How Religious OCD makes much of our emotions and/or lack thereof:
The subject of feelings and emotions as it relates to Religious OCD is a frequent topic among sufferers.
I remember how my OCD made much of my fearful emotions and also how it made much of the lack of what I thought were the appropriate emotions – emotions that I felt I should be having.
Firstly, that “zero to ten in a heartbeat” fear that accompanied the intrusive thoughts of this form of OCD made them seem intensely urgent. Then, as time went on and I was really struggling to gain a feeling of certainty about my faith and standing with Christ, I began to fixate on whether or not I really felt my faith. Then, shortly after that, I began to experience a complete lack emotion toward God, which made me feel as though I might not really love Him. Every bit of this led to a lot of internal rumination along these lines:
“I’m terrified! What if this means that God is warning me that I’m not really a Christian? I’m not sure I really feel my faith. How can I find out if I really have it? How do I know that I really believe? What proof can I find to settle this? Everyone else seems to be so in love with Christ. They seem to be feeling so much joy and comfort in their relationship with Him. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I feel my faith? Do I love Christ? How can I know that I love Him? I haven’t felt the comfort of His presence or the joy of my salvation for such a long time? Maybe this means that I don’t really love Him?”
Every one of these distressing doubts and questions pushed me farther and farther into the quicksand of OCD because the more you struggle against or counter these kinds of statements, the more mired you become in the quicksand of OCD. That’s the nature of the beast: Engage with its doubts and questions and be swallowed alive or refuse to attend and break free.
As I began to learn about OCD, I was finally able to understand how all that frantic rumination made it impossible for me to experience the natural flow of emotions that I’d felt in my past concerning my relationship to Christ. As it turns out, my brain was far too busy trying to figure out, sort out, muster up and seek reassurance about this lack of feeling. It was so preoccupied with obsessing about it that it became impossible for any emotion to flow out naturally other than the emotion of intense fear.
I suppose you could compare this experience to that moment when you can’t think of a word and you begin to work very hard at trying to remember it. Then, the harder you work to remember it, the more elusive the word becomes. It’s only when you finally just let go of it and move on to something else that your brain eventually floats the word up into your consciousness. When you stopped all the mental gymnastics, your brain finally had an opportunity to remember the word.
Or, it’s like sleep: The harder you work at trying to sleep the more alert and awake you become. The mental activity of fretting about not being asleep is the very thing that’s keeping you awake. At other times, when you are completely relaxed and yet feeling ambivalent about sleep, sleep will often just naturally overtake you.
But, getting back to this distressing lack of feeling which often occurs when we are suffering from Religious OCD: Firstly, is there anything we can do in the meantime while we’re working on recovery to demonstrate our love for God? And secondly, which is of greater value: Feeling love for God or demonstrating love for God through our actions?
The answer to the first question is most definitely a resounding yes as God has given us some great instruction regarding how we can actively love Him. But before I get into that, I want to share a little illustration of how love can grow even when we aren’t really inclined toward it.
When I was a little girl, I had a cat named Cocoa. Cocoa was my cat. I’m the one who picked him out of a litter of kittens on my tenth birthday. I’m the one who took care of him. I’m the one who played with him and he rewarded me by keeping me company as he slept curled up on the pillow next to me on most nights. I really loved that cat! So, when he got sick and died I was as devastated as any little girl could be. And, when my parents decided that the best thing for all of us to move past our grief would be to get another cat, I rebelled at the notion. When they brought the new kitten home, I was determined not to have a thing to do with him because no cat could replace my Cocoa and I felt that it would be disloyal to Cocoa for me to show an interest in the new kitten.
I tried very hard not to love that kitten, but as the weeks wore on, I fell prey to his charms and soon I was petting him, playing with him, combing his fur and feeding him. I hadn’t intended to fall in love with him but in acting loving toward him I did just that and many years later when he died, I realized that I loved him as much if not more than I did Cocoa.
The point I’m making here is that love is an actionable word in the same way that faith is. Love is about acting loving toward someone and faith is about being faithful. And, there is nothing about OCD that stops us from loving God. OCD can only make us feel afraid. It can never rob us of choosing to love Christ.
Whenever someone with OCD tells me that they are afraid that they might not love God I will typically ask them if they have a desire to follow and obey Him. And one hundred percent of the time they will answer with a resounding “YES!” I will then tell them to just go ahead and walk in love toward God because in doing so, they are demonstrating their love for God. And, as they practice and follow after love and quit trying to muster up the feeling of love, their emotions will eventually catch up with their actions. This won’t happen immediately and they must work hard to stop all that frantic rumination which only increases the fear. They will need to be willing to let go of the need for emotional validation and certainty because the longer and harder they search for it the more stuck they’ll get in this obsessional theme.
As far as answering the second question, I think we can draw upon our own experiences regarding the the value of some gushy emotional declaration of love versus the demonstration of love through actions. It’s meaningless for someone to give you a big warm bear hug and tell you that they love you if, after that, they aren’t able to show patience, kindness, longsuffering and selflessness toward you. It’s also meaningless if, after that, they go on to behave in a selfish or jealous manner or to demean and betray you.
In the same way, God expects our love to be that of service, obedience, honor, and allegiance. He doesn’t say “if you love me then feel it.” He says things like: “If you love me keep my commandments” and “feed my sheep” and “offer the sacrifices of righteousness.” These are all actionable expressions of love.
OCD likes to keep us preoccupied with painful rumination which can really interfere with living life on so many levels. And, as regards Religious OCD it would rather we spend hours and hours ruminating about the reality of our love relationship with Christ than to see us living it out.
The choice is obvious, not easy, but obvious: When Religious OCD threatens in this way, the best method for us to put it in its place is to ignore its threats, no matter how anxious that makes us feel. We must refuse to engage with them – refuse to attend to them and then just keep on loving God through our actions, remembering that when we have OCD, we cannot rely on our emotions to define or discover truth.
To read more about my experiences with Religious OCD check out my book “Strivings Within – The OCD Christian” at: http://amzn.com/1517678447