Religious Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Therapy
The Therapeutic Exercise
Christian HelpThis page in German
When unwanted thoughts, images, doubts or feelings flood you, I suggest you steady yourself and focus on the real issue by repeating the following. In fact, I suggest you memorize it:
Smile, this is harmless temptation
The goal of telling yourself the above when disturbing thoughts, feelings or fears hit, is to remind you to do and recall various helpful things. Let’s see what they are:
Smile, this is harmless temptation
Besides the psychological boost, smiling gives a spiritual boost by reminding you that you have much reason to be calm: you are spiritually safe. By making yourself smile you are involving your body in an effort to impress upon your entire being that it is appropriate to be happy and at peace and that you can relax.
When overwhelmed by convincingly strong, OCD-affected feelings, there is actually nothing to fear, but usually at that time your awareness that you are spiritually safe is very weak. The act of smiling helps amplify your faint awareness that you are safe, and relaxing helps calm the deceptive fears. Using smiling as a stubborn act of faith gets the faith ball rolling and as faith gradually picks up speed your entire perception will slowly begin to change.
There are minor points of connection between God-pleasing faith and relaxation – the Bible speaks of the rest of faith, for example (Hebrews 4:3) – but being tense is not spiritually dangerous. It is just that tension and anxiety are unpleasant and fuel OCD and associated unwanted thoughts and feelings. When attacked by unwanted thoughts, the primary value of deliberately relaxing is twofold. Spiritually, it is making a faith statement, a little like leprous Naaman washing seven times in the Jordan, even though he felt ridiculous doing it ( 2 Kings 5:10-14). Psychologically, it helps counter anxiety, and by so doing it calms OCD, especially in the long term.
You can relax because what is happening is only temptation. Everything disturbing you is merely bluff – a spiritual attempt to unsettle you and throw you off balance. Making an effort to relax is faith in action, and faith is the most critical of all spiritual exercises. The added bonus is that studies show that, if consistently practiced for weeks every time there is an attack, relaxation helps weaken the attacks.
So literally, breathe easy. Imagine yourself lazing on the white sand of a tropical beach. Hear the gentle lap of the sea. Relax every muscle in your body, giving special attention to your jaw muscles, your forehead, unclenching your fists, and relaxing your stomach muscles and your neck and shoulders. If convenient, aid relaxation and joy by putting on some soothing, or even slightly upbeat, music. Worship music is particularly appropriate because the time when blasphemous thoughts are overwhelming you is as holy as when the sinless Son of God had satanic suggestions thrust at him in the wilderness.
So even though it’s the last thing you feel like doing, make the effort to smile and relax in order to stubbornly affirm to yourself and the entire spirit realm that you have genuine, biblical reason to rejoice in the midst of a filthy satanic attack. As James 1:2 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” Trials are a blessing and a unique opportunity to grow in faith.
Always label unpleasant thoughts, feelings or fears as temptation, the instant they begin. Doing so might seem minor but it is powerful. By this simple act, everything jumps into perspective. It reminds you that what you are experiencing says nothing about your heart. The ugly experience is simply the devil and his cohorts being their normal, nasty selves. Of course anything they come up with will be diabolically filthy and blasphemous, but it is their doing, not yours, so there is no reason for concern.
It is important to be clear that the temptation is not to try to get you to willfully blaspheme. You respect God far too much to do that deliberately and even if you willfully blasphemed, swore at the Holy Spirit, had sexual fantasizes about God, offered your soul to the devil, or whatever, it would still be forgivable because of the astounding power of the cross. The temptation you face is altogether different. It is an attempt to entice you into wrongly believing that God would hold you responsible for things you have repented of, or are beyond your control, or do not want, and end up so confused that you refuse to believe that God will accept you as his beloved child. The devil pours so much effort into this temptation because anyone fooled into thinking he is unforgivable will not bother to seek the forgiveness that is freely available to him. It is such a deadly temptation because the only way to render anyone unforgivable is to trick the person into spending the rest of his life never seeking forgiveness with faith in the saving power of Jesus.
