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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8 Response Comments

  • Aaron   at

    Thank you for sharing your obviously many years of experience talking to and helping folks with this condition.
    How can I respond to those who say to me “the solution is always spiritual”, or “straighten out spiritually and the mental and physical will also straightenen out” in regards to my OCD?

    • admin   at

      All we can do is keep reminding people that OCD is a medical problem. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it (like other medical problems) is not a spiritual problem as well. Unfortunately, a lot of people are just not open to this message. You can’t beat your head against a wall trying to change their views. All part of God’s plan for our salvation.

      • Aaron   at

        Yeah, interesting isn’t it. It reminds me of something I was reading having to do with the American response to German aggression running up to WW2. Many american Christians of the day were advocating for Christian pacifism and therefore no military response to Germany based on an idealistic view of the Bible. But then some Christians began to have second thoughts when they saw what was happening in Europe. They began to ask “wait a minute, do we have no responsibility here. Are we going to shirk from our responsibility because we cannot bear to see ourselves as “sinners” or as “tainted” in any way?” They had to look inside and adjust their theology, as it were, recognizing in a less idealistic and perhaps more nuanced way, that Gods kingdom is where we will be restored to perfection and reconciled entirely. Untill then it would be arrogant of us to think we could attain that perfection of our own power. In a way responding to OCD is similar, because I have faith that God will restore me to complete health, and also in the mean time I make use of all that the Holy Spirit has provided, even through our human intellect. It would be idealistic and even perhaps arrogant to think I could attain perfect Godly health in this life through some sort of “spritual work” of my own that will cause God to say “OK, now you did the thing I was waiting for you to do, so here is your perfect mental health as a prize for doing such a good job!”. Approximate health is what I’ll seek in these “Times between the times”. So in a way it is true to say the “solution is always spiritual”, its just what is meant by that. If someone has Cancer or another life threatening illness it’s still true that our complete healing to God will come in the end times, but does that mean I should therefore do nothing now that at least brings me closer to the healthfulness of God, if not perfectly? And still all the while bearing the faith that “all things are possible with God”. I suppose that OCD’rs, perhaps more than others, need to learn the make peace with the contradiction and paradox inherent to being human, having faith that God will resolve all conflict when that day comes.

  • Ashton   at

    Hi. I just wanted to say thank you so much for your God centered website. I’ve recently discovered that I may have OCD, particularly centered around whether I’m doing enough for God or whether I’m putting anything before him. “Willingness” is the term that comes to mind when I think how to describe it. I’m terrified that I’m not doing what commands me and while I know that the bible says that it’s impossible to earn your salvation, it also doesn’t let you off the hook for not obeying. That’s where my problem seems to come in. When I try to fix my fears, I end up feeling like God is the enemy, that he’s trying to torment me and that I need to kick and claw away from him, but I know that’s not true. The idea of giving my fears to him in faith, recognizing that he’s in control, is very scary to me but it also sounds wonderfully freeing. All I want is a way to follow God without having to torment myself every day. Giving it to him in faith sounds like it might be the way to do it. Thank you.

    Also, it seems like a lot of your advice and quotes comes from Luther, who you’ve repeatedly said most likely struggled from OCD. Is there anything of his in particular that you’d recommend reading? I don’t want to add more compulsions to my list, but goodness, if there’s a man who walked through faith with this I want to read about how he did it.

    • admin   at

      Hi Ashton, OCD can really drive a person away from God. It’s important to not this happen. I really encourage you to make an effort to find out whether you do have OCD (sounds like you probably do) and then to make a commitment to treating it. I discuss Luther in the book, “Can Christianity Cure OCD.” Hope you are able to make some good progress.

  • Nick   at

    I really enjoyed this blog. I have recently felt really disappointed in myself. From this blog article I see that being self-disappointed is really due to a reliance on my own self. OCD gets me frequently with disappointment, flatness, depression, guilt and shame. I feel that these are all the things I’m holding onto which blocks the Lord’s Grace and Love into my life. It is particularly helpful here to be reminded that there is a purpose in this challenge – that the guilt and shame, do, have a purpose. To cleanse self-reliance and trust and have more faith and to receive God’s Gifts with a more open heart and with greater humility.

  • Hope   at

    I am not sure I have OCD. Since I was 12 years old (I’m 30 now), I have almost always doubted my salvation. I’m finally at a point where I do believe I am saved–but there’s still a part of me that is worried that Jesus would say, “Sorry, you just thought you were saved. You’re actually not.” I read and say scriptures, but my heart is still shattered when people say, “The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are sons and daughters of God.” –I don’t have that internal witness. Or if I do, I don’t understand it as such. I have prayed for salvation 1,000s of times. Now, I’m stuck at place where I am not even sure do I REALLY trust Jesus or REALLY believe or am I even capable of really believing, really trusting in Him alone. It’s like I’m trusting in myself, but I don’t want to trust in myself, I want to trust in HIM!!!
    However, I don’t really have OCD-like thoughts about anything else-except maybe relationships, like if someone likes me I will think about them liking me and whether they still like me from day to day, text to text….but I don’t like wash my hands repeatedly or touch things. Do you think I have OCD? I’m even worried at this point that saying I have OCD would be like some sort of cop out when what I really need to do is surrender all to Jesus (I’ve tried to do this many times)..
    Can you help me with someone in my area that knows about this?
    Thank you!

    • admin   at

      That definitely sounds like OCD, Hope. Send me an email and I’d be glad to give you any advice I can on finding a therapist. Dr O