I worked recently with a student in his early 20’s who had suffered from mild OCD symptoms since his mid-teenage years. His obsessions, all involving contamination, had been tolerable; and his compulsions, such as washing his hands and showering excessively, took at most a half an hour a day. He had never actually realized he had OCD. Then suddenly he was bombarded by sexual obsessions of the worst type. That’s when he came for help.
“I’m really scared,” he said. “I don’t know for sure what’s going on, but I’m terrified. I think I’m maybe I’m…a pedophile, or something like that. I don’t know what to say.. I’ve never done anything like that. I hate this. I hate the thoughts.” About a month prior to our meeting, after reading a newspaper account of a pedophile, he had experienced the intrusive idea, “Maybe I’m one of them!” It caused immediate terror, and soon images of pedophilic acts discussed in the newspaper began intruding on his mind. He fought them. He reassured himself over and over that they did not pertain to him. He prayed over and over ,“God take them away.” The torment only grew worse
As a committed Christian, it was natural for him to fight these thoughts through prayer. Yet his supplications to our Lord were no longer true prayers—rather they had turned into “vain repetitions” (Matt 6:7 KJV). This was a battle he could not win through forced, repetitive prayer. Obsessional fears are custom-designed by God as a trial that cannot be overcome through our own efforts, including our attempts to make him respond to us through our prayers. God arranges it like this in order to teach us a special lesson: We must stop relying on ourselves before we can fully trust in him. What we must do is allow the fears to be present, and wait for God to give us faith. This is the trial of faith. This is working out our salvation in fear and trembling. It is purification from excessive self-trust and self-reliance. From a clinical point of view, it is ERP. With this approach, the young man with the pedophile obsessions began habituating to his fears, and he began learning to fully trust in God. He shared with me how his prayers had changed.
I used to pray like all the time ‘God take away these thoughts,’ or ‘God don’t let me become a pedophile.’ Now I pray, ‘Help me stay on the battlefield and learn, give me the strength to endure the awful thoughts, and don’t let me give into my compulsions.’ Instead of just running away and being like ‘take it away,’ I’m like, ‘Okay, help me allow them to be there so that I can have more faith.’