Martin Luther employed and recommended several different approaches to curing religious fears, what we would call today religious obsessions. First, there is his “trust in God” strategy which I described in the book, Can Christianity Cure OCD? Then there are the two strategies described in the present book. They are “accuse and condemn yourself” and “stand alone and endure the hand of God.” The question of the relationship between these somewhat different approaches, and how they fit together, has been the focus of recent comments on this blog. It’s an excellent question.
IMO, we must start first with the fact that Luther’s understanding of faith evolved over a period of about six years of intensive Bible study. This occurred as he was suffering and working through his terrifying fears. Luther himself said, “I didn’t learn my theology all at once, I had to ponder over it ever more deeply, and my spiritual trials were of help to me in this.” As Luther progressed in overcoming his OCD symptoms, his “spiritual trials,” he learned more and more about the nature of faith. In his final understanding of what is means to have faith, Luther stressed that faith is inseparably linked to trust in God’s promises to us in scripture. He writes in “Personal Prayer Book,” written in 1523, several years after his full scale rebellion against Rome:
“Faith means that I put my trust in [God], that I make the venture and take the risk to deal with him, believing beyond doubt that what he will be toward me or do with me will be just as they [the promises in scripture] say.”
Luther’s first big breakthrough in his understanding of faith was, as explained in the book, achieved through a process that we can recognize as “ERP.” It was to “accuse and condemn yourself” in order to receive faith. At this early time, Luther tied faith inseparably to a very severe form of humility. His second big breakthrough was to “stand alone and endure.” This strategy did not involve accusing or condemning, or doing anything actively at all; but it did involve willingly exposing himself to his worst fears. It was only after he had learned important lessons from these two experiences that Luther experienced his Reformation breakthrough and came to his final conclusion about faith—that it is given to us by God out of sheer mercy.
So, where does that leave us in dealing with our own obsessional fears? Luther’s final formulation was simply trust God with your fears. He puts this beautifully in the letter he wrote to a woman suffering predestination fears in 1531. Luther tells her to say,
“Begone, wretched devil! You are trying to make me worry about myself. But God declares everywhere that I should let him care for me. He says, “I am thy God.” This means, I take care of you.”
And Luther adds, “This is what Saint Peter taught, “Cast all thy care upon him, for he careth for you.” And David taught, “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee.”
So, I think that for some OCDers it works to simply apply Luther’s final formulation: to transfer responsibility to God for the outcome of the fear. As one client of mine put it, “It’s like handing someone a letter. I just give to God the responsibility for my concern.” And that worked for this client, and it works for lots of OCDers.
But for others of us, we need to realize true faith step by step. We’re like Luther. We need to be taught. We need to do ERP-type exercises and deliberate exposure to our fears.
What do you think?