IS RELIGIOUS OCD A SPIRITUAL ISSUE? WHAT ABOUT THOSE VERSES WHICH SEEM TO INDICATE THAT IT IS?

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.

  1. “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.”

 

  1. “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.

  1. 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.

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12 thoughts on “IS RELIGIOUS OCD A SPIRITUAL ISSUE? WHAT ABOUT THOSE VERSES WHICH SEEM TO INDICATE THAT IT IS?

  1. 1lovehim1 August 25, 2016 / 1:09 am

    Mitzi, another great post. God has given you a gift in writing. You are eloquent and express yourself well in words. I thank God for you. You are a godsend in my life!
    As I’ve written to you before, my obsessive crisis about my salvation came after 30 years of being a Christian! Before that I was quite confident in my identity all those years!
    I’m pleased to report I haven’t had uncontrollable obsessive thinking about my relationship with Christ for 7 months now. But my confidence is not there.

    Question- I know the same was true for you, that you walked confidently in your salvation and then wham! Have you been able to get back to the place you were before in your relationship with Christ?? Sorrowfully, I’ve been trying to get back to my old self with Jesus but I can’t seem to get there because of what happened–severe depression because of obsession about my salvation. I really want things to be the way they used to be with Him, but keep thinking about what happened, how my confidence has totally taken a blow, and praying to God it never happens again.

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    • ocdmitzi77 September 2, 2016 / 2:26 pm

      I went through this too; just a very long period where although the painful rumination cycle finally let up I felt numb toward God. Then, of course, I very naturally began to obsess and focus on that. And, just like any other theme, the more time we give to it the more valid and disconcerting it becomes. It took me a very long time to see that my “concern” about whether or not I felt my faith like I had in the past was the very thing which was blocking my ability to feel it. I had to become ambivalent about it: “Oh well, I might not ever feel the comfort or joy of my salvation again, but at least I can do my best to live in a way which pleases God.” Checking our emotional responses is a common problem with OCD and it happens with other kinds of obsessions too, like Relationship OCD for instance. So my best counsel to you which is certainly not professional but just based on what helped me would be to absolutely let go of the concern about whether or not you’ll FEEL confident, secure, joyful, connected to God again. Allow for the uncertainty of whether or not you will; “maybe I will, maybe I won’t”. Then, just do those things which a person who is a believer and follower of Christ does. And, remember that our emotions are not tantamount to truth and that our emotions eventually catch up to our behavior, it’s never the other way round. Hope that helps a bit. It’s not an overnight fix and it’s not a straight line journey. It’s a bumpy, loopy, back and forth gradual kind of thing. Try to accept that too. God Bless!

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  2. Tommi Taylor September 1, 2016 / 5:16 pm

    I’ve struggled with similar issues. The past year has been really tough for me. I started talking to a really good guy, but he wasn’t super strong in his faith. I’ve been a Christian since I was 11 and love Jesus with my whole heart. But one night I was laying in bed, thinking about how I was going to hang out with this guy the next day, and this huge dread filled me. It felt like fear and panic and “no” if that makes any sense. I went anyway and told myself I was being ridiculous. But not before I thought this probably was a big warning from God that I shouldn’t be seeing him. On and off for the next few months I wrestled with this. Confused why I felt like God was doing this to me. Confused whether it was Him or not. Mad at myself because I felt like I knew it was Him, but didn’t understand why He would make me feel this way just to tell me not to date someone. Looking back, God probably was telling me no because the guy lacked spiritual maturity that was important to me, and to God I believe. But I blamed the fear and anxiety on Him. Even though a couple years before I had been in a relationship with my first boyfriend, who had broken my heart and sent me into a pretty severe depression for about a year (not just that he dumped me, but it kinda sent me into an identity crisis and I had a tendency to become depressed and obsessive anyway). We had started talking again and then he cut me off again about a month before I started talking to this new guy. So instead of realizing I was probably anxious because of my past relationship experience and because I knew it wasn’t really right, I blamed God. I ended the relationship after about four months anyway because I couldn’t get over the anxiety. Then after a couple months, started a new anxiety. That I was going to hurt a loved one or innocent person somehow. I would get a thought like “you could be a pedophile or murderer” and then think about it and wouldn’t stop for days. I stopped going home from school because of the anxiety it caused me. Then, I read about ERP therapy and started agreeing with the thoughts that I was having about being a sicko or that I was going to hurt someone. Eventually, they just stopped and surprise, it switched again. I started having thoughts that I had blasphemed the Holy Spirit when I had struggled with the guy from before because it probably WAS God and I said it wasn’t and my rationale went from there. I felt like I couldn’t pray anymore. I felt doomed constantly. I was talking to a new guy at this point. One who is IN LOVE with Jesus and who has become one of my favorite people. But I ended up cutting it off for a bit because I couldn’t get the idea that I was condemned out of my head. When we started talking again, all of a sudden I wasn’t worried about being condemned anymore. I was having anxiety about God’s call for my life. I kept thinking God wanted me to be celibate and I was disobeying if I got married. (Something I was scared about when I was little) I know in my head that God doesn’t work like this. Marriage is a good thing and if I have a desire for it and it looks like it’s happening in my life, then odds are it’s a good, godly thing. But I keep getting thoughts that God needs me to give this up for Him. And I sometimes feel so dark and anxious that I’ve wondered if it’s some sort of oppression or just OCD. Looking back I see how OCD has played a part on pretty much my whole life, but I’m just so confused and sad and probably should go see someone, but I don’t have the time or money. This is SUCH a long post so sorry. But I’ve read forums a lot about this sort of thing, and you seem to really have some understanding so I thought maybe you’d have some thoughts/advice/encouragement.

    Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • ocdmitzi77 September 2, 2016 / 2:49 pm

      Hi Tommi. Well, from my unprofessional perspective as a sufferer of OCD, pretty much all of this smacks of OCD feelings and compulsions but you shouldn’t depend on my opinion and seek a professional opinion.
      A small part of it might be linked to the trauma of your first breakup and the anxiety that ensued afterward which would have been more like a post-traumatic stress response, but what is currently going on seems to be pretty classic OCD stuff.
      It’s really quite normal to be frustrated and even angry with God when we are suffering and struggling to understand the purpose in it. But, if you have OCD and it turns it’s attention to your faith then something like that will be twisted round to be a “sign” that you might be doing something which might put you in danger regarding your relationship with God.
      I love that you shared how the rational/reasoning part of your brain knows that these things aren’t true, because that’s the case for most of us with OCD. The problem lies in the fact that the emotions are more compelling than our logic. When the instinctive part of your brain is sending out alarm signals in response to a thought/idea/doubt etc. you will feel compelled to pay attention to it. But in OCD our brains misfire and sends out false alarm signals when there’s really nothing to be alarmed about. The brain pretty much searches for a target for all that excess adrenaline and the target has to be something near and dear to you otherwise you won’t fixate on it.
      Anyhow, if all of this is causing you a great deal of emotional pain, if it’s interfering with your ability to go about your business w/o feeling such a huge and crushing weight of anxiety and even depression then you should definitely seek professional help. This might or might not mean medications but it most definitely will mean learning how to apply Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy to your obsessional themes. It also means learning some practical lifestyle modifications to keep things stable. You can start by going to your GP and talking about your anxiety and you can also learn a lot by researching through the International OCD Foundation.
      I wrote a book about my experiences with OCD too and what helped me. If you are interested in that you can find it by doing a search on Amazon: “Mitzi VanCleve – OCD”. I’m confident that you will be able to manage the disorder rather than it managing you. God Bless.

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  3. Ellie November 17, 2016 / 6:59 pm

    Hi Mitzi!
    Thank you for your blog and all you’ve shared. I read your book and it helped me greatly.
    I had my first really bad episode of Pure O about 3 years ago. I had three main obsessions; What if God wasn’t real?, this lead to fear I had stopped believing and that God had left me, and also I suddenly thought ‘what if Christianity is wrong and Islam is the true way? (I mainly focused on Islam, though Hinduism and also Buddhism worried me slightly)
    Three years later I am married and now have a beautiful son, who is nearly 4 months old… But I am struggling so much again… I started panicking that I was losing faith and becoming an atheist, and that has more recently evolved into being convinced I am not saved. Although the two occasionally swap it’s the being unsaved that really causes me a huge amount of pain at the moment… I just can’t shake the feeling I will be one of those that Jesus says ‘I never knew you’ to.
    I recently saw a terrifying video that made me convinced I was one of these fake Christians… a woman from Australia had gone to church, prayed and even had feelings of loving God but had a near death experience and died. She was in hell but saw a light that she knew was Jesus, but he said ‘I never knew you’ to her…
    I just feel I have taken grace for granted and I have not loved Jesus fully… I don’t know what to do… Jesus said ‘ those who love me will obey me’, but I try and I can’t do it. Please help!
    I got 0 hours sleep last night and I just can’t focus on my poor little baby because I can’t think straight… I think I have OCD, but could God be using it to warn me, or is it irrelevant I have OCD and the fact is I am just unsaved?

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    • ocdmitzi77 November 17, 2016 / 10:19 pm

      Hi Ellie, Sure sounds like classic Religious OCD. It can take so many twists and turns but they all lead back to the root fear of eternal separation from God. When you’re struggling with this form of OCD so many things are triggering and the OCD will look for “signs” in everything. You will have intrusive thoughts which make it seem like you want to reject God. In OCD this is called automatic/creative associations. Basically it just means that your brain contains all kinds of knowledge about the kinds of things an unbeliever might think or say so it very easily/automatically generates those kinds of thoughts.
      Also, the hormone shifts of having a baby typically cause OCD to flare up. It sure did with me. Anyhow, you loving Jesus, is certainly not the basis for Him saving you, but rather His love for you. No one loves Him perfectly or obeys Him perfectly. I would be more concerned if you claimed that you did love and obey Him perfectly. There’d be no need for His grace then. It sounds as though you may also need some help with meds. especially if you aren’t getting any sleep. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and hopefully get a referral to a psychologist who specializes in treating OCD. This person would absolutely have to be skilled in teaching you how to apply ERP to the thoughts and doubts. If they don’t know anything about that they can’t help you. Your GP can help you with meds. though to try and bring up your serotonin levels. It’s important that you stay clinical about OCD rather than making it a spiritual issue. We seem so able to do that with a lot of other OCD themes, like health and even harming themes but when it comes to Religious OCD we struggle to stay clinical. Praying for you! I know it’s painful but these thoughts and emotions are not tantamount to truth, they are just the painful symptoms of a very painful disorder.

