I’ll tell you what, it sure seems like a spiritual issue when you’re in the throes of it. It comes at you from so many angles regarding your faith that it just feels as though something is definitely amiss spiritually. Sadly, if you buy into that, you will only make the disorder worse and tighten the grip it has on your brain.
On top of that, there are all too many people in the family of Christ who will also tell you that what you are experiencing is most definitely a spiritual issue. They might use words like “stronghold” or “spiritual warfare” or “the spirit of fear” or “Satanic influences” to describe or define your Religious OCD. I’m not so sure they’d be so quick to use those terms in the case of a small child who had OCD and struggled with a hand washing compulsion because the theme doesn’t seem to be a spiritual one. But OCD is OCD no matter what the obsessional theme is. And treating OCD like OCD is what will help a person feel better in the same way that treating diabetes like diabetes will help the diabetic feel better.
Religious obsessions are actually extremely commonplace with OCD. And, just because faith and religion are common targets for OCD doesn’t mean that the disorder is based on a spiritual problem. It’s really not even based in wrong-headed or irrational thinking. It’s actually based on a problem in the region of the brain called the amygdala. People with OCD have amygdala’s which are not functioning appropriately and therefore, the person is feeling anxious and frightened without a legitimate cause. But the brain is smart and if there is a feeling of being anxious that won’t go away the brain will eventually find something to BE anxious about. It will find a target. And if you happen to be a Christian and your relationship with Christ is the uppermost thing in your life then it’s not at all surprising that OCD goes after that.
There’s much to be said about how counterproductive it can be for a person who is afflicted with Religious OCD to treat it as a spiritual issue, but for the purpose of this blog I wanted to touch on how even in reading our Bible’s while struggling with Religious OCD can be a triggering experience.
There are a handful of Bible verses which come up on a regular basis whenever I’m talking to someone who is struggling with Religious OCD. It’s not that I don’t understand why this happens because it’s happened to me too. And, when I’ve mistakenly used these verses as evidence that I’m in some kind of spiritual jeopardy or even tried to employ them to battle against the thoughts, my disorder has only gotten worse.
Religious OCD has a nasty habit of distorting or taking Scripture out of its proper context and thereby, causing the sufferer to feel the need to fight against the presence of their intrusive thoughts.
I thought the best way to explain how this happens would be to give a few examples of how my own OCD has twisted scripture out of context in order to keep me firmly entrenched in attending to the obsessions. What follows are a few of the scriptures which come up quite frequently as a source of distress or as being misappropriated toward Religious OCD. I thought it would be good to visit just a few of them so that maybe my fellow sufferers could see just how easily the disorder distorts the meaning of Scripture and leaves you feeling like your doomed.
- “God has not given us the spirit of fear.” (2 Timothy 1:7)
This one used to really send me into gut-wrenching, “I need to sort this out now!!”, panic mode.
This was mostly because my OCD caused me to view this verse in isolation from the verses that surrounded it. When I would read it or hear it, I would become so overwhelmed with anxiety that I completely abandoned what I knew regarding how to study scripture in its proper context.
The first error was fed by this idea that if you experience fear, then you have a demonic presence influencing you. I’d heard people quote this verse as if Paul had just told Timothy that he had a demon that needed to be cast out of him before he could “stir up the gift of God “and get busy with his role in spreading the Gospel. But there is zero reference in this scripture to any kind of demonic presence that needed to be dealt with. And furthermore, I can hardly picture Paul observing Timothy and his devotion to Christ and then saying, “hey that demon possessed guy looks like a good candidate to join us the spreading of The Good News! Let’s give him an “apostolic grant of authority!”
My second error was in seeing “the spirit of fear” as something which would completely prevent Timothy from following his calling. Paul didn’t say; “That’s it for you, buddy! You either get rid of your fear” or else you’re useless. Instead, he provided Timothy with the information that he needed to understand that the contrast of the strength and power of God’s Spirit over against his weak and timid Spirit was the thing that would provide the courage he needed to press on.
In a way, when I looked back at it, the message seemed to be that while God isn’t the source of our weakness or fear, He certainly isn’t impeded by it.
But to really understand the context you would also have to understand that the fear that Timothy was experiencing had its basis in reality. I mean, c’mon, Paul was writing to him from a prison cell for doing the very thing that Timothy was now commissioned to do. Would there be danger involved in it? Yep, you betcha! So Timothy, very naturally had some trepidation regarding what would happen to him, and I’m pretty sure that most of us would too. But feeling afraid is common. What matters in this scenario is whether or not we let our fear keep us from doing the right thing. It’s our choices which make all the difference. Not our feelings.
