Religious Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:
Simple, Effective Treatment
Self-Help that Works
A Christian alternative to cognitive-behavioral therapy in treating or seeking to cure guilt feelings and unwanted blasphemous thoughts (scrupulosity)
As explained in the previous pages, beginning with Scrupulosity: Oppressive Guilt Feelings, it is surprisingly common for Christians to be hounded by unwanted blasphemous thoughts or by fears that they are unforgivable. If concerns about this are not dismissed by a few simple explanations of biblical truth, then the underlying problem is probably not theological, nor hardness of heart, but a medical illness known as scrupulosity or religious Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
We learnt in the previous pages that certain medicines often help, and I suggest you try them. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has also been found helpful. Since neither of these treatments is expected to act as a full cure but merely lower the severity of the symptoms, it is often recommended that both treatments be combined.
I have no hesitation about cognitive-behavior therapy when it comes to sorting out non-religious fears, although there is sometimes quite a waiting list for those seeking treatment. A difficulty with cognitive-behavioral therapy, however, is that it is often not tailored specifically to scrupulosity and, especially with non-Christian therapists, some Christian OCD sufferers may feel uncomfortable about using it.
In this webpage I’ll attempt an authentically Christian approach.
The Spiritual Dimension
I delight in psychology – I have a degree in it – and I love science, but no matter how sophisticated psychology and the latest scientific advances might seem, they are primitive and pathetically shallow, relative to what Jesus empowers us to tap into. In this webpage I will not hesitate to go deeper than modern science, and expose the spiritual elements of scrupulosity (religious Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). We are free to draw upon modern secular insights but I make no apology for believing that the eternal Son of God knows more about spiritual reality than those who limit themselves to studying the physical world.
The Bible insists that to be a friend of God is to gain supernatural enemies (Ephesians 6:11-12; 1 Peter 5:8; James 4:7; 2 Corinthians 2:11; Luke 22:31). These despicable deceivers would love to con us out of our rightful spiritual inheritance. We all suffer the same basic temptations, teaches 1 Corinthians 10:13. If our spiritual enemies find a particular area of vulnerability, however, that is where we can expect them to focus their attack. No matter how real the medical and psychological factors in scrupulosity, we can be sure that spiritual forces will seize the opportunity to exploit them for their evil purposes.
After forty days in the wilderness, Jesus’ hunger had a medical basis. His body was dangerously low in essential nutrients. That is not particularly insightful, however, no matter how stunningly detailed the scientific exploration of all the physiological, biochemical and psychological factors involved. In fact, we would lose the most critical dimension of the story if we focused solely on the physical and psychological. A medical explanation of Jesus’ experience does not alter the reality of the role of the Tempter. On the contrary, it highlights how cruel the devil was in choosing that moment to try to pressure Jesus to turn stones into bread. Likewise, a medical explanation of scrupulosity does not negate the reality of the spiritual battle taking place when someone suffers unwanted thoughts or unwarranted guilt feelings; it merely highlights the intensity of the battle and how dirty the evil one plays in choosing our weakest moment and our area of greatest vulnerability.
Like it or not, anyone grappling with scrupulosity is engaged in spiritual warfare, and to win any battle, it is critical to know one’s enemy and his objectives.
Know Your Enemy
A wily old store detective was nearing retirement when he first spied a woman suspiciously stuffing things into her enormous handbag. Instantly, he recognized her as a notorious shoplifter who got her thrills out of stealing. She didn’t care what she stole, as long as she stole. He waited until she had passed through the checkout and then stopped her, insisting that she open her bulging handbag. He sifted through the entire contents and found nothing belonging to the store. Not to be fooled, he carefully examined the lining but still found nothing. Annoyed, he had to let her go.
The next day the detective again caught her trying to sneak past the checkout with her handbag overfull. Again he found nothing. Over the next few months, this scenario was played out twenty or thirty times, with the detective almost out of his mind with frustration. Though oversized, it looked a normal handbag. Where was the hidden compartment? Was her scheme to lull him into always expecting her to have a crammed handbag so that one day her bag would indeed have stolen goods in it but he would let it pass unchecked?
Finally, he told her, “I give up! I’m retiring today and if you don’t tell me, this will haunt me until my dying day. Here’s five hundred dollars. I’m a man of my word. I know you’re up to something that will cost the store. Just tell me what in the world it is, and I promise you, I won’t report it.”
The woman took his money, pointed to her huge handbag and said, “I’ve been stealing handbags.”
