The most terrified people I ever see are those suffering from clinical obsessions with sexual, violent, or blasphemous content. A loving mother is changing her baby’s diaper when she suddenly has the thought of performing sex on him. A good man is strolling through a park when, upon stopping to enjoy the site of a child at play, an impulse flies into his mind to run over and stab the child. The devout mother fears that she is directing her for her prayers to Satan, while at other times she hears herself in her mind cursing God.
Nothing is more frightening to OCD sufferers–a timid and guilt ridden bunch–than obsessional ideas, images, and urges of a horrid or evil nature. “How could I ever be thinking such thoughts?” That’s the most common refrain. I’ve had people come to me and say quite seriously, “Lock me up somewhere…I’m either dangerous or I’m going crazy.” For the devout Christian with OCD, it’s even more than that. These thoughts are not only awful, repugnant and a knockout blow to self-esteem, they are also taken to be an indication of a horrible sin. Sin so bad that one could easily question salvation.
Are these thoughts sinful? Let’s take a look at that. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement and very influential in the development of protestant theology, defined sin as ”an actual voluntary transgression of the revealed, written law of God.” In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read that mortal sin is “to choose deliberately–that is, both knowing it and willing it–something gravely contrary to the devine law.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church provides a nice concise definiton of sin: “The purposeful disobedience of a creature to the known will of God.” We find in all the accepted definitions of sin the concept that sinning always involves making a “purposeful,” “voluntary,” or “deliberate” choice.
What about an obsessional thought, be it everso horrendous? Is a deliberate choice involved? Is it a sin just because it comes to mind? Certainly not. These thoughts are involuntary and intrusive; not chosen in any way. They jump into the mind unexpected, unwelcomed, and unwanted. In fact, the occurrence of obsessional ideas, images, and urges is normal. OCDers are often astounded to find this out, but research proves it. Most people have such thoughts fleetingly at some time in their lives, and dismiss them quickly. The human mind is a trash bin.
Well then, is choice involved (and therefore sin), because the horrendous thoughts stubbornly stay in mind? Often, it feels to OCDers as if deliberate choice must be involved, because the harder they fight the thoughts the more they come back. Here, we must stress the difference between a desire and a fear. A thought may stay in mind either because you like it or because you fear it. Sins have to do with desires. Obsessions, on the other hand, always have to do with fears. Obsessions are not sinful. They are not kept in mind by choice.
This distinction between desire and fear becomes most difficult to make with obsessional urges. An OCD sufferer with homosexual obsessions, for instance, may experience a sudden impulse to touch a same-sex person in a sexual way. It seems to the OCDer like a true desire, because it is a genuine urge. But urges do not always spring from desire. Obsessional urges, like obsessional images and ideas, are fear-based. An example is the common impulse to jump off a tall building when one gets too close to the railing, or to jump on the subway tracks as a train approaches. (Winston Churchill had this latter obsession and always tried to put a subway pillar between himself and the tracks while waiting for a train.) The individual certainly does not want to jump, and never would. This is not an actual desire. The urge is completely fear-based, and is not a sin.
Obsessions with evil sexual, violent, or blasphemous content are extremely common. Most of the Christians I work with nowadays suffer from these sorts of gut wrenching obsessions at one time or another. This is not surprising, since obsessions always take the form of what ever thoughts would potentially be the most fearful for us, and for Christians, horrible thoughts that would offend our Lord are the worst that they could think. My OCD friend, you must realize that evil or horrid obsessions are no different than common obsessions such as a fear of germs on the hands. All of them have to do with our fears. None of them have to do with sin.