The fact that you dislike the thoughts or images, proves they are not coming from your heart. If, for example, it seems it is you who are swearing at God in your mind, it’s a trick. Tell yourself, “The devil is swearing at God and tempting me to think that God, the righteous, loving Judge, would unjustly hold me responsible for the devil’s sin.” If you feel angry at God, it is because you are tempted to misunderstand the heart of God. Often it is because you are tempted to suppose that a harsh, condemning, OCD-affected conscience is God speaking, when it is God’s unchanging nature to be kind, gentle, understanding and forgiving. Refuse to be tricked into confusing guilt feelings with our loving Lord. Everyone’s conscience is open to manipulation from the Deceiver, whom Scripture calls the Accuser of the brethren, and OCD has rendered your conscience totally unreliable. So every time you feel guilty, tell yourself, “The devil is trying to exploit my OCD-affected conscience.”
If you feel you don’t deserve forgiveness, it is a temptation to forget the heart of the Gospel. It wouldn’t be forgiveness if you deserved it and the Judge wouldn’t be the God who sent Jesus if he wouldn’t cleanse you when you repent and put your faith in the total forgiveness Jesus died to give you. If you feel unforgivable, tell yourself the truth by saying, “I’m being tempted to believe that Jesus lacks the power to forgive all sin.”
To hear yourself say these positive statements out loud would make them even more effective.
(Even Jesus suffered temptation).
Regardless of how much your feelings deceptively scream the opposite, Jesus is tenderly with you, right now, in a special way. No matter how unaware you are of his presence, he is close, believing in you, empowering you and cheering you on, even as despicable words or thoughts churn through your mind. With him, you are on the winning side. He is “mighty to save (Isaiah 63:1; Zephaniah 3:17), “able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 7:25), “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20) and “able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 1:24). When assaulted by ugly thoughts and feelings, you can, and should, choose to sink into the feather bed of knowing that because of him you are safe.
Temptation is attempted deception.
So don’t bother trying to stop the unpleasant thoughts. Let them rage. Just try to stay relaxed and assured that Jesus understands. He responds to Christians having filth pumped into their minds as to Christians being tortured for their faith. Upon you is the blessing that Jesus pronounced on those who are persecuted. He sees you as a hero in the making. He is especially close and compassionate as you suffer this vile assault; this demonic persecution.
Profane and godless thoughts are whirling through your head not because you are sinful but for the very opposite. You are under attack because hell’s hordes are panicking over the fact that the blood of Jesus declares you righteous. All of Satan’s hordes hate and fear your status with God and some are trying their hardest to fool you into no longer believing in who Christ has exalted you to be in God’s eyes. In their desperation, they are trying to dupe you into falling for the false logic that unwanted thoughts – or any genuine sin you repent of – could negate the power of the cross.
Keep breathing calmly, while mentally lazing on that balmy beach. Relax in the joyous certainty that no matter what horrors are racing through your brain, you are continuously soaking in God’s blessing like someone blissfully sun-baking. Keep smiling, with steely determination, knowing that regardless of how you feel, and what disgusting, anti-God thoughts are thrashing unbidden through your mind, Jesus swapped places with you on the cross. In the most astounding spiritual transaction, the sinless One became sin for you and you become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). For all eternity, as surely as Christ was punished for the grossness of your sin, you will be rewarded for the perfection of his purity. Because of that miracle, only if Jesus were not deserving of God’s favor, could you be undeserving.
As by smiling you make a statement to your unconscious and the entire spirit world, remember that God is smiling approvingly upon you like the proudest father upon his newborn. A father smiles because of the magnitude of his love, not because of anything his newborn has achieved. The Holy Lord delights in you because your faith in Jesus’ sacrifice makes you spiritually and inseparably one with the Holy Son of God. No matter what you think or feel, that makes you God’s very own child; the darling of his heart.
