OCD and Christianity

Matt, the engineering student with the “street preacher obsession,” had proven himself a really hard-boiled OCDer. Even after asking his minister and several friends whether they thought the Holy Spirit was calling him for a special ministry, and despite hearing them all say ‘No, I don’t think so,’ he still could not gain peace on the matter. The tormenting question insistently forced itself onto the front of his awareness: “How do I know for sure that the Holy Spirit isn’t calling me to be a street preacher?”

At this point, I encouraged Matt to try the process of “discernment of spirits.” The basic principle here is that two spirits are always at work in a difficult choice: the Holy Spirit, who is working in us through peace and joy; and the negative or evil spirit, marked by agitation and turmoil. Key Biblical references for this concept include Galatians 5:22-23, John 14: 26-27, 1John 4:1, Col 3:15   1Thes 5:21, 1Cor:12:10, and 1Tim 4:1.

It gets complicated, because the negative spirit can masquerade as the Holy Spirit. Importantly, though, the characteristic feelings associated with the negative spirit always make themselves known eventually. The fundamental task in discernment is carefully watching the spirits move, observing the motions of the mind and soul over a significant period of time.

The second essential principle in discernment of spirits is this: Make no choices until the spirits have shown themselves. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Better to do nothing than to make a mistake. God’s purpose, after all, may actually rest in what you learn through bearing the turmoil patiently (Isaiah 40:31,KJV).

Matt started the process, and put off making a decision. This in itself provided some initial relief. Furthermore, it turned out that the method of discernment appealed to his analytic mind. After a few weeks, he explained to me the technique he had developed.

After I pray, I’ll usually just add on a time in which I try to listen. I’ll bring up the question of street preaching, and I’ll just see if I can label the different feelings and the different emotions that are going on. It’s getting easier to identify the distressing movements. I’m realizing more and more that the way the Lord uses me is not usually when I act according to that sort of distressing feeling. It’s usually when I have a positive feeling, a passion, or really feel like something is important–you know, when there’s an active, strong, positive motivation to do something. These other kind of feelings, when they come up they seem very negative and heavy, and they don’t seem to accomplish anything. These anxious feelings, I think they pull you away from God.”

What an insightful statement! Matt, I thought, should be a theologian rather than wasting himself on engineering. One reason the discernment of spirits can be helpful is that fear paralyzes the mind. Research has demonstrated that when the brain processes fear, it gives it the highest priority. Fear stays right there right in the forefront of consciousness, pushing you to do something immediately, while other important lines of reasoning are blocked. A person in this situation is unable to employ gut-level common sense. The discernment process helps to cut through the paralysis, and put a tormenting thought into proper perspective. As Matt put it, “I think the discernment process is helpful for just getting the obsession away from your mind and down more into the core of your soul or spirit or whatever.”


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8 Response Comments

  • Omar   at

    Thank you for this website Dr. Osborne. I have scrupulosity and its so helpful to be reminded that ambiguity is just part of life! One thing I would add about your blog post on discernment though is that these kinds of practices searching for Gods will can also become a ritual, as they did for me. I was much helped by your video in which you elaborated on the fellow who was afraid that perhaps he should become a missionary and I’d he didn’t he was not following the Holy Spirit. The point you made there was that no matter what form or practice of discernment one uses eventually one has to except that absolute certainty is almost never possible, and one needs to act using ones best judgment. In My case I would spend many hours a day in prayer and contemplation paralyzed by the fear that I was not yet certain about what I should do, even with minor things like brushing my teeth or making a phone call. Thanks to the hard work of practitioners like yourself I now know that God most likeley does not want me to be enslaved by my own mental constructs, and that in the end times all will be resolved in Christ. There is absolutely nothing I can do to destroy Gods wondrous plan, even if I don’t brush my teeth at the “right” time!
    Thank you,

    • admin   at

      Thanks, Omar. Very thoughtful post. Could you clarify a little more what was most helpful for you? For instance, was it accepting uncertainty, trusting in God, the point about end times that you make, or something else?

