This difficult obsession can take many different forms. Common to all is an exaggerated fear of displeasing God by making something more important than Him. It’s a dread of violating the first commandment, if you will, by worshiping an idol. Take the case of a college student named Sylvia, a bubbly sophomore who is actively involved in one of the large Christian student organizations. When Sylvia first came to me for consultation, she was not at all sure she had OCD. She didn’t know what her problem was, or even if she had a problem. She explained:
I’ll be going out, and I put on a little make-up, like the other girls do. But then the idea comes, really strong, ‘You are so vain. You love yourself more than you love God. You are an idolater. Every time you do this, God is going to strike you with terrible anxiety until you stop wearing make up.’ My friend says I’m in a fear-stronghold. But I’m not so sure. Aren’t we supposed to glory in God, not in ourselves? I think maybe the holy spirit is convicting me.
She seems overly scrupulous. Yet, at this point I was not certain there was an actual problem. Who knows, maybe the Holy Spirit was convicting her. It turned out, however, that her fear of making herself an ‘idol’ had spread to other areas of her life. For example, she was reluctant to buy any new clothes for herself. In addition, she was endlessly seeking reassurance about her fears. This had become a problem for those who cared about her, such as her mother who had made her come to see me. As Sylvia explained further, the nature of her problem became clear.
Last week was terrible. I’m asking people all the time what I should do. I google, sometimes for hours at a time, looking at what women wear and what people say about wearing make up. I look for bible verses, but sometimes I find something good, and sometimes it just makes things worse. I think about this endlessly. I’ll convince myself it’s okay to wear a little make-up, then the thought comes strong that the holy spirit trying to convict me that I’m an idolater. Then I’m back to where I was.
These are clear-cut clinical compulsions, and they nail down a diagnosis of OCD. Her repeatedly seeking answers from other people; her googling what others are doing and saying; her repetitive, forced searching for bible verses that bring comfort; and her endless analysis of the tormenting fears that rolled through her mind: These were all compulsive activities that had increased the strength of her fear to the point where she had lost the ability to judge what was appropriate in the area of appearance. That’s the way OCD works.
Sylvia was able to accept this diagnosis, and treat her OCD by learning ways to endure her obsessional fears and stop doing compulsions. She had, however, one a final concern she wanted addressed. “Here’s what I want to know: How is God using this to bring me closer to him?” Give the girl credit, she asks good questions. From the Christian perspective, the performance of compulsions in the face of fear implies an excessive reliance on self, and a lack of trust in God’s provision. Sometimes that self-reliance must be burned off, before we are graced with the ability to depend on God as we should. Sometimes, we must endure fear and uncertainty, as Jesus did on his cross, and wait for the gift of faith.