God allows some of us to have a fear-system disorder called OCD. Why would He do that? Martin Luther occasionally discussed the terrible anxieties he had suffered as a monk in the years before he experienced his reformation breakthrough—what we would now call clinical obsessions. For instance, he would again and again be struck by the fear he had grievously sinned, and feel the need to confess. While confessing he would try to report every possible sin he might have committed, splintering them into smaller and smaller transgressions, terrified that he would forget one. Despite confessing for up to six hours at a time, he could get not relief. “No confessor wanted to have anything to do with me,” Luther writes. One day he spoke with his spiritual director, Dr. Staupitz, about his agonizing fears.
I was sad and downcast. Staupitz started to talk to me at table and asked, “Why are you so sad?” I replied, ‘Alas, what am I to do!’ Then he said, “You don’t know how necessary this is for you; otherwise nothing good will come of you.” I took his words to be like Paul’s, ‘A thorn was given me in the flesh to keep me from being too elated; my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I accepted Staupitz’ words as the voice of the Holy Spirit comforting me.
Luther was forever grateful for Staupitz, remarking on another occasion that he might have died from despair had Staupitz not provided counsel to him. Luther’s striking insight was that his terrifying fears represented his own ‘thorn in the flesh.’ They were just as necessary for his Christian growth as Paul’s thorn was for him.
We need to appreciate OCD as part of God’s plan for our salvation. He puts the disorder in our lives for a reason: so that his power will be perfected in our weakness. We want, therefore, to cooperate with this plan. We want to allow ourselves to be weak when we are struck by obsessional fears, so that God’s power can be made perfect. Practically, this means not responding to obsessions through the performance of compulsions and avoidance. This requires courage, as it seems a great risk at the time. But we must take the risk and wait for God’s power to be manifest. If we do that we will find faith, and with that peace.