The devil tries to pull a similar stunt with us. We suppose he is trying to get us to blaspheme, or to doubt some doctrine, and we get more and more agitated as we fight what seems a losing battle on that front, when that is not the sly snake’s ploy at all. He couldn’t care less about the thoughts and doubts he sets buzzing around and around in our heads. He’s too smart to think we would be judged for that. After all, they are his thoughts, not ours. Any human might as well try to stop the ocean tide from coming in, as try to stop unwanted thoughts or images from popping into his or her head. While we are frustrated out of our minds trying to battle unwanted thoughts and doubts, we are distracted from the real issue, which is that salvation is by faith, not works. Our eternal destiny hinges on us resting in the finished work of Christ, not by striving to avoid certain thoughts or feelings.
Like that shoplifter, the devil is always trying to get our attention off his real scheme. He is acutely aware that the critical issue is the unlimited forgiving power of Christ’s sacrifice, so he is forever trying to get our eyes off it. He will try to get us focused on past sins instead of present forgiveness, or on our inability to save ourselves rather than on our Savior’s infinite ability. Or he will try to trick us into becoming so preoccupied with needlessly worrying about dishonoring God with words that we do not even mean, that we don’t notice that we are dishonoring God by not believing the extent of his love and forgiveness, even towards those of us who feel certain we are the worst sinners ever to walk this planet. Or the enemy will entice us to fear Scriptures that apply only to people who until their dying day stubbornly refuse to repent of their deliberate sin/backsliding and refuse to seek forgiveness through Jesus. The Deceiver’s hope is that we become so alarmed by the few words in Scripture that do not apply to us that we lose sight of the enormous number of joyous Scriptures that do apply – those promising salvation to everyone who repents and believes in Christ.
God has not given us a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7). He urged us to be anxious about nothing (Philippians 4:6). And there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1,34). So if fear or anxiety or condemnation comes upon us who believe in Jesus, it is not from God. It is simply a dirty trick of the enemy trying to get us to take our eyes off the infinite saving power of Christ.
We noted in the previous webpage that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is an anxiety disorder. It is fear/anxiety that keeps us hounded by doubts, guilt feelings or unwanted thoughts that keep repeating in our minds. It is the very nature of deceiving spirits to foster and exploit fear for their evil purposes, and their highest goal is to fool us into losing faith in Christ’s power to save us.
Three Lies We Must Tackle Head-On
1. If I am forgiven, I will “feel” forgiven
Is salvation by faith or by feelings? The Bible insists that faith is the certainty of things hoped for (Hebrews 11:1), and that feelings can be dangerously deceptive. For instance, it says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12, repeated in 16:25). So what “feels” right means nothing. What matters is what we believe about the forgiving power of Christ’s sacrifice, not what we feel.
Do you suppose Abraham, Scripture’s faith role model, always felt like the Father of Many Nations after God’s promise to him?
The proof of faith is not that we feel forgiven. Faith is proved solely by us choosing to keep believing, no matter what we feel. The God of truth operates through promises. The enemy of our souls operates through fear and deception, and his most common means of deception is to mess with our feelings.
Have you ever stopped to ponder where the conscience is located in the human body? It might feel as if it is in the heart or stomach, but in reality the human conscience must be located somewhere in the brain. We noted in the previous page that much evidence points to OCD being associated with an abnormality in the brain. This is no coincidence. Either directly or indirectly, this abnormality messes with the conscience. And that is not to imply that anyone has an infallible conscience. Even the apostle Paul said he could not rely on his conscience (Scriptures).
Here’s something you should tattoo on your brain:
For anyone with OCD, conscience is all con and no science.
We must serve and worship God, not our conscience. To make Jesus our Lord and Savior, we must reject our fallible consciences whenever, by condemning us, our consciences contradict God’s promise to forgive all – no exceptions – who repent and put their faith in Jesus.
Let’s move to the next lie to avoid at all costs.
2. If I am forgiven, God will “tell” me I’m forgiven
God has already told you over and over in his Word, putting it in black and white and signing it in the blood of Jesus that whoever believes in Jesus will receive eternal life. Do you think God says to himself, “I might have lied in the Bible. I’d better give a sign that I’m really telling the truth this time”?
From Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man, we learn that if we doubt God’s written promises (called in the parable “[the writings of] Moses and the prophets”) we’ll even doubt if someone were to return from the dead, jump in front of us, and swear on a stack of death certificates that it is true (Luke 16:27-31). Sure, ahead of time we feel certain that a sign is all we need, but after the sign, doubts would again begin to gnaw at us, as they did for Gideon after he asked for a sign (Judges 6:37-39). This is particularly true of anyone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, since this illness, which has been called pathological doubt, causes people to crave an impossible or ridiculous degree of certainty.
If all uncertainty were removed, there would be no room for faith, and faith is the very thing that is critical to God’s plan of salvation.
Now let’s explode the final lie.
3. If God approves of me, my bad thoughts will stop
Anyone who could avoid ants at a picnic, wrinkles at a retirement village, and sand in the Sahara, would still find temptation unavoidable. Temptation is as certain as gravity and it is sure to come in the form of unwelcome thoughts, images, doubts or cravings. And for anyone suffering from OCD, such annoyances as unwanted thoughts will be particularly frequent.
