right, of course. It should be ‘a’ pagan path, not ‘the’ pagan path. I should have proofread better.