So thank God. Pray along these lines, “Thank you, Lord, for loving me and sending Jesus to forgive my every sin. Thank you that the blood of Jesus cleanses me from all sin. Thank you that no matter how much my heart condemns me, you are greater than my heart (1 John 3:20). I choose to honor you by believing you, rather than believing my fallible conscience or feelings.”
The attempted deception is to disbelieve
that Jesus died for the sins of the world
“The sins of the world” must include my every sin.
So I will not be tricked
Refuse to be duped into forgetting that it is faith, not works – not your battle with thoughts or fears – that seals your eternal destiny. It’s not a matter of words said in your mind that you don’t even mean; it’s what you believe in your heart about the power of Christ’s salvation that counts. Not the tiniest sin is forgivable, were you to stubbornly keep refusing to trust Jesus for its forgiveness right up until your last dying moment. If, for example, you were a Pharisee who not merely said that Jesus was of the devil (anyone could later change his mind) but you believed so emphatically that Jesus is anti-God you went to your grave willfully rejecting Jesus as God’s way of salvation and trusting only in Jewish sacrifices, you could neither be forgiven in this life nor the next. This is not because there is anyone God does not long to save but because there is no way for God to forgive except through faith in Jesus. On the other hand, every conceivable sin is forgivable if you regret it sometime before you die and trust Jesus for its forgiveness.
I wrote in an earlier draft of this page, “What matters is not how big a sinner you believe you are, but how big a Savior you believe Jesus is.” That’s catchy but the truth is even more startling. In actual fact, the bigger the sinner you believe you are, the better (For Scriptures, see The guilt-ridden: God’s special people). A vital half of the equation is an awareness of how appallingly sinful all sin is. All we must do is combine this awareness with faith in Christ’s unlimited power to forgive.
So calmly address the devil, saying something like, “In the name of Jesus I rebuke you. No matter what lies and filth you fire into my head, Jesus defeated you and I belong to Jesus.”
Through Jesus’ death, God forgives my every sin
At worse, the thoughts are only temptation, and come from outside of us. So we could no more stop them than we can stop a foul-mouthed neighbor from swearing in his bedroom. Moreover, you need to realize that the tempter’s goal is to not to get you to think certain things but to entice you to doubt Jesus’ power to save those who have such thoughts. So it is not yielding to temptation have the thoughts. To yield to temptation is give up on Christ because you think he is too weak to forgive you.
Life will grow more pleasant when you eventually manage to replace the old reaction of panicking and trying harder, with the much more effective habit of remaining unconcerned by spiritual attacks. Life is easier when you finally master the habit of resting in the awareness that since Jesus swapped places with us on the cross, his righteousness is your righteousness and that God’s loving acceptance of you is based not on your battle against sin but on the battle Christ won two thousand years ago.
So don’t fight the recurrence of thoughts; fight only your emotional reaction to them. Don’t let the thoughts upset you. Each time you slightly stifle the tendency to get upset by unwanted thoughts, you are successfully denying God’s spiritual enemies the sadistic pleasure they get out of pushing the thoughts into your mind. Denying them the pleasure of seeing you get upset, makes them feel as out of place as nits on a bald head; as miserable as piranhas in an empty river; as underfed as bloodsuckers on polished steel. Each time you stay calm contributes to them slowly growing tired of going to all the effort of giving you the thoughts.
Lessening the attack is a bonus, but the real victory for you is not the lessening of unwanted thoughts, but that you are building spiritual muscle. You are developing faith so impressive that your faith in the saving power of Christ remains resolute in the face of an overwhelming torrent of appalling thoughts and a condemning conscience. When you achieve that, you might happen to still feel as weak as a cabbage leaf (since feelings are pathetically unreliable indicators of spiritual reality) but heaven acclaims you as a champion of faith.
