OCD and Christianity

As discussed in last month’s blog, Saint Paul’s distinction between the new man and the old man can be quite helpful for OCD sufferers, especially in the way it is developed by Martin Luther. He emphasizes that life is a continual process of leaving behind fear, which is the mark of the old man, and becoming the new man who trusts in God.

In order for this to happen, the Christian must always strive to build up the new man through faith. We must cling to our faith, and proclaim it. But there is also a second element: The old man must be destroyed in order to make room for the new man. This is a terrific point made by Luther.

As long as the old man lives, the fear, that is, the crucifixion and execution of this old man, must not cease.

It is fear that crucifies and executes the old man! For OCD sufferers, that means that if we want to become the new man (who is fearless because he trusts in God), we must not escape from our obsessional fears by doing compulsions. We must let fear do its job of destroying the old man. It makes sense from a psychological perspective. Treatment for OCD is based on the principle of habituation: If a person experiences the torment of an obsession, without running away from it, it’s strength diminishes. Exposure + ritual prevention = habituation.

Practically speaking, when we are struck obsessions, we want to try our best to trust in God. We want to overcome our fears through faith if we can. But sometimes, trust is nowhere to be found. As Luther says, sometimes faith “crawls away and hides.” And that is when we must allow fear to do its job, and destroy the old man in order to make room for faith. That means willfully staying in the presence of obsessional fears and not doing compulsions. When we endure the torment of our obsessions, God operates on us like a wood carver with a chisel. Luther explains,

The old man [and] the new man are in one person and even in one handiwork at the same time. Just as a wood carver, by chiseling and taking away the wood that does not belong to the carving, enhances the form of his work, so hope, which forms the new man, grows in the midst of fear that cuts down the old Adam…So, my brother, cling firmly to the order of God, according to it the putting to death of the old man.

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