A graduate student consulted me not long ago for a problem with “opposite thoughts.” Whenever he thought of something good, a bad thought about the same thing would take its place. “I’ll be thinking how nice the day is, and then I see an atomic bomb exploding it up,” he told me. “Or I’ll be imagining my wife’s smile, and here comes the image of slitting her throat.” Such terrifying thoughts were making his life a misery.
To fend them off, he had tried a number of different strategies. First, he had attempted to push them out of his mind. This seemed to only make them stronger. Then he tried to convince himself that they were meaningless. That worked for a while, but more and more time became required to do the convincing. Remembering that the Bible tells us to “fix your thoughts on what is good,” he then attempted to replace every bad thought with a good one. Soon he was spending all day long doing that. He could always count on his wife to put his mind at ease, but lately even that was backfiring. On a recent occasion he had confessed about an image of killing someone, and she joked, “It’s nothing to worry about, unless, of course, you have killed someone!” That about killed him. “Maybe I have!” he kept thinking.
Now and then I see obsessions like this, where good thoughts are immediately countered by bad ones, although no one before has come up with such a great name for them as “opposite thoughts.” For instance, a number of people have told me how they wake up in the morning feeling really good, but then as soon as they realize they are feeling good, the thought comes “Your good day will be ruined by OCD!” Sure enough, from that point on, their day is ruined.
For Christians, the key to dealing with opposite thoughts is remembering this crucial principle: They are from the enemy who tries to keep us in a state of fear—yet God is using them for our good so that we will learn to trust in him. How does this work? When opposite thoughts strike, we feel a combination of terrifying repulsion, despair, and anxiety; and we feel a gripping need to do something about them immediately. But this is a trap. In reality, all obsessional fears are custom designed as vehicles to teach us to rely on God. We want to take the risk of giving God the complete responsibility for them. We want to allow them to be in our mind bothering us for as long as God sees fit, doing nothing about them ourselves. We will not be tested beyond what we can bear. We will discover that we can depend on our shepherd to care for us.