OCD and Christianity

An epidemic of clinical obsessive-compulsive disorder struck the West during that great flowering of individualism known as the Renaissance. The primary obsession that tormented large numbers of Christians was fear of loss of salvation.

Remarkably, among those who developed what we now call OCD were three of the greatest luminaries in the history of the Christian religion: Martin Luther, John Bunyan, and Saint Therese of Lisieux. Luther, architect of Europe’s sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, is a figure of incomparable importance in entire the history of Western civilization. Bunyan, author of the immensely influential Puritan classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, has perhaps influenced almost as many people as Luther. Saint Therese, the most popular Catholic saint of the present era, is also recognized as a pivotal reformer in the development of Catholic doctrine in twentieth century. Certainly all three of these remarkable individuals would be included on any list of the dozen most respected and influential Christians of the last millennium, and perhaps even of all time.

Primarily, the obsessional fears of Luther, Bunyan, and Therese involved displeasing God and losing salvation. All three had other types of obsessions as well, however, such as unwanted violent and sexual thoughts.  Their compulsions included endlessly repeated prayers, confessions that could not be brought to a close, and various repeated physical acts and gestures done for no reason other than to fend off obseessional fears.

All three, even more remarkably, after receiving unhelpful advice from their church elders, found a way to conquer their tormenting thoughts
through faith. Each found the same solution: Trusting absolutely in God’s power and mercy. In psychological terms, they transferred the responsibility for their obsessional fears to God.

It is worth noting that Luther, Bunyan, and Therese all believed that their struggle with tormenting thoughts was, in the end, a very good thing. It brought them to a closeness with God–a degree of faith and trust–that they otherwise could not have accomplished. In this sense, OCD proved to have been a grace for them. Their full stories are contained in the book, Can Christianity Cure Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?: A Psychiatrirst Examines the Role of Faith in Treatment