OCD and Christianity

Perhaps a quarter of the people I see with OCD/scrupulosity have, at one time or another, suffered obsessions about committing “the unpardonable sin,” or “the sin against the Holy Spirit.” Nothing can give them satisfying reassurance that they haven’t done it. They ask their pastors. They pray about it. They read certain consoling bible verses over and over. Still, the fearful thought strikes: “What if I have committed the unpardonable sin?”

The frightening results of committing it are addressed in three quite similar passages found in the synaptic gospels (Matt 12:31, Mark 3:28, and Luke 12:10). In Matthew, for instance, we find:  “Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.” (KJV).

This is a very difficult passage, indeed. The entire thrust of the New Testament centers on God’s love and forgiveness. Even right here in this verse, Jesus starts off by saying that all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven. But then he says that no, there is actually something that is never forgiven! What’s that all about? Then, why would it be a sin against the Holy Spirit, and not against Jesus or God? Furthermore, Jesus said these words even before the Holy Spirit came in Pentecost. So, what was he talking about anyway? It’s no wonder that OCDers get hung up on this.

The standard interpretation of the foreboding passage is based on the context of Jesus’ words. He was speaking to Pharisees who had accused him of being in league with Satan when performing his miracles. Thus, for instance, the NIV suggests that the unpardonable sin is “attributing to Satan Christ’s miracles done in the power of the Holy Spirit.” The Jerome bible suggests it is, “witnessing the works of the Holy Spirit and declaring them evil.” These exegetical attempts are of no help at all to OCDers. This is one place in the bible where we need input from great Christian saints.

Saint Augustine, as usual, has valuable things to say, He offers the following definition of the unpardonable sin. “Whosoever he be that believeth not man’s sins to be remitted in the Church of God, and therefore despiseth the bounteous mercies of God, if he continue in his obstinate mind till death, he is guilty of sin against the Holy Ghost.” Here, Augustine suggests that the person who commits this sin is one who continues to turn away from God until death. It makes sense, because when Jesus was talking to the Pharisees he would have known that they were incorrigible to the end. This is helpful for OCDers, because it offers hope for the future, no matter how they are feeling at the moment.

It is Martin Luther, however, who provides the most helpful commentary. Perhaps that is because he himself suffered from blasphemous thoughts. He writes, “There are two kinds of blasphemy. First, there is active blasphemy when we consciously and intentionally look for reasons to blaspheme…. But second, there is passive blasphemy, when the devil introduces such perverse thoughts into our heads against our will and in spite of our struggle against them. By means of these thoughts, God wishes to occupy us so that we don’t get lazy and snore, but fight against them and pray.” Luther actually called it a “good sign” when people are bothered by such blasphemies, because it indicates that God’s plan is working in them in order to bring them closer to him.

Luther’s comments are spectacularly insightful. First of all, his definition of “passive blasphemy” nails what we now consider to be defining characteristics of an obsession (“against our will and in spite of our struggle against them”). Secondly, he makes it clear that these thoughts are from the enemy. My OCD friends, whether you choose to look on obsessional blasphemies as coming directly from the devil, or as coming from OCD (as I often encourage OCDers to do), these thoughts are most certainly from the enemy. They are not from you. They take us away from God. Fortunately, as Luther points out, if we can recognize them for what they are and fight them correctly, we can as a result of them grow closer to God through faith.

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