I dislike the term “compulsive behavior.” It incorrectly suggests a person has little or no control over it. We have seen that thoughts and feelings can indeed be uncontrollable and that trying to resist them can prove counterproductive. Our actions, however, are quite different: they are controllable.
Rather than call it “compulsive behavior,” let’s call it what it is: annoying behavior. After all, it is annoying for the person who does it over and over, and it is annoying to anyone who sees him doing it.
The annoying behavior associated with OCD is not usually sin, just things like hand-washing or continually asking forgiveness of things when there has been no genuine offense. So it is not sin to give in to the strong desire to do these things. Nevertheless, life would be easier without these annoying behaviors taking up your time.
What causes a person to engage in, for example, frequent hand washing, is a buildup of anxiety, such as a fear of being dirty, and the behavior temporarily reduces the anxiety. The annoying behavior becomes addictive because the person is desperate to lower the anxiety. In reality, however, anxiety is not the terrifying monster than it seems.
What makes seeking reassurance addictive to people with OCD is that it brings temporary relief. The lock-checker, for example, feels better after checking the lock because he then feels sure the door is locked. The hand-washer feels relieved that his hands must be germ-free after washing his hands. The person fearing Christ is too weak to forgive him feels better when a theologian assures him that he is forgiven. The problem, however, is that the real cause of the anxiety is medical – an imbalance in brain chemistry – not unlocked doors, germs or the weakness of Christ. No matter how much reassurance one gets, it does not change the underlying medical condition and so the anxiety soon returns.
In the words of a young man who wrote to me (shared with his permission):
I’ve learned that it’s all about dismissing the anxiety and training myself to accept the thoughts as background noise, regardless of how real or unpleasant they seem. I’ve found that the condition is fully manageable, but it’s all about training myself, which can be a painstaking process. I’m getting a lot better when it comes to my assurance of salvation. A simple faith union with Jesus is all I need to be forgiven, as this website explains. I’ve learned not to be terrorized by worries that I’m unforgivable. My mind will keep finding new reasons to worry but since no one ever deserves to be forgiven, I cannot possibly do anything to suddenly become undeserving of free grace.
Even if the delay is only short, it is a success because you are proving to yourself that you can exercise a degree of control over this behavior.
When, by using delaying tactics, a person begins to learn to tolerate anxiety, the pressure to engage in the quirky behavior becomes less intense. By delaying the behavior, the person proves to himself that not engaging in the behavior does not kill him, turn him into a pumpkin, or precipitate Armageddon. Gradually he becomes convinced that although it might initially be unpleasant, it really is safe not to engage in the annoying behavior.
To encourage yourself, it is useful to keep records for a few days of how often you engage in repetitive behavior each day and then after a while see if you are now doing it less often. It is inevitable that some days will be more successful than others, so at times you will seem to go backwards. Take great delight, however, in the slightest improvement and realize that any setbacks will only be temporary and are probably due to that day being unusually stressful.
If you have a problem with unwanted thoughts, it has most likely become an ingrained habit to get stressed when the thoughts come. Since stress and relaxation are incompatible (that’s the very reason for learning to relax), you will initially have great difficulty doing the therapeutic exercise while being assaulted with unwanted thoughts. So first practice by doing the exercise on many occasions when you are not having unwanted thoughts.
It takes great persistence to practice anything so often that it changes from feeling foreign to becoming a habit. Nevertheless, you can practice so often that it eventually becomes your unthinking response to disregard guilt feelings, push aside anxiety and simply rest assured in the finished work of Christ. Achieving this is as challenging as someone terrified of spiders learning to relax while harmless spiders crawl over him. That sounds highly demanding – and it is – but the challenge is only psychological. Just as the spiders are harmless, regardless of how a person’s heart pounds, so Christ died for the sins of the world, regardless of how your conscience screams and filthy thoughts repeat. The challenge is to keep disregarding your OCD-affected conscience so persistently that it gradually becomes second nature to ignore it. Mastering the art of ignoring a condemning conscience is not critical to your salvation, it just makes life more peaceful.