But as regards Religious OCD, this verse has zero application except and only as it applies to our needing to rely on God’s strength to persevere through affliction, weakness, and suffering.
So now whenever I’m speaking about my OCD and someone pipes up about God not giving me the spirit of fear, I just smile and say “I know” and leave it at that. It’s a bit like someone saying, please don’t blame God for your high blood pressure. He didn’t cause it. To that, I would also reply: “I know.”
- “Truly I tell you, anyone, who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)
Ugh! I remember the exact moment when this verse struck and stabbed at me. I was reeling with a mixture of confusion and accusation:
“You don’t have that kind of unquestioning faith like little kids do! They just believe so easily! How do I muster up that kind of unquestioning faith which just rests in complete and utter bliss without a single doubt or without needing to have a good reason for my belief? Is this really the kind of faith that God is demanding of me?”
For quite some time this verse just laid me lower than dirt. I would look around on Sunday morning at all the people lifting up their voices and their hands in praise to God with such an air of confidence while I stood there wondering if I was really on my way to hell because I didn’t possess the faith of a little child.
This was a case of my OCD perverting or twisting scripture to keep me in a continual battle with my obsessional theme.
Later on, when I was able to calm down and contemplate the verse and really think about the relationship of children to their parents as regards provision, safety, and security, I realized that children don’t offer up anything regarding these things. The parent just gives them lovingly and willingly to the child and all the child has to do is to receive them. It was really about our not being able to earn our salvation and about God’s incredible grace in securing our salvation, not because of anything we have done or can do, but all because of who He is, for us, to us, in us and through us. It had nothing to do with mustering up a feeling of faith and everything to do with the object of my faith. I trusted my earthly Dad without question when it came to my helplessness as his little girl. And it’s the same with my heavenly Father. He gives and I have only to receive.
- We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)
Here we have the “go to” verse for many people with Religious OCD. And, although many of them come up with this verse on their own as a way to battle the thoughts of OCD, it’s not uncommon for a pastor, Biblical counselor, or Christian friend to suggest this verse as a way to overcome the thoughts of OCD.
For starters, even apart from OCD this verse, in its proper context, isn’t about battling against our own sinful or angry or worried thoughts. It’s actually about contending for the Gospel against false philosophies and ideologies which are being put forth in opposition to it. The people who are doing this kind of thing aren’t Christians and in fact, are working hard to dispute or discredit the truth of the Gospel and the Word of God. This verse is actually more in line with the meaning of this verse:
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)
We are living in a world where there really are spiritual forces at work which oppose the Gospel, and these forces are influencing so many human hearts and turning them away from the salvation that comes through the Cross of Jesus the Christ. Therefore, as Christians, who have been called to share and spread the good news of the Gospel we have to be equipped and well prepared to respond to these arguments which are set against, “the knowledge of God.”
This is the proper application of this scripture which has absolutely nothing to do with a disorder which causes a person to experience an enormous surge of anxiety over an unwanted/intrusive thought or doubt. All OCD thoughts are ego-dystonic, meaning the person doesn’t want to think them and actually doesn’t even choose to think them. They just happen because our brain is capable of coming up with all sorts of negative associations based on the knowledge we have stored up over the years.
But, beyond all this, the main point that I want to make is that when we respond or react to our Religious OCD thoughts as if they were really a sign of our being in spiritual danger or experiencing a stronghold, we are engaging in the compulsive side of the disorder. This is because whenever we attend to an OCD thought by arguing with it, asking for reassurance, trying to counter or cancel it, asking God repeatedly for forgiveness, trying to figure out why we’re thinking it or just shoving back against it in any way shape or form we are cooperating with the OCD. We are giving in to this compelling feeling that we need to fix it, and when we allow that feeling to drive our behavior, we are, in effect, reinforcing the anxiety. If we give hours and hours of attention to a thought, our brain is automatically going to view it as the most urgent and uppermost thing.
The bottom line here is that all OCD responds to proper management tools. It doesn’t matter what the content of the obsession is, whether contamination or religious. We must treat it for what it is; a painful disorder which we need to learn how to manage.
Religious OCD is entirely manageable so long as we choose to treat it in the right way. I know this to be true because I’ve been on both sides of the coin; a. supposing it to be spiritual and attacking it in that way and, b. accepting it as a valid unchosen disorder and using the correct management tools. What I found out is that choosing a. only served to prolong and increase my suffering and choosing b. brought me out of suffering and out of the grip of my Religious obsessions.
I pray for all those afflicted with this form of OCD that they would have the courage to turn away from treating it as a spiritual issue so that they can begin to work on getting better.