Last month’s blog dealt with a specific obsession that strikes evangelical Christians: “Am I certain I am saved?” But the general question, “Am I saved?” or “Am I going to Heaven?” is a common obsession among all Christian OCDers. It may involve fearing that one has committed a sinful act; doubting that a sin was properly confessed; or entertaining a profane or blasphemous idea, image or urge. In any case, salvation doubts should be treated in the same way as all other obsessions. Here are a few important things to keep mind.
Overcoming OCD involves making a fundamental change in the way we look at the tormenting thoughts that assail us. From a clinical perspective, the change in our thinking that we must make is this: It is not my inability to answer the question, “Am I saved?” that is the problem; it is rather that I am overcome by pathological doubt. From a Christian perspective, what we must keep in mind is this: It is not that I may have committed a sin, it is rather that the enemy is attacking my trust in God. As Martin Luther puts it in Table Talk,
Those who are tempted by doubt and despair I should console in this fashion…let them persuade themselves if they can that such thoughts are really not theirs but Satan’s.
A Christian can look on obsessions as coming from Satan, a negative spirit, the ‘old self,’ or just OCD. Sometimes it is best not to use ‘Satan,’ as the word itself can trigger anxiety. The main thing is to recognize that these intrusive, fearful thoughts do not come from our true selves. They come from outside of ourselves, and force their way in.
Once fortified by this knowledge, a person can proceed with active treatment. In secular therapy, the goal is habituation to the fear. It is accomplished through exercises in exposure and response prevention. A good therapist might ask an individual with salvation doubts to write down the fearful thoughts that torment her, or play them over and over on tape, while refraining from doing any compulsions. She might tell the person, “Stay in the fear and let yourself feel the terror of it. Don’t run from it, and it will get better.”
Christians can make excellent use of standard ERP exercises, even though the goal is different. For Christians, the point is to learn to trust in God. As Luther puts it in his Commentary On Isaiah,
God sends a variety of trials, heresies, and the cross in order to train His own…For that reason there is need of Satan, trials, heretics, and the cross. Here you see the reason why God besets His saints with so many trials, so that they may learn to put their trust in God. That is a real school of afflictions and continuing conflicts
For Christians, the most important thing is to have faith. We want to trust like the sheep in the 23rd psalm who walks fearlessly through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. But consider this: The sheep must have entered the valley many times before it learned to trust the shepherd instead of fear the wolves. The wolves are our obsessions; and likewise, we must stand up to them in order to be trained in faith. It takes both courage and patience.
17 Response Comments
Excellent and encouraging post as always! Thank you so much for continuing to do these monthly posts – I always look forward to them! Your website is such a great resource that I keep referring people to it…thanks so much for keeping up with it!
I’m always so blessed and encouraged by your post. My last obsession started with terrifying doubt if I was truly saved. I did not know I had OCD and fed the doubt. Well the doubt spiraled into other doubts and tormenting fears “what if the gospel isn’t true?” Is this pretty common for OCDers for one obsession to spiral out of control
Totally common. That’s the way OCD works!
Great resource, as someone who struggles with OCD. I find many dr’s unable to empathize or understand the christian mindset of what I’m going through, if they are not believers themselves. This is so important to me, but it seems many professionals I’ve seen find that I’m unreasonable by believing in God in the first place.
I am grateful for this website and this post particularly. It’s a difficult search to find balanced hope and help for the Christian with OCD. I hope to find solutions for my anxiety and behaviors and to have more faith in God and not have to keep silencing my OCD.
There are many things that trigger me to question if I’m saved. It can be a sermon. A testimony or a song or anything that talks about things that could only be true for a believer. Like if someone says “if you’re a child of God” in a Statement the “if” part trigger me and I will have the thought of worry about my salvation come up and I’ll have to ask for Christ to save me. There are many triggers, sometimes J wonder do I really have OcD or am I really not saved? Is this common for OCD to make you question if you have OCD and think the obsession is really true?
That is reeeally common, Kendra. The thing to focus on at that time is what is really happening. It is not that you are not saved, nor that you don’t have OCD, it is that you are uncertain. That is what OCD does: it produces real uncertainty, and that is why it is so difficult. In Christian terms, that’s how the enemy works, by putting us into uncertainty about God. Often we have to just bear this uncertainty in hope, and wait for God to relieve us from it by giving us the grace of faith.
