A patient of mine, a college student, became discouraged with his church. It seemed he couldn’t accomplish what they wanted, no matter how hard he tried. Raised in a very Christian family, he had suffered from obsessional fears since age 13. A picture of Jesus had hung on his bedroom wall, and one night while looking at it the thought suddenly popped into his mind, ““I hate God, and I love the devil.” He was terrified. He tried to push the thought away, but it became even stronger, and it tormented him for days. Finally, with tears streaming down his face, he confided in his mother who caringly assured him, “You know, Honey, that’s not the truth.” This was very helpful, it seemed, yet it did not put an end to the disorder he had developed. Various religious fears plagued him throughout high school, especially “Satan is after me,” and “I’m not saved.” To put these at ease, he would read certain comforting bible verses over and over.
He went away to college, and his OCD worsened–this is often the case when a young person leaves home and takes on new responsibilities. Now, a new series of blasphemous thoughts intruded on his mind even worse than before, such as “G-damn Jesus,” and “F- you God.” To counter these he would say repetitively, “I love God,” and he would pray over and over for forgiveness and relief. Half way through his freshman year, he decided to discuss his condition with the Christian group he had joined at the University. The students were very supportive, reassuring him that he could overcome his blasphemous thoughts if he only he prayed harder for God’s help. So, he prayed even more fervently; yet he found no reward for his efforts. In fact, his anxiety worsened.
That’s when he came for professional help. He explained to me, “There is a two-sided conversation going on in my head constantly, and I can’t stop it. There’s the bad thoughts, and there are my prayers for them to go away. It never ends, and I can’t take it.”
Telling a person to pray harder to stop obsessions –seemingly good advice–is often the wrong advice for OCD. The student’s prayers had quickly became compulsions. The key to overcoming OCD is learning to tolerate obsessions and resist compulsions. In psychological terms, the goal is to habituate to obsessional fears…to get used to them. That means stopping all repetitive acts done to counter the fear, including compulsive prayers.
From a Christian point of view, it also makes sense that sometimes we would need to tolerate a fear, and not continuously ask for help through prayer. Sometimes God allows us to suffer, and seems to not hear our supplications. This is because he has a lesson to teach us. With OCD, it is a tough lesson: Learning to rely completely on Him and not on ourselves. We are assuming too much when we think that we can call on God any time we want and get what we ask for. This is prideful and presumptuous. The student’s prayers did not reflect humility, “let thy will be done,” rather all they said was, “let my will be done.” We all tend to pray like this; but what God wants, sometimes, is for us to move to a deeper level of trust where we abandon ourselves to his will, rather than trying to get our own way.
In OCD, we need to allow God to have complete control over the occurrence of obsessional fears, as well as the anxiety, uncertainty, and guilt that accompanies them. We need to allow the fears to be there for as long as God wants, and resist doing compulsions to escape them. We need to understand that this is all a part of His plan, a plan designed to show us our proper place before Him. Yes, we can hope that God will stop the testing. And we should certainly pray, but our prayer should be for the patience to allow God to do his work for our good.