I expect that consistently putting this page into practice will be life-transforming for scrupulosity sufferers. Nevertheless, I make one last plea to try combining it with appropriate medication. Opting for medication is actually exercising faith in God. It shows you believe in God’s goodness, faithfulness and righteousness by not accepting a tormenting conscience as being your loving Lord.
When the Bible says there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus and our conscience says there is condemnation, which will we call the liar? Opting for medication declares to the entire spirit realm that you have correctly chosen to regard your conscience as malfunctioning when guilt feelings contradict the basic Christian revelation that Jesus saves from all sin.
Scrupulosity can be spiritually crippling. Honor God by doing everything you can to fight it, including taking medication. You might convince yourself that it is “faith” that is keeping you from seeing a doctor, but could it actually be pride or fear?
Suppose we were missionaries whose vehicle has broken down, thus render us unable to reach the remote peoples we are called to minister to. Would it be honoring to God to refuse to call a mechanic and instead spend years sidelined doing nothing but pray that God “heal” the vehicle? Everyone knows God would expect us to do everything we can to get the vehicle fixed, including seeking human help. What matters is that we leave behind pride and stubbornness and get on with serving God. So why should anyone throw all logic out the door by refusing help from someone who fixes human bodies?
Some anti-depressants can help not just depression but anxiety and OCD. That’s a bonus because some people suffer from all three.
For most illnesses, currently available medical options cannot be guaranteed to work for everyone. Except for a revelation from God himself, however, you will never know how much it could help you unless you try it. If medication works for you, it could help you successfully concrete the truths of this webpage into your life.
The Silver Lining
First the bad news: I have deliberately referred to treating, not curing Religious Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Though the severity can be significantly lowered, a tendency toward scrupulosity is likely to linger for life, even when the full benefits of modern treatments are combined with sound Christian teaching. Religious OCD is like diabetes and many other illnesses that are treatable, but usually stay with a person for life. That is not a spiritual restriction, however. No matter how much we tend to feel false guilt or suffer unwanted thoughts and images, we can still cling in faith to the saving power of Christ. By so doing, OCD becomes an invaluable way to develop faith levels that far exceed what we would have achieved had our life been easier.
When the devil discovers something that annoys a particular person, he has too few new tricks up his sleeve not to keep trying the same old approach over and over until reluctantly becoming utterly convinced that he can get no more mileage out of the one that used to work. Even then, he will go quiet for a while, only to later try another sneak attack. His relentlessness is wearying but it serves us well by providing us with so much practice that we are able to turn a previous weakness into a glorious strength.
As can be the case with anorexia, people suffering scrupulosity can show improvement and then slowly relapse without realizing what is happening. They need regular support from people who will keep reminding them that their problem is an illness, not an indication of spiritual danger. It is recommended that they not isolate themselves but get plenty of fellowship and personal interaction with people.
Before moving on, let’s review these critical words:
Smile, this is harmless temptation
A final word
In the previous webpage we noted that almost all of us have one area of life over which our mind consistently goes haywire, setting off alarms when there is no need for concern. Phobias and anxieties are common examples. Scrupulosity, or religious OCD, is simply another example.
Two popularly known forms of OCD are repeated hand washing and repeated lock checking. What they have in common is excessive worry about whether one has done enough to be safe – in one case, safe from germs, and in the other case, safe from intruders. Religious OCD fits this exactly. It is an excessive worry about whether one has done enough to be spiritually safe.
Another term for excessive worry is irrational fear. Being irrational means that it can no more be resolved by logic than a fear of harmless spiders will disappear by trying to convince someone that the spiders are harmless.
