OCD and Christianity

“The issue affects my faith a lot,” the young man told me, “and my view of God, too. When I try to read the Bible, I get really afraid and anxious, especially with certain verses like Romans 6:23. It’s hard for me to do any sort of spiritual activities. I’m okay when I’m with other people. It’s just when I’m alone reading the Bible or praying. Those things trigger the bad thoughts. I want to be able to pray, and I know the OCD causes problems, so I try not to have strict expectations of myself. I try to let myself get into prayer when I feel the Holy Spirit urging me. But then the big fear comes, and I just lose it. It’s so discouraging. It always happens. To some extent, I find myself just avoiding spiritual activities.”

This is a common situation among Christians suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Their prayer life is attacked. Indeed, OCD is the enemy of prayer. If you view the spiritual battle as a fight with Satan, then it is he who is behind OCD. In any case, you must not shrink from the battle. It is ordained by God for your spiritual good. The question is how to handle it. The answer, of course, is not to run from it.

Rather, we must continue to pray and we must hope. As Martin Luther (who suffered such obsessions) said, “We must hope in despair; for fear is nothing else than the beginning of despair, and hope is the beginning of recovery.” We must keep hoping when our faith is weak. We hope God is hearing us, we hope our sins have been covered, and we hope all is well despite the fact that it doesn’t seem that way. Hope verses despair: That is the agonizing situation Luther describes in his Theology of the Cross. We are on the cross when we despair because of OCD—we’re there with Jesus.

Sometimes we have to tolerate despair rather than fight it. This is the case with OCD. At times we have to just sit there and endure obsessional fears, all the while hoping and waiting for the grace of God. In Luther’s Commentary on Psalm 130, verse 5 (“I wait for the Lord”), he explains the attitude a person should take: “In this crying and cross-bearing I did not retreat…nor did I trust in my own merit. I trusted in God’s grace alone, which I desire, and I wait for God to help me when it pleases Him.”

From a psychological standpoint, it is well known that fighting obsessional fears only makes them worse. Trying to push them from mind or avoiding the triggers that set them off (such as reading the Bible or praying) gives them more power and makes them seem more real. The well researched psychological solution to obsessional fears (“ERP”) is to expose oneself to them and prevent oneself from trying to escape them. Therefore, it turns out that the psychological and the Christian approaches to OCD prescribe similar behavior in the face of obsessions: enduring the suffering while maintaining hope. The psychological, however, encourages a hope in the process of habituation, while we put our hope in God who ordains all that happens.

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