OCD and Christianity

Of all the blogs of the last few years, the one that has received the most comments is “Salvation Doubts,” from September, 2015. It seems to have hit a nerve. It dealt with a young woman with OCD who, upon attending a new church, had heard the pastor preach, “Anyone who is not certain of their salvation probably isn’t saved at all.” She was devastated, because she couldn’t attain such certainty no matter what she did. The harder she tried, the more uncertain she became. Indeed, the obsession “Am I certain I believe?” can cause exceptional difficulties. I want to address it one more time, because of the many responses to the blog, and because I continue to get calls from people who live in the terror of it.

This particular obsession strikes primarily a subgroup of evangelical Christians. Most all evangelical pastors encourage people to become certain of their faith—that is, in a self-reflective manner, being able to say with conviction that I believe in the Gospel and am destined for eternal life. This is sound reformational doctrine. It makes people examine their personal commitment and grow stronger in it. The problem arises when the doctrine is stretched further to the point of implying that certainty of belief is not only desirable, but also necessary for salvation.

To say this to an OCDer with salvation doubts is to put her in an impossible bind. She cannot make herself believe through exerting greater effort. Nor will reassurance help. The well meaning pastor may say, “All you need is faith as small as a mustard seed.” The OCDer will soon doubt she has that. He may say, “Your desire to be saved shows, in itself, that you have great faith.” This is an excellent point, but the OCDer will doubt that, too. “How do I know for sure I have the desire?”

From where comes this idea that certainty is necessary? One might think it is from Calvin, but I cannot find it in his works. I do find where he says, “Faith is tossed about by various doubts, so that the minds of the godly are rarely at peace.” That seems to imply that those who are saved are often uncertain. Perhaps someone can enlighten us all on the genesis of the notion. In any case, it is not accepted by the most respected evangelical preachers.

Charles Spurgeon differentiated between having faith and having the “assurance” of faith (i.e., being certain that we have it). “Assurance,” he explains, “is not essential to salvation…You may get to heaven with a thousand doubts and fears.” The “Prince of Preachers” concludes, “There are some of God’s saints who do not get assured until even the last moment, and some who are put to bed in the dark.”

Billy Graham, in the Christian Workers Handbook, writes “It is not unusual for one to experience doubts, for it is to Satan’s advantage if he can lead one to believe that he was never saved.” Graham wisely notes that doubt may come as a result of disease (OCDers take note). Even R.C.Sproul, who emphasizes very strongly the importance of assurance, writes that a person can be “saved and know it not…It is quite possible to be in a state of grace while being unaware of that fact.”

Lastly, consider what Luther had to say about tormenting salvation doubts. After all, he knew more than anyone else about them. In Works on Psalms, The Great Reformer emphasizes that fearful doubt actually plays a critical role in God’s plan for our salvation. Its function is to destroy our incredibly obstinate sense of self-reliance, preparing us for the grace of true faith. The people with the most fear and doubt, Luther even suggests, are those who are most ready for God’s grace, and closest to Him.

“The weak and infirm conscience may say, ‘But suppose I cannot believe?’ I will answer: You are not even then to despair…it is only the trial and temptation of hope, though it is certainly by far the most heavy of all temptations….And I will say one thing more in my free and bold way. There are none nearer to God.”

At a very minimum we can say this: If you suffer from the obsessional fear, “Am I certain I believe?” the teaching that you are damned if you don’t does not apply to you. You simply must move past it. The trial of salvation doubts is a sign of God working in us for our good, purifying us so that we will come to trust in Him more than ever by his grace.

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20 Response Comments

  • Tara turner   at

    Dr. O….so very thankful for your wisdom. I struggled so much with doubting my salvation. Read book after book to reassure myself. Researched but none of which gave me that feeling of certainty. All it did was put me in a pit of deepening doubt where I started questioning everything I believed and was “certain of.” I became obsessed with proving other religions were false living in pain and fear of “what if Christ won’t catch me after I die?, etc etc” I am slowing coming out of this deep dark pit but obsessions that go for a long time do not die easily. And I know for me I struggle so much with security in the love of God. Struggling to move past feelings of guilt allllll the time

  • Frances Melvin   at

    I have religious ocd and have (sincerely) accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior more than once, as ocd-ers are prone to do. (Ihave virtually stopped this behavior.) Does this show lack of faith? Some say so, others, not. I still cling to Jesus as my Savior and his finished work at the cross. Spurgeon says a clinging faith is a genuine faith.
    I am depressed most of the time. Am I to take it that I might have to live with uncertainty all my life–this is miserable. But I cling tenaciously to Jesus (except I may occasionally have doubts about this, they are temporary). I might have to face this and live in God’s will to not have my own way about certainty and control. I do hope to some day have assurance, though. Would you please addresss all questions? Thank you.