  • Marie   at

    Thank you so much for this blog, and your very helpful website! I have been really encouraged by it. I struggled with OCD for most of my childhood and young adulthood, but then started to recognize my obsessions and gradually started to refuse listening to them, and refusing to perform compulsions. I have not looked into OCD resources for years, because I felt like I had mostly “gotten over it,” having not struggled with any major attacks for several years. Recently, though, I moved to a foreign country, and – surprise, surprise – an OCD attack hit me out of the blue. It’s a difficult obsession to deal with because it is also a controversial doctrinal issue that I am not sure about, and one I had changed my mind about (and some of my lifestyle practices) several years ago (during a non-obsessive time). Although I have thought about my choice through the years, and second-guessed it at times, OCD used this move as a prime time to really embroil me in a period of obsessive research and worry about it. I am slowly trying to pull myself out of it by refusing to over-analyze and over-research, and by trying to give myself a breather from the issue (although I still, without trying, think about it all the time). I feel like scrupulosity is such a hard thing to battle, because often the issues are “real,” and things that we as Christians should think about and consider – just not in the over-the-top obsessive way that OCDers do. I want to trust God to guide me, but there’s still always that fear that I’m just ignoring something God wants me to deal with, and that if I “let go” of it I’ll just be following my own desires and confusing my positive feelings and desires for His voice, instead of listening to my “true conscience.” Because, I feel like as humans we do often equate a “peace”/positive feelings with God’s voice, when in reality it may or may not be. I want to do hard things when God calls me to, even if it’s something I don’t want to do – yet obviously I don’t want to do something out of an obsessive fear. I feel like it’s a tricky balance. Anyway, all that to say that I have found this blog (and this post in particular) really informative and encouraging! I feel like there aren’t a lot of resources that address scrupulosity from a Christian viewpoint, and that are sensitive to a Christian mindset and worldview. Thank you so much for making this site and these resources available. I’m sure you’ve helped more people than you know!

    • admin   at

      thanks for the comments. i think the most important thing, when obsessions involve realistic concerns that need to be addressed, is to only address them on your own terms. that is, not when they strike as fears, but rather when you schedule in advance a time to seriously consider them for a only a certain period, like a half-an-hour or whatever you choose. the rest of the time, then, treat them as intrusive obsessional fears.

      • Marie   at

        Thank you for that advice! And again, I appreciate all that you’re doing on this site!

  • Brixie   at

    Hello Dr.!

    I may have the same experience with Matt here. Last year, May 25 or so, I was compelled with the thought that I’m called by God to become a preacher, and I should switch school this instant so that I could line up my academic status to my calling. At that time, however, I already had my uniforms prepared and we spent a lot of money for it. Then, I was enrolled already. I perceived it as scrupulosity because way back then, I had the feeling that if I’m not gonna say “yes” to maybe God calling me to be a preacher, I am not happy of God’s will for me. I am so obsessed with this not until last May. I have been asking a lot of Christians friends, classmates, teachers, pastors, counselors, I have been to Christian Counseling, I have been to a professional Psychotherapy during this pandemic to ensure that I’m not giving in to my OCD, but I still have doubts that what if God has really called me to transfer? And the thing is, I have only one year left to finish the strand that I’m in and looking forward to taking BS Psychology for College. However, I believe it’s too impractical already to transfer, and it’s too late. But the thoughts are popping up for quite some time that I really have to and I’ll face an awful consequence if I’m not gonna go transfer. I have been reading the Bible, there are times God would somehow say that “you desires will be fulfilled” and these desires are to stay and proceed to medicine. There are times that I would feel God is telling me that I’m stubborn and I could no longer recover from this. I am in such a distress and confusion. What do you think of this Dr.?

    May God bless you!

    P.S. I have been reading this blog post over and over again to reassure myself that I’m simply OC and I can relate to Matt.

    • admin   at

      Well, that does sound like it might be OCD, but on the other hand, it is natural to spend a lot of time debating before making a big life-change decision. So, it would be good to get it clarified by a professional whether it is OCD or not. Still, the question needs to be faced whether you should become a preacher. A good rule is to not make a big decision while you are in turmoil about what to do. Wait on it.

      • Brixie   at

        Yes doc. My psychotherapist, if I’m not mistaken, had affirmed this as OCD. I knew in me that it is, yet the thing is, I still have this problem when I read the Bible that God is talking to me, this, or that. I’m a graduating student doc and I knew if I would transfer this year, I have to go back and my years of studying may take more time. My mom finally decided that I should not go transfer. But still, there’s this anxiety and fear. Thank you and may God bless you!