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  4. musingsalongtheyukonriver March 16, 2017 / 9:23 pm

    Hi Mitzi! Wow, what can I say — you are a gift from God in my life and I’ve never even met you. I got your book before my last major OCD breakdown and my mother-in-law read parts of it to me while I was bedridden during that breakdown. I went on to finally get ERP help that I needed at Rogers Memorial Hospital’s Cedar Ridge OCD Center (residential), plus their partial hospitalization program in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I had to cut out of treatment for financial reasons, but I’m back home in rural Alaska now and making life work while I have ERP and CBT therapy through the therapist that Rogers helped me find, Ashley Annestedt. I live in an area where the access to mental health care isn’t very good and Alaska doesn’t really have much of any good OCD treatment. But thanks to the phone, I’m able to get therapy that way. So if anyone reads this and doesn’t have good access to ERP therapy, don’t give up. I finally found the help I needed and would be glad to help anyone else find help in any way that I can.
    OCD has manifested in various ways in my life, but Religious OCD has been one of the most painful ways for me since around the age of 12 years old. I still question if I’ll ever get “over” it, but I know there’s hope now, even when it doesn’t “feel” like it.
    The verses 2 Corinthians 12:8-10 are verses that it seemed like God impressed upon my heart back in 2011 in my OCD battle. It was amazing to see you use those same verses in your book, Mitzi.
    This blog post could end up being helpful for people in my circles. I’m going to post the link on my blog in a post with credit to you. If you want me to take it down, please let me know. Thanks for writing this.
    ~Kristen

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  5. Debbie Martin March 26, 2017 / 3:47 pm

    What an amazing teaching! Thank you thank you. I don’t have OCD, but this truly helps me understand and have compassion on those that do. What really blesses me is your adept explanation of Scripture for those struggling.

    Like

  6. Catherine Nichols September 22, 2017 / 1:48 pm

    Mitzi, What if my Religious OCD has given me thoughts that make me focus so intently on myself and my seemingly lack of faith, and inability to believe and receive? I have worked very hard at “trying to believe” and trying to receive…is it okay for me to just start praising God for His gifts that you mention in the section about receiving from God just like a child receives from his parents. Just start praising him and thanking him for his love, his forgiveness, salvation, even in the midst of having questioned everything to the nth degree for decades? I have been thinking that to “receive” from God/Jesus, I have to feel something, or have something supernatural happen to me. It just hasn’t happened. I have thought and thought and thought about this for so many years, and I just am spent. I’m tired. I’m thoroughly disillusioned with it all. I want to be able to just rest and trust, but I keep looking at myself. I don’t think I have the ability to look away from myself and look to Jesus. But I want to be able to do that. Perhaps my ability to trust and receive from Jesus is thwarted because I had bad experiences with my mother as a young child. I know I put up a wall between us, because of those experiences. I built a wall around myself emotionally…and it has affected my life in many ways. I just hope that Jesus understands and will make allowances for my lack of faith in some way.. through the years I have begged and pleaded with him to save me. I have been purposely choosing to not think about religion much because that’s the only way I have some peace.

    We have talked on the phone a few years ago. I live in Georgia..and we used to communicate on Christian Forums before it went away. I don’t know if you remember me or not, I hope you do.

    Like

    • ocdmitzi77 September 22, 2017 / 8:06 pm

      I do remember you Catherine. The hardest aspect of this form of OCD is how we want so badly to feel our faith. But every attempt to muster up those feelings only blocks us from feeling them and all we seem to be able to feel about our relationship to Christ is anxiety.
      Yes, you and I both need to just thank God for His mercy and free gift of salvation, for making us His child even though we know we are not worthy. Our worthiness doesn’t matter and when we cry to Him to save us, He just does. Not because of who we are, what we’ve done, what we’ve thought, but precisely and only because of who He is. So yes, just thank Him for taking you in and leave the responsibility for your life here and in eternity in His hands. It’s not your responsibility to make yourself fit for heaven it’s His. That’s why He clothes us in His righteousness instead of our own. Let go of the need for feeling certain and go on living as if you are already a citizen of heaven. It’s like the apostle Paul said…we are to just reckon it to be so and live out our lives as children of the most high God. You need to get to the place where you say…”oh well, I may never feel certain, but I can live like a child of God and do my best to follow Him because He is deserving of my worship.” Don’t beg and plead any more. Just walk! Praying for you!

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      • Catherine Nichols September 25, 2017 / 1:04 pm

        Thank you Mitzi for responding, and thank you for the prayers!

        Like

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