    • admin   at

      Yes, I truly believe that you, as well as others with OCD in the same situation, do have strong faith. It is simply that faith is being attacked by doubt. What is important is to continue to hope, but leave the timing as to when assurance will be given up to God. It’s a difficult trial, but God knows what he is doing. He is growing you into the person he wants you to be, even though you don’t see how. Patient hope is what is necessary.

  • Taryn   at

    Hey Dr, I was reading the word today. It’s talking about when you are saved, god gives you love for him and others through the spirit. And in 1 John the verse we all know, that if you love one another, this is how you and others know you are a child of god. I don’t really love others like that. I love them the same as when I was not a Christian. Grantit, it takes time to be more Holy, but I’m scared. My lack of love for others really makes me wonder if I’m saved or not, that’s like the number one sign. I can’t do any more asking god for salvation, so it’s a predicament. Most of my prayers are about myself and I’m really self centered with my spiritual life. Any help or advice? Is this common with relatively new Believers? I’m 20. Or if this sounds like someone who doesn’t have a change of heart please just say it. I have an extreme conviction to read the word and pray and God is always on my mind. There are fruits in my life that make me think I’m saved(desire to be holy, desire to be loving, throwing away all my past sins and wanting nothing to do with them, and trying to fight my scrupulosity). But that’s tough because any non believer can do those things, it is the sudden change in love for others that proves to be a genuine rebirth. What do I do?

    • admin   at

      Who knows the amount of love in a person’s heart? Only God, I think. The question about whether you are loving or not, or whether you are any more loving since you became a Christian, or whether it matters, is probably one to ask you pastor. There are different ways to answer it, I’m sure. My own opinion is that we can’t judge our own lovingness, and if we could we would be disappointed to find how unloving we are. Futher, for a person to think that he or she is especially loving would actually be a sign of spiritual pride. Other comments welcome.

      • Austin   at

        The true test of whether you love or not is in your actions. I’ve spent too much time myself convincing myself I don’t love the way I should, but when I’m around other people, the truth comes out, and Love takes over. Love isn’t in your mind alone, it’s in your heart and bears fruit through your actions and kind words toward others. A smile, hug, kind word etc. If the desire to love and to do good is there, my guess is you’ve convinced yourself that you don’t love, when really you do. It’s hard to not focus on yourself when you constantly doubt; you fell like you need to get yourself right before you can pray for others. Stop self-condeming and understand he loves you. Change can only come from him. You are where you are supposed to be.

        • Donna   at

          I agree that love is action, not feeling. I also agree that only God can know and judge a person’s heart.
          All we can do is pray to God to give us Grace to love and then have hope that He will give it to us.
          Sometimes I hate OCD so much because I think it blocks this Grace. OCD is a liar and tries to keep us confused about things like “Am I saved?” “Do I love?” And the culture today doesn’t help with this problem.
          Maybe for us OCDer’s one sign of love is ERP. Every time we choose to trust God over our compulsions, it is an act of Love and not just toward God, but to those around us as well.

          • Steve   at

            Donna, thank you for your comment. I almost cried when I read what you said about doing ERP as an act of love. Surely facing our fears and just depending on God is a great act of love and faith towards Him.

  • Dennis   at

    Thank you for thoughts on this subject Dr. Osborn. I have struggled for years with OCD, in particular the question of “am I truly saved?”. Just tonight I have been dealing with thoughts connected to anxiety regarding this. When you think of the horrible picture of everlasting torment in hell it is so desirable to want to know for certain where one is in this area. There are pastors/theologians who seem to make it hard to be certain because of there emphasis on showing your faith by your works and some even as you know teach that God chose some and not others to be saved, something both Luther and Calvin taught. I have gotten re-saved so many times over the years and the assurance doesn’t seem to last. It is so tormenting because it isn’t something you want to get wrong. And then I have tormenting thoughts because my efforts to make sure I am saved can be interpreted as trying to earn my salvation which would be considered by some pastors to be adding to my salvation and therefore my salvation is lost.

    • Jt   at

      I know this post is a year old now, but thought I’d comment anyway.
      This type of ocd dealings I too struggle with, for about a year now. For a while, I too got caught up in often saying “prayers for salvation”. But there’s an issue here, one cannot get “resaved” and “sinners prayers” asking for salvation are not biblically sound.
      God’s Word tells us to simply believe/trust, or rely upon the salvation that Christ, our substitute, accomplished for us 2000 years ago on Calvary. Eph. 2:8,9 Rom 5:6. 2 Corth. 5:21.