Intrusive, ungodly thoughts are like having an offensive movie beamed directly into your brain so that nothing – not closing your eyes or blocking your ears or anything else – can keep it out. The Tempter has that power, and the more his actions upset someone, the more he is spurred on to keep up the attack. Being assaulted by unwanted thoughts or feelings is not sin. It’s unavoidable. God allows such temptation because he has faith in you. He trusts you to keep believing, and resting, in the unlimited power of Christ’s salvation to spiritually preserve you, no matter how strong the attack.
So it is critical to stop chasing mirages. Looking to thoughts, feelings, or signs is to fall for a deadly trick of the enemy. They are unscriptural and sabotage saving faith. John 3:16 is true, along with all the countless other scriptures in which God promises salvation to every person who believes in Jesus. God wants no one to perish (2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:3-4) and has promised never to leave nor forsake any who put their faith in him. It’s ludicrous to suppose that God’s written, ironclad promises ever need confirmation. It is illogical and futile and even insulting God, to ever expect a feeling or sign or the ending of bad thoughts to confirm that you are included when the Bible over and over says that God’s loving forgiveness is for “whoever,” “all,” “every,” “anyone,” etc.
I stated earlier that people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder feel the need for an impossible or ridiculous degree of certainty. To drive this home let’s consider a couple of concrete examples. Normal people tolerate the slight chance that their hands might be contaminated, without feeling the need to wash their hands dozens of times a day. The chance that you have forgotten to lock the door is pretty remote after having re-checked it six times in the last hour, and yet people whose OCD focuses on locks, still feel unsure about whether it is locked. So when OCD turns religious you can expect the doubts to be oppressively strong. It is not that people with OCD have little faith; this affliction challenges anyone’s faith to extraordinary levels.
For a pain-ridden paraplegic to believe God loves him dearly, takes greater faith than for someone in the peak of health. Likewise, for someone crippled by guilt feelings or unwanted thoughts – someone with religious OCD, in fact – to maintain faith in Christ’s salvation takes way above ordinary faith. That seems unfair but it is no more unfair than a coach who insists that his best athlete train far harder than average athletes. Though you feel insignificant and even a failure, you are a spiritual champion in the making, just like Abraham, who became the faith hero of millions as a direct result of being denied the child he craved year after year.
If your car is stuck in mud, the worst thing you can do is give in to panic and rev the engine. To panic and try harder seems the natural thing to do, but the more you spin the wheels, the deeper you sink. You need to stop, calm down, and try a completely different approach, such as getting out of your car and putting rocks and branches under the wheels.
Trying to stop bad thoughts or images or guilt feelings or doubts, or expecting some sort of personal “sign” that Jesus really does forgive every sin, is like spinning the wheels. It feels the right thing to do, but it just makes you sink further. You need to calm down and try a very different approach.
Remind yourself that all Christians have horrid, out-of-character thoughts, but only some of us get so disturbed by them that our very desperation not to think them causes the thoughts to so stand out in our minds that they keep repeating like a spinning car tire.
Unwanted thoughts are like watching a horror movie. If we let ourselves get caught up with what we are viewing, we can imagine that we are so personally involved that we fill with terror. We need to step back and remind ourselves that we are safe and that it is only a movie. Don’t be shocked or depressed by the thoughts that come into your mind. They no more reveal the person you really are than a movie does. Don’t make the devil’s day by beating yourself up over them.
I believe that modern treatment is most effective when combined with something that Jesus instigated – spiritual warfare. We should follow Jesus’ lead and go on the spiritual offensive by rebuking the spiritual powers that seek to entice us with evil thoughts or doubts. Twice, Scripture records instances when evil thoughts were being speared into Jesus’ mind and he responded by rebuking the devil (Matthew 4:10; 16:23). In the second instance, the thought seemed to be of human origin (Peter) but Jesus saw beyond the obvious, to the spiritual origin and attacked the spiritual source, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!”
Rebuking Satan or a demon that is the spiritual source of the temptation, or who is exploiting a medical condition, is not only spiritually correct, it gives the strong psychological advantage of not being fooled into taking ownership of the thoughts. The God who sees our hearts does not hold you responsible for thoughts you do not want. They are intruders.
Since OCD makes us vulnerable to creating compulsive rituals that we repeat over and over, please try to avoid turning rebuking the devil into a compulsive ritual. Nevertheless, here is an example of a prayer I suggest you pray once a day for a while. Choose not to do this when you are anxious, but at a time of day when you are at peace:
Like so many other devoted Christians, I’m hounded by guilt feelings and plagued with worry that I’m not good enough. The very heart of the gospel, however, is that forgiveness belongs to everyone who admits he or she is not good enough, and believes that Jesus is good enough – that faith in Jesus’ righteousness can cover any sin that anyone repents of.