Thank you Dr. Also I was wondering if you knew by any chance, why God allows OCD? Can he bring good out of it? I’m stuck on the fact that the PCD caused me great depression and anger and I admit I did have outbursts of anger by reading things because I thought God was being cruel and ignoring my pain and withholding salvation from me. My family said a lot of cruel things to me and they haunt me to this day and makes me depressed. Can OCD cause thoughts centered on statements people said to me that hurt? Or is this more so depression?
There are really two problems here. The first is OCD, which is bad enough. The second is our upset about having OCD and other people’s reactions to it. So, the second is not OCD itself, but it is a problem to be dealt with. I think it’s best to look on OCD as a physiological disorder such as Arthritis. We’re not to blame for it. We do what we can about it, and we live with the rest. As far as why God allows this suffering, like all other suffering it is part of his plan for our salvation. We grow through it. We grow closer to him, and we do find peace. But its up to God’s timing and not ours, and that makes it tough. That’s the way I look at it, anyway.
Thank you, that makes a lot of sense Dr. I do find myself having to just trust in God’s mercy when I get an urge to ask to be saved, I just say “God you know my heart and what I want to ask for”. In that moment I do have to trust in his mercy that he knows my desire and heart. Is it OK to respond this way to the obsession or should I not even pray to God and tell him he knows my heart? Shut I just let the thought stay and sit in the anxiety and wait for it to pass?
Dr. O., you said in a comment that having the obsession doesn’t mean that you’re not saved. But would it be correct in saying that it doesn’t mean that you ARE saved? Don’t we still have to determine if we’re really saved based on what the bible says, and just stick to that? Also, do we first need to determine that we are saved based on what the bible says before we can deal with the OCD and do ERP? I hope that makes sense.
Steve, this is a misunderstanding about Luther. He stresses faith greatly, of course, and says we should cling to it with all our might. He encourages us to have great confidence in our faith. However, faith itself is a gift. It is not just “we are saved by faith,” it is that “we are saved by grace through faith.” So lots of times we don’t feel that faith. We have to wait for in that case. We hope for it, we read the promises, we do everything we can to nourish it, but it is a gift. We most certainly don’t have to wait until we know we are saved for sure until we do ERP. Hard to sum up the great and deep theology of Martin Luther few sentences, but that’s the idea.
When you say that these obsessions come from outside ourselves, that seems to imply that the thoughts aren’t true. But if we say “my obsessions aren’t true, so I’m really OK” isn’t that a compulsion? Thank you again for all you do for us!
Too difficult to answer briefly. I’ll throw a couple of things out, but it probably won’t be satisfying. As far as obsessions coming from “outside of ourselves,” from a psychological perspective they are often considered “ego-dystonic,” that is they are opposed to our normal sense of self. As far as the question of “are they true?” Well, there might be truth in them. I refer you to Jon Greyson’s book (Freedom from…) for a discussion of uncertainty and OCD. Something is a compulsion only if we do it excessively. It can be helpful to remind ourselves that an obsession is not true, as long as it does not become compulsive.
Does this same basic principle apply when the OCD revolves around the fear that God does not love you in the present, or that He is disaproving of you? Thats my great fear, and it usually begins over scruples like, “What i am not working as hard as i possibly can at work? Is that stealing from my employer?” Then i feel like i am knowingly going against Gods will. But i realize that if i start really pushing myself to work harder (even though my bodd considers me to be a very good employee), that will become a compulsion. So instead i ruminate over the question of whether i might or might not be sinning in this way all day long, and am starting to panic over it. But if i don’t answer the question, i feel like i am being irresponsible in my christian living somehow…
The ruminating you describe almost certainly also consists of compulsions. Quite often, we have to wait for faith to come. In order to do this, we have to tolerate uncertainty and fear.
So i should tolerate the uncertainty (and corresponding) anxiety that i might be sinning at work without trying to figure it out? For example, if i leave my press for a couple minutes to go grab a soda, i wonder if this is somehow “stealing from the company,” since they are paying me for those 2 minutes that i am not working–even though i know that my company allows for that. However, all day long i am pouring over all the different possible angles about how it could still be sinful, and if i stop the analyzing i feel very anxious/guilty–like i am being irresponsible by not being as sure as possible i sm not sinning. This is after HOURS of pouring over this question, which rationally i know to be irrational and/or excessive .