OCD and Christianity

Martin Luther, in his sermons and writings, often dwelled on the importance of fully recognizing God’s power over everything that happens, including over all the sufferings that befall us. For instance, in Luther’s commentary on the sixth Psalm, he begins with this statement: “In all trials and affliction man should first of all run to God; he should realize and accept the fact that everything is sent by God, whether it comes from the devil or from man.”

There is no question that prominent among those trials and afflictions was what we now call OCD. Luther suffered from it intensely during his 20’s and early 30’s. He referred to it as his “anfechtung,” which translates roughly as “a state of turmoil and doubt.” He described the nature of that state numerous times. For example, in his Commentary on Galatians, he writes, “When I was a monk… I could not find peace, but I was constantly crucified by thoughts such as these: “you have committed this or that sin; you are guilty of envy, impatience, etc.” And yet…here’s the remarkable thing: Later in life Luther was able to say, “I would like to write a book about Anfechtung, for without it no man can understand Scripture, faith, the fear or the love of God.”

Luther is speaking from experience as one who suffered from OCD, and as one who found a solution to it. Further, he says that he benefitted from having had the disorder. And what does he say? That the first thing we should do is accept the trial of obsessions and compulsions as coming from God himself. That seems an odd place to start. Why would that be so important? Surely, it is because to look on OCD in that light changes the focus of the trial so that it can be endured. Rather than continuing to dwell on the fear and its terrifying consequences, the focus is changed to persevering through the trial by faith. The faith that is needed is only to believe this: That God sent it for my good; and what is necessary is to endure it, to not respond to the fears in any way, and to leave it all to him.

For the secular person, there is only one reason to endure the pain of an obsessional fear and resist performing compulsions: It lessens OCD’s strength. That is a very good reason, and one OCDers should always remember. (So nice of God to arrange it that what is good for us spiritually is also what is good for us psychologically.) Yet the motivation provided by “this is what is good for my health” is nothing compared to that provided by “this is what is pleasing to God and works out my salvation.” This is the motivation that inspired martyrs. (So nice of God again…he is not asking us to actually be fed to lions, just to resist compulsions.)

When struck by an obsessional fear, we must receive it from God as a trial that has a purpose. The purpose is that we learn to trust in Him more. The way we learn to do that is by leaving the handling of the fear, with all of its accompanying doubt and anxiety, to Him. We do nothing in response to the alarm that blares within us. We allow ourselves to be tried as gold in the fire.

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