OCD and Christianity

Last month’s blog dealt with a specific obsession that strikes evangelical Christians: “Am I certain I am saved?” But the general question, “Am I saved?” or “Am I going to Heaven?” is a common obsession among all Christian OCDers. It may involve fearing that one has committed a sinful act; doubting that a sin was properly confessed; or entertaining a profane or blasphemous idea, image or urge. In any case, salvation doubts should be treated in the same way as all other obsessions. Here are a few important things to keep mind.

Overcoming OCD involves making a fundamental change in the way we look at the tormenting thoughts that assail us. From a clinical perspective, the change in our thinking that we must make is this: It is not my inability to answer the question, “Am I saved?” that is the problem; it is rather that I am overcome by pathological doubt. From a Christian perspective, what we must keep in mind is this: It is not that I may have committed a sin, it is rather that the enemy is attacking my trust in God. As Martin Luther puts it in Table Talk,

Those who are tempted by doubt and despair I should console in this fashion…let them persuade themselves if they can that such thoughts are really not theirs but Satan’s.  

A Christian can look on obsessions as coming from Satan, a negative spirit, the ‘old self,’ or just OCD. Sometimes it is best not to use ‘Satan,’ as the word itself can trigger anxiety. The main thing is to recognize that these intrusive, fearful thoughts do not come from our true selves. They come from outside of ourselves, and force their way in.

Once fortified by this knowledge, a person can proceed with active treatment. In secular therapy, the goal is habituation to the fear. It is accomplished through exercises in exposure and response prevention. A good therapist might ask an individual with salvation doubts to write down the fearful thoughts that torment her, or play them over and over on tape, while refraining from doing any compulsions. She might tell the person, “Stay in the fear and let yourself feel the terror of it. Don’t run from it, and it will get better.”

Christians can make excellent use of standard ERP exercises, even though the goal is different. For Christians, the point is to learn to trust in God. As Luther puts it in his Commentary On Isaiah,

God sends a variety of trials, heresies, and the cross in order to train His own…For that reason there is need of Satan, trials, heretics, and the cross. Here you see the reason why God besets His saints with so many trials, so that they may learn to put their trust in God. That is a real school of afflictions and continuing conflicts

For Christians, the most important thing is to have faith. We want to trust like the sheep in the 23rd psalm who walks fearlessly through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. But consider this: The sheep must have entered the valley many times before it learned to trust the shepherd instead of fear the wolves. The wolves are our obsessions; and likewise, we must stand up to them in order to be trained in faith. It takes both courage and patience.

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