OCD and Christianity

Why do we have OCD? Well, we know that obsessive-compulsive disorder is a biological brain disorder, a dysregulation of the fear system. That’s helpful. It puts the matter in a proper perspective. Yet, it is not particularly satisfying. It does nothing to take away the sting of the disorder. Fortunately, as Christians we are given a much better answer: OCD is part of God’s plan for salvation. It is for our good.

Martin Luther, who suffered himself from what we now call OCD, lays this out clearly. Luther views the torment of agonizing fears, mortifying uncertainties, and gut-wrenching guilt, as a purifying process. It is our sanctification. “This life is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on,” Luther writes. His father was a manger of copper smelters, so the great reformer knew what he was talking about when he spoke of refinement by fire. In his Lectures on Malachi, he explains:

The kingdom of Christ is a mystical smelting furnace that purges out the impurity of the old Adam. Christ is not merely the Purifier but also the purifying Agent. He is not only the Blacksmith but also the Fire; not only the Cleaner but also the Soap. He does not sit indolently at the right hand of His Father. Rather He is always working among us vitally, effectively, and uninterruptedly as He is spread abroad over His mystical body, as fire is applied to metal. So He is elsewhere called Salvation, and not just Savior. That is, He is Salvation itself and the Laboratory of salvation.

In a sermon on the Gospel of John, Luther clarifies that the purifying process applies especially to the trial of fear, which is the trial that is OCD.

I have stated before that we should not be frightened if we suffer or are assailed and harassed—whether inwardly by the terror and fear with which the devil would like to bring Christians to disbelief or despair and embitter their life to such an extent that they pine away in sadness; or outwardly by the world with violence, tyranny, imprisonment, confiscation of goods, or loss of life…Thus God uses all trials and sufferings, not for Christendom’s harm, as the devil and the world intend, but for its welfare, so that it may thereby be purified and improved…Whoever, therefore, wishes to become a Christian must give himself over to being purified

The reason for OCD is that ‘the kingdom of Christ is a mystical smelting furnace that purges out the impurity of the old Adam.’ The old Adam must be burned off through the smelting fire of fear and uncertainty. “Okay,” the OCDer says, “But…what’s my part in this?” (That’s always the question; OCDers can’t stand it if they’re not in control.) It is simply to give yourself ‘over to being purified’; doing nothing except patiently waiting in hope for God to finish his work. We allow purification to happen—but don’t take the “allow” as an active process. We contribute nothing; we just get purified. God does it all.

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