It is highly unpleasant, but for people with a phobia about spiders to voluntarily get close to spiders they must disregard their fears, even when those fears go through the roof. So it is for people with religious OCD. It is unavoidably unpleasant, but they must continually force themselves to stay close to God, even though their fears of rejection and divine displeasure are immense.
If someone refuses to give in to fear, and forces oneself to live with fear for long enough, the fear will eventually begin to fade, whereas giving in to fear simply strengthens the fear.
With a fear of harmless spiders, the problem is the fear, not the spiders. Likewise, with fearing that one is unforgivable, the problem is the fear, not the inability of Christ to forgive. Waiting for fear to magically disappear simply will not work. One has no option but to refuse to give in to the fear/anxiety/guilt feelings. That’s not easy, but the spiritual rewards of such courage are great.
For people with religious OCD, the alarm on their conscience is broken. It keeps going off without reason. False alarms are always annoying and unpleasant and very difficult to distinguish from real alarms. Confusing them from real alarms, however, can be exceedingly distressing. Sadly, most people with this problem keep trusting their broken alarm, foolishly imagining that when they are forgiven, the alarm will stop. This will never happen. The alarm is permanently broken. It will keep blaring even though they are fully forgiven.
Just as a hypochondriac insists he is sick, no matter what a doctor says, and someone with anorexia nervosa insists she is fat, no matter what the mirror and scales tell her, someone with religious OCD will insist he is guilty, unless he stubbornly refuses to believe what his conscience tells him.
You must keep reminding yourself that no one’s conscience is perfect, and OCD has given you a particularly faulty conscience. You have to get used to having unwanted thoughts and going around feeling guilty. Being plagued with guilt feelings is not an indication that anything is wrong. It is simply normal for you. Giving into the guilt feeling by apologizing or whatever method is usual for you, is like an alcoholic giving into a craving for drink. If you give in you’ll feel an immediate relief but it will not be long before the craving returns. Giving in merely worsens the addiction.
When your conscience screams, “Condemned!” and Scripture cries “No condemnation!” it is of no eternal significance whether your heart thumps and palms sweat. The only thing critical to your salvation is what you choose to believe. Will you put your faith in your fallible conscience or in the unfailing power of the cross to declare you cleansed? Once you get that settled, you can spend as long as it takes training yourself to be unconcerned by unwanted thoughts and feelings. Eventually, your emotions will respond to all the practice and slowly die down and the devil will despondently begin to conclude that trying to upset you achieves so little that it isn’t worth all his effort.
No sin is unforgivable, no matter how gross, repeated, deliberate and regardless of whether it is committed after salvation and full spiritual enlightenment, provided you repent and believe Jesus for forgiveness. If you doubt this, see Unforgivable? and the pages it leads to.
If you haven’t read an earlier page, When a Christian Can’t Stop Thinking Blasphemous Thoughts you will want to because it also deals with this subject. Consider also reading, (if you haven’t already) about natural alternatives to medication: Natural Cures for Anxiety-Related Illnesses.
There’s Still More: Religious Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Explained
Not to be sold. © Copyright, 2007, Grantley Morris. Not to be copied in whole or in part without citing this entire paragraph. Many more compassionate, inspiring, sometimes hilarious writings by Grantley Morris available free at the following internet site www.net-burst.net Freely you have received, freely give.
I suggest you follow the above link but if you want a change of pace, the following is here for you.
Feeling Rejected by God An important part of this series of webpages
Unforgivable? The part of the series that deals with the unforgivable sin
Testimonies They thought they were unforgivable
Scriptures Some of the vast number of Scriptures proving that you can be forgiven
How Much Does God Love Me? Your Personal Revelation of God’s Love A separate, very important series
Demons The beginning of a series of webpages
God & Suffering Coping with fears that God might be harsh and unloving
Becoming a Winner Breaking addictions and besetting sins
Index to Entire Site A treasure trove of stimulating, compassionate, often humorous, webpages for Christians by the same author on a vast number of topics. This website is enormous!