OCD and Christianity

One problem I keep running into is the bad advice given by well meaning Christians to OCD sufferers. What typically happens is this. An exceptionally devout individual, the type who takes her Christian faith and practice very seriously, suddenly develops a clear-cut obsessional fear—perhaps an intrusive idea that she is not ‘saved,’ an urge to impulsively harm her baby, or a terrifying image of sexual perversion. Dumbfounded and seeking help, she discusses it with her pastor and perhaps a church member or two. Far from their being helpful, however, the counsel they provide only makes things worse. The terrible thoughts, they tell her, indicate a lack of faith, and therefore what she must do is strengthen her faith through more intense prayer and Bible study.

This advice, although excellent in other situations, is completely unhelpful here. What is being suggested is exactly what she has been doing like crazy ever since the terrible thoughts started: She has been furiously reading her Bible and praying for hours a day. Indeed, these activities have turned into compulsions. We know from a clinical standpoint that what she must do is learn to tolerate the obsessional fears and stop doing compulsions. This leads to diminution of the fears (habituation). Martin Luther, showing extraordinary psychological insight, reflects this modern understanding in the advice he gave to Christians suffering such tormenting fears:

Dwelling on these thoughts, wrestling with them, wishing to conquer them, or wishing idly for them to come to an end will only make them more disturbing and strengthen them without providing a remedy. Our own powers and ideas are not sufficient to cope with such matters. Satan knows this very well. Therefore, he suggests such thoughts and makes them seem so important to us that we are unwilling to leave them or turn aside from them but wish to scrutinize them and think them through to the end. To do so is to surrender to Satan and let him reign.

Luther also pointed out the spiritual purpose of these sorts of agonizing thoughts. Luther used the term “theological prison” to describe what we call OCD.

The theological prison is the trouble and anxiety of the spirit by which the prisoner is deprived of peace of conscience and quietness of heart. Yet this is not forever, as the reason supposes when it feels this prison, but “until faith should be revealed.” You must know that it is a benefit to you to be confined and perplexed this way; but you must see to it that you use your confinement correctly, that is, for the sake of the faith to come. For God does not want to trouble you in such a way that you remain in trouble…He wants to trouble you so that you may be humbled and may acknowledge that you need the mercy of God and the blessing of Christ.

OCDers must suffer their obsessional fears without escaping through compulsions. They must recognize that God has a purpose for their ‘confinement’ and put their hope in Him. They must continue to suffer and hope until faith is revealed. The purpose of the whole exercise is to strengthen faith. Through the trial we learn that we can, indeed, rely God. We must remember that it is a benefit to be ‘confined and perplexed in this way’ and we must try to use our confinement correctly. In psychological terms, we must attempt to tolerate the fears and stop doing compulsions.

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