When the coronavirus struck in New Zealand, the health minister recommended: “Give your hands a really thorough wash….this is the time for OCD!” Give me a break. People just don’t get it. OCD is not a degree of thoroughness. And you can’t turn it on when you want. Who would want to? It makes everything worse.
Yet, actually, the minister’s statement is true! This is a time for OCD, because it flares up when people feel an increased sense of personal responsibility for preventing harm. One student called me because an OCD “spike” occurred when she moved back with her family to wait out the coronavirus quarantine. “Is my throat sore?…Am I coughing?…Am I getting a fever?” She constantly worried she might spread the virus to her parents.
Martin Luther lived through a pretty bad epidemic—the black plague in Germany. He also knew a lot about the devastating effects of fearfulness. According to Luther, the plague was the work of the devil, who was trying to rob people of their faith in God by making them dread the thought of death. Luther offered advice on how to deal with such fears in a pamphlet called, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.”
“If a deadly epidemic strikes, we can be sure that [it] is to test our faith and love—our faith, that we may see and experience how we should act toward God; our love, that we may recognize how we should act toward our neighbor. The devil takes delight in making us deathly afraid. [Yet] because we know that it is the devil’s game to induce such fear and dread, we should in turn minimize it, and arm ourselves with this answer to the devil: “Get away, you devil, with your terrors! If you can kill, Christ can give life. If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine.”
Christians don’t have to look on OCD as from the devil, but it is very helpful, at least, to regard OCD as the enemy: the enemy of our faith. Sometimes we just have to stand up to that enemy, and resist the temptation to give into the excessive fears he causes. Luther’s advice is excellent: Stop getting sucked in by obsessions, and tell off the enemy, instead.