      It is written, Abraham believed, or trusted God, and it was counted to him as righteousness/salvation. Galatians 3:6-9. He simply took God at His Word, or in other words, he decided to rely on the promise of God. That’s simply faith all.
      Genesis 2:17 reveals the curse of our sin-death, eternal separation from God. We are all sinners, helpless to save ourselves, and works do not save. Gal. 3:11 Rom. 3:23,6:23. Through the Word, the Holy Spirit reveals our ungodliness and total inability to make ourselves perfect to be accepted by righteousness God.
      God is perfect Matt. 5:48.

      The good news is that “while we were yet without any strength or ability, in due time Christ died for the ungodly!” Rom. 5:6. If we know we are ungodly, then we know Christ(God in the flesh) died(as a substitute) for the ungodly. He is our propitiation, the satisfactory payment for our sins, and for the sins of the whole world, 1 John 2:2. 1 Corth. 15:1-4. That’s the Good News, the Gospel! This is what we are to simply believe and rely on. Don’t look to sinners prayers, baptism, church, Bible reading, or an experience you had in the past as “proof” of salvation. Look only to the finished work, the finished salvation Christ did for us. John 19:30. The proof of our salvation is the blood that Jesus shed on the cross. Rom. 3:25 kjv. He was buried and rose again, proving He is God and the payment He made was totally satisfactory to God the Father. Our sins, guilt, and condemnation were put on Jesus. God’s righteous judgement for our sins, fell upon Him as our substitute.

      What must we do? Simply believe God, that Christ paid our debt in full. Making the finished work of Jesus our only hope for eternity. For us dealing with ocd, and anyone really, we cannot look to our feelings to necessarily line up with our belief in Christ, but that’s ok. When we make the decision to rely only on Jesus and His cross, God knows our hearts/decision and sees we have accepted the gift of grace/salvation of Jesus. He then credits to us His righteousness. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit for ever more. Eph. 1:13 John 6:40.
      So look to the fiiished work of the cross my friend. Anxious feelings, doubts, confusion…no matter, simply determine to take God at His Word, the Christ is your sin-bearer. Will you have Christ to be your substitute, your sin-bearer? Will you agree with God that you are a sinner and have no hope but in Jesus? Will you relinquish all faith in anything about you, and simply accept His blood as full payment for your sins? If that’s your decision, then God knows your heart my friend. This is the essence of repentance and faith in Christ.
      No sinners prayer needed, no asking for the free gift God offers. When anyone offers us a gift, do we ask or beg them for it? No, we simply believe/trust they want us to have it, and we claim it.

      After trusting only in Jesus as Savior, those old doubts may or may not stop. Especially for ocd’ers. But we can start to ignore as best as we can, know that God says our sin debt has already been paid!
      Those who reject Christ, who don’t trust in Him, are really refusing His payment and are then choosing to pay their sin debt themselves…in hell. God doesn’t want that for us though, but wants all to come to repentance. Choose to simply depend/believe only in Jesus for salvation…all who believe in Him are not condemned. John 3:16,18

  • Stephen Stewart   at

    Would you explain further your statement that “the teaching that you are damned if you don’t does not apply to you”?

    • admin   at

      Your question refers to this statement: “If you suffer from the obsessional fear, “Am I certain I believe?” the teaching that you are damned if you don’t does not apply to you.”

      The point I’m trying to make is that, according to Luther, we are not saved, or justified, on the basis of being certain of our faith. We are saved on the basis of Christ telling us we are. Here is the URL of an article that might be of interest to you: http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/carysolafide.pdf

    • Fenhus   at

      I read this article and the previous one. Both have become tremendous helps. This article in particular sounded identical to me. My main concern is whether I am just faking it or not. I fear on judgement day that my “genuineness” will be exposed as fraud and counterfeit. I feel like I have begun to look towards my works as evidence of my salvation, and sometimes I fear that I’m actually relying on my works to get me saved. I don’t want to be on judgement day expecting my works to get me in. I don’t know if OCDer’s go through this too. I want to truly trust in Jesus alone for my salvation but I always wonder whether I “sincerely” want him in my heart at all. And when Lordship salvation gets brought into the mix, it becomes even harder to gain assurance since you never know if you are doing enough. I want to believe this is sincere faith since I have been crying about this for a month now, but I fear my faith isn’t real

