OCD and Christianity

“Works-righteousness” is a term often heard in Protestant churches. It means attempting to become righteous (the “right kind of person”) through doing what one assumes are good acts. The great insight of the Reformation was that righteousness does not result from works, but rather from faith. The problem with works is that we become prideful in doing them. We think we are accomplishing great things by ourselves, when it is God who deserves the glory. What God wants from us is faith– trust in his power and his love—and not trust in ourselves.

The idea of works-righteousness has special relevance to Christian OCDers, because that’s what we’re involved in when we perform compulsions. Suppose your obsessional fear is that you are disobedient or out of God’s favor. Maybe you have an intrusive thought of committing a violent or perverted act, or perhaps a more subtle fear such as that you are not praying correctly. So now you start saying prayers and reciting bible verses over and over in vain attempts to put these thoughts right. These practices, though holy and good in themselves, have now turned into compulsive works. You are no longer praying truly, nor paying attention to the Word. You are just trying to make yourself righteous through your own intense efforts.

This is a very devious trick of the enemy: He lures us into works-righteousness through activities that we think are foolproof, such as prayer and Bible study. We need to recognize this trap, because it specifically targets good and conscientious Christians. We will know we have fallen into it when our fears drive us to repetitive, hollow, unproductive acts. The enemy is very pleased when this happens. He loves it when we do compulsions.

When obsessional fears strike and righteousness seems at stake, we must watch out! Rather than engaging in compulsive behaviors, we must allow the fearful anxiety to be present, and wait in hope for God’s grace. This is very difficult to do. We are being purified of self reliance and presumption; we are being refined like gold in a furnace. When faith comes through grace, which it will, we will experience the peace that we yearn for and the righteousness that we seek.


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5 Response Comments

  • Mike Loncono   at

    I have been very encouraged by content on your website! I have lived with OCD since my mid 20’s (at least), now 56, and recently have had significant increase in symptoms. I’m a Born Again Christian and my OCD focuses on my Faith – very tormenting, in using the Faith / Trust approach I seem to struggle with letting go as I think I presume on GOD to handle everything and I feel responsible for my obsessions.

    • admin   at

      Thoughtful comment, Mike. That is, indeed, a common problem. Often what has happened in that situation is that the process of trying to “let go” has become a compulsion in itself. Naturally, it doesn’t produce any good results. What I recommend in that situation, which is what Luther says to do, is this: Continue wanting and hoping very much for the gift of faith, but allow yourself to remain in the fear and uncertainty of lack of faith as much as possible. According to Luther, sometimes God withholds the experience of faith so that we can learn to rely on him more. This is the process of “purification,” of God burning away the old man. This makes sense from a psychological perspective, because we have to stay in anxiety and bear it in order for habituation to take place. Does that make any sense to you?

  • Katie D.   at

    Dr. O, could you please tell me how to remain in the fear & uncertainty of lack of faith? What should I be thinking? I’ve recently been through U Penn’s ERP intensive 3 week program and am still learning!!

    • admin   at

      Good question. In general, when OCD strikes we want to 1. Recognize it as OCD 2. Allow the fearful thoughts to be there, and then 3. Move into the present moment with the task at hand. The second step doesn’t take very long. It’s just a reminder to self that I’m going to do that: I’m going to allow the thoughts to be there and not do compulsions. This might take just a few seconds. Then, it’s into the task at hand. Effort is focused at being attentive to what we want to be doing now. What do you think?

      • Katie D.   at

        Thank you! I’m trying to do this although I’m not sure what I’m doing to compulse when it comes to this. Usually I start praying for other people or run to Scripture to get the thought out of my mind. Would that be the compulsion? I struggle with assurance of my salvation. I don’t think I’m sorry for my sin, or that I’m a sinner at all and I don’t need Jesus. This scares me so much b/c you have to repent to be saved, and my brain keeps telling me I have not repented, and I don’t feel sorry for my sin. I read your blog on works righteousness, perhaps I’m trying to earn God’s favor by trying to get myself to feel like I think I should. I love your website!!!