OCD and Christianity

Occasionally I would meet with Matt, a nose-to-the-grindstone engineering student and committed Christian with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Occasionally only, because for an extended period of time he had been doing very well. OCD had struck when he was in High School, at its worst characterized by tormenting fears of violence and endless mental rituals. Since those dark days, however, he had learned much about his disorder and how to handle its tormenting thoughts. His life was good. Then, all of a sudden, from out of the blue, he was struck by the “street preacher obsession.”

Matt was downtown observing a ringing Christian message being delivered to a half dozen lackadaisical observers when he had the thought, “Maybe I should be doing that, too.” It’s a reasonable consideration. Many Christians have it. Most all of them, however, quickly dismiss it upon considering practical realities. Matt, however, could not do this. Gradually the idea began to consume him: “What if the Holy Spirit is really calling me to witness?” At the same time, he grew terrified of the possible consequences: “What would people think? How would it affect my career?” Within a couple of weeks he was in a total crisis trying to resolve the issue.

Matt knew what OCD felt like, and this felt like that. But he had a hard time making sense it. “I have two fears: that I will do it and that I won’t do it,” he explained. “They are exactly equal. How would I do ERP? And then…I don’t even know if I should do ERP. I mean this could be the Holy Spirit. I can’t deny that.”

This is tricky OCD, indeed. First of all, although there are two fears, there is only one obsessional thought. The first thought that struck him and would not be dismissed was: “Maybe I should become a street preacher.” This is the obsession. The fear associated with the second thought, “Maybe I should not become a street preacher” is present only because of the insistence of the first. Another way to look at this: If you took away the obsessional fear “Maybe I should become a street preacher,” the second concern no longer carries weight; but not vice versa. Only one thought causes anxiety in itself, and that is the obsession.

Yet, there is still the critical question as to whether this might really be the Holy Spirit. How to resolve that? The single most important thing for Matt to realize was that our judgment is completely lost in the areas where our OCD strikes. It’s just gone. That’s the way OCD is. When I work with hand washers, for example, after they come to an understanding of their compulsions, they sometimes ask a surprising question: “Doc…how long am I supposed to wash my hands? I don’t have any idea!” The loss of judgment is startling.

Matt did ask a few trusted friends, as well as the pastor of his church, about the idea of becoming a street preacher. They all thought it was not a true calling. Here is a critical rule for OCDers: We must base our behavior in the areas where our obsessions strike on that of responsible, non-OCD individuals. We must recognize our own lack of judgment and rely on others as role models. This was helpful for Matt; but, ever-the-OCDer, he was not finished. “How do they know for sure that it’s not the Holy Spirit?”  This brings up the topic of ‘discernment of spirits’ which is next month’s blog entry.

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5 Response Comments

  • James   at

    I have struggled with this and other forms. I happen to be a pastor of a growing church , praise God. I lead our evangelism team and he actually have people from the street outreach in church. I have street preached, but I am more effective one one one or with our prayer station and tracts. Despite that I have had severe dealings with guilt, because for years I have been plagued with the idea that I must be standing on the corner I grew up on, yelling out preaching. This has led me for a very long time to feel God was not pleased with me. Also thought of guilt, anxiety, confusion and of course the thought I am ashamed of God or else I would do it. All my old friends know I’m a pastor. Some have even been witnessed to by me , come to church and got saved. Yet I felt I never measure up.

    • admin   at

      Thanks for the comment, James. Do you think this represents OCD? What has been helpful for you in dealing with it?

  • James   at

    I certainly believe so. The guilt, anxiety, and depression are horrible. I talk with my wife or a few friends. Worship, sing, cry.

  • Gav   at

    I have an obsession like this as well. Whenever i see someone I feel like I MUST evangelize to them or else I am responsible for them not being saved. I think it is OCD but i know that Christians are supposed to evangelize. But i dont know how to. I still have extreme doubts about my own salvation and relationship with God. But i still always feel like i have to evangelize. I never do because i dont know how or what to say or even if i am a good enough christian to do it. But how does evangelism work? Im in college and i always feel like i have to go up to every person i see and share the gospel with them or even stand up in class and start shouting about God. So 2 questions: 1. What should i do about these thoughts? 2. What is the best way for me to evangelize out of love for God and others and not fear?

    • I labor under a burden of the Lord’s anger or displeasure if I do not witness or preach. But after I have preached or witnessed, then I am filled with a burden of the Lord’s anger over what I said and how effective I could expect my witness to be. I had to become very strong in mind, realizing that neither of these opposites come from the real Jesus as much as I can realize. From the Bible, I remind myself 1) That the eleven disciples were not ready to carry out the Great Commission at the time it was delivered in Matt 28. Indeed, they were not ready until they had received power from on high on Pentecost. I received no such call or power, although I have heard many teachers lay the Great Commission on everybody. This is wrong because 2) James 3:1,2 indicates that few are actually meant to teach or preach. I write this that it may be a help to some sufferers; it has never served as a complete solution to the entire problem I suffer from. I gather from the Bible that however it may be important to God for men to teach His things to others, it is paramount that whoever is called to this be prepared and gifted. Failure or neglect of this preparation (and ending in a true call from God) breeds arrogance and conceit both in the teacher and those who hear, bringing about ruin and destruction. No function of teaching or preaching should be entered into lightly.