      • Bob   at

        Hi Fenhus,
        It may not feel this way to you now, but I believe you are in a good place, for I recognize my own OCD heartache in your words. I have struggled with the same thing. Is “lordship salvation” truly “grace alone,” etc.? Can we really reconcile the two statements?
        But what I keep leaning on is Jesus’ heartwarming promise found in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This message is for everyone, but as an OCD-type it resonates loudly and beautifully with me (and I bet you too given your shed tears), for our mental burdens can be so exhausting and debilitating to carry. Your struggle seems to be about degree of certainty that you are sincere in faith (OCD-sounding). When we spend time in Scripture, when we keep coming to him like a broken child, when we continue to surrender to him that ‘thing’ that seems to form a wedge between our heart and His, and when we focus on the beauty of His love, grace, and forgiveness, I believe you will start to pay less attention to the degree of your sincerity, because you will be too caught up in His beauty and love for you. Not trying to be too mystical here, but just stating a fact that when we obsess about OUR degree and even QUALITY of faith, we are unable to keep our eyes on Jesus, which is what I sense your heart really wants, which you can bet pales in comparison to how much Jesus wants you to be at peace with Him.
        Again, I don’t know you, but I know your struggle, for it has been mine at times.
        Lean hard into Jesus, looking less at yourself and more at Him. Fellowship with those who love and follow Him, and be obedient to His word.
        The enemy will try to attack you, but that’s okay, because just as Jesus was attacked in the wilderness, so will we be. Jesus says we will have hardship in this life, but not to worry, for He has overcome the world, and has given us the Holy Spirit to carry us along.
        Hope that helps.
        Again, keep surrendering your exhaustion and efforts to Jesus.

        • Hunter   at

          I have gone through things like this but mine is unresolvable doubt which I can’t seem to have peace. I’m 16 years old and some things are confusing, however I’m just worried If I say the sinner prayer and then live my life for Jesus then when I die then he says to me that I never had him In my heart which I am very afraid of. Is there any way that you could help me with this.

          • Bob   at

            Hi Hunter,
            You are the age I was when I first started obsessing about my salvation. I had trusted in Jesus as my savior as any simple-minded 8 yr old, but I think sometime in my adolescence something must have triggered this particular obsession, similar to what you have described.
            I would say first of all, bless you, son! Know that Jesus loves you just as you are, no matter how confused or fearful your heart may be right now. Jesus wants you to rest in his love and forgiveness for you. Read and then whisper/pray the words from Matthew 11:28-30, as if Jesus was speaking directly into your heart. He loves you so much Hunter, and wants you to lean into him, and to surrender to him all of your anxieties. He knows you better than you know yourself. Let this truth lift your burden.
            Know also that the enemy tries to defeat us with doubt (it happens to me still all the time, but I just keep turning to Jesus, looking on him, and not on myself and my fears).
            If you are not already doing this, I would encourage you to spend time each day in Scripture, reading first the gospels, and learning more about the heart of Jesus. Get to know other guys your age that love and follow Jesus. Are you involved in a church? If so, maybe your youth leader could help, or your pastor. A Christian counselor that works with OCD patients might be helpful in ‘training’ your mind how to think differently when your anxieties flare up.
            Know also that it’s not a prayer that saves us, but Jesus. So, don’t worry about your words, or even the degree of your desire or remorse. None of these things save, only Jesus saves when we come to him in whatever faith he has given us, which by the way is also a gift.
            I’m often encouraged by the passages where Jesus says, “Let the children come to me,” when others were trying to keep them away. Jesus loves our simple, trusting hearts. He loves you more than you can know this side of eternity. I’m praying for you now buddy. Peace to you.

          • Bryce   at

            Hi, Hunter. Remember that salvation is all God’s doing, and faith is a gift that he gives to those for whom Christ died. Read Romans 8 and 9. It’s set in stone from eternity past.
            I would highly recommend learning from Reformational teachers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon, R C Sproul etc. Avoid teaching that says you must pray a “sinner’s prayer.” The Bible teaches us to repent and believe, no to pray a prayer. And don’t even rest in your own repentance and faith! They are gifts! Rest in Christ’s finished work. I will be praying for you. I know how miserable this is. I’ve been through it. In Christ,

  • Katherine   at

    I was wondering could you recommend any good books on scrupulosity and doubts about salvation and the love of God for someone who struggles with ocd?

    • Bob   at

      Hi Katherine,
      I know yours is an old post, but I just read The Doubting Disease and Strivings Within – The OCD Christian. I would recommend both.

    • Hi, Katherine:

      Knowing you posted over a year and a half ago, I’d still like to respond. Besides this website, their are the websites of Grantley Morris. Google “Grantley Morris scrupulosity” and “Grantley Morris salvation.” To note, I also read a book called “Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure Your are Saved” by JD Greear. This guy has OCD and admits it, but his book is not specifically oriented to those with OCD, so I’m dubious about mentioning this book. (Well, in a sense, his book is directed toward OCDers, because they are the ones who repeatedly ask Jesus into their heart. But he does not take a psychotherapy approach to OCDers,)