“Works-righteousness” is a term often heard in Protestant churches. It means attempting to become righteous (the “right kind of person”) through doing what one assumes are good acts. The great insight of the Reformation was that righteousness does not result from works, but rather from faith. The problem with works is that we become prideful in doing them. We think we are accomplishing great things by ourselves, when it is God who deserves the glory. What God wants from us is faith– trust in his power and his love—and not trust in ourselves.
The idea of works-righteousness has special relevance to Christian OCDers, because that’s what we’re involved in when we perform compulsions. Suppose your obsessional fear is that you are disobedient or out of God’s favor. Maybe you have an intrusive thought of committing a violent or perverted act, or perhaps a more subtle fear such as that you are not praying correctly. So now you start saying prayers and reciting bible verses over and over in vain attempts to put these thoughts right. These practices, though holy and good in themselves, have now turned into compulsive works. You are no longer praying truly, nor paying attention to the Word. You are just trying to make yourself righteous through your own intense efforts.
This is a very devious trick of the enemy: He lures us into works-righteousness through activities that we think are foolproof, such as prayer and Bible study. We need to recognize this trap, because it specifically targets good and conscientious Christians. We will know we have fallen into it when our fears drive us to repetitive, hollow, unproductive acts. The enemy is very pleased when this happens. He loves it when we do compulsions.
When obsessional fears strike and righteousness seems at stake, we must watch out! Rather than engaging in compulsive behaviors, we must allow the fearful anxiety to be present, and wait in hope for God’s grace. This is very difficult to do. We are being purified of self reliance and presumption; we are being refined like gold in a furnace. When faith comes through grace, which it will, we will experience the peace that we yearn for and the righteousness that we seek.