I cannot stop my guilt feelings any more than I can stop the wind from blowing. But rather than honor the enormity of my sin and exalt it above you, I choose to honor you by believing in the far greater enormity of your grace. No matter how terrifyingly big my sins, your love and forgiveness is bigger still. Thank you that because you are love and never change, you cannot stop loving me and wanting to forgive me, no matter what I do.
[Say the following out loud, firmly and calmly:]
In the name of Jesus I address any demonic powers that would seek to exploit any physical or psychological weakness I may have. I rebuke you and command you to leave! No matter how clever your attempted bluff, you have no power over me and I am spiritually safe because my faith is in the infinite saving power of the Lord Jesus. I cling to the Savior who promised never to leave me nor forsake me (Hebrews 13:5; John 6:37; 10:28-29). I refuse to be duped out of my Christ-bought rights. My faith is not in the presence or absence of guilt feelings, or some other quirky sign, but exclusively in the saving power of Jesus who died for the sins of the entire world. Evil spirits, you are defeated. The blood of Jesus cleanses me from all sin. And this is true, no matter what feelings or thoughts come upon me.
Three Things To Know About Rebuking the Devil
1. It is not true that if we do this “correctly” we will not have further attacks. We noted in the previous webpage that when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness and eventually won over every temptation, Luke 4:13 merely states that the devil “departed from him for a season” (KJV) or “until an opportune time (NIV).”
Like daily taking up one’s cross, daily resisting achieves great things spiritually.
The proof of great faith is not instant deliverance. In fact, the famous “Faith Chapter” fanfares as examples of great faith those who “were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated . . .” (Hebrews 11:35-37). It jubilantly proclaims that not one of the faith heroes mentioned in the chapter “received what had been promised” (Hebrews 11:39 – see also verse 13). That is what made them great. They received stupendous reward, of course, but not on this side of eternity.
2. It is best to go on the offensive and rebuke evil spirits in Jesus’ name when we are not currently under attack. Affirm both to God and the entire realm of evil spirits that no matter what intrusive thoughts invade our mind, we will hold on to belief in the forgiving power of Jesus’ sacrifice to cleanse us from all sin and that our salvation rests in our faith in that sacrifice, not in our works or what we think or feel.
3. When an attack actually occurs, we should try to avoid getting annoyed at ourselves or even at the devil. With OCD, increasing our anxiety/stress level, or any compulsory behavior (including rebuking the devil) only inflames the problem. Be like Jesus who turned the other cheek when attacked. “ . . . as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Demons are like ruffians taunting someone, or children teasing a child. If the one being teased doesn’t react, but appears calm and unconcerned, those being nasty begin to lose interest and give up. They feed off someone getting angry or obviously upset.
Suppose you work with bullies who hate you because you are a Christian. If they discovered that blaspheming God in your presence and making sexually offensive remarks annoys you, then that is exactly what they will do. Getting angry or begging them to stop will just encourage them to continue. The way to lower the incidence of their disgusting behavior in your presence is to do your utmost to ignore it and to show no reaction.
So it is with us. In the spiritual realm we are surrounded by enemies who hate God and get their kicks out of annoying God’s people. So when we get upset, it makes their day. They will keep firing offensive things into our heads. The way to lower the incidence is to do our best to keep calm and ignore it. By doing so, we leave our spiritual enemies like bloodsuckers on polished steel. And resisting the urge to get upset by unwanted thoughts and feelings delights God because it demonstrates faith in God’s love and justice. By refusing to get upset, we are boldly declaring to ourselves and the entire spirit realm our faith in the love and moral integrity of our Savior, since it would neither be loving nor just to condemn anyone for thoughts the person does not want. And even if we have sometimes wanted evil thoughts, we can still be at peace because God forgives everyone who seeks forgiveness through Jesus.
So, though the general principles were around long before modern science, here is your opportunity to employ the wisdom of cognitive-behavioral therapy. When unwanted thoughts or fears hit, do your best not to let the attack distress you. Let it wash over you, keeping as calm and unconcerned as you can. The thoughts or images won’t hurt you, and God does not accuse you. He knows, even better than you do, that these thoughts are no more yours than they were Job’s when his wife told him to curse God and die, or were thoughts originating from Jesus’ heart when the devil spoke to him of bowing down and worshiping the devil. Temptation usually takes the form of thoughts being satanically placed on our minds, and temptation is not sin.
When you reach the point where you could not care less whether or not you are attacked by doubts, oppressive guilt feelings or spiritually repulsive thoughts, the attacks themselves will lessen. That’s a psychological fact, since anxiety is a driving force behind Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Moreover it is a spiritual fact: when evil powers are thoroughly convinced that they can no longer use such things as unwanted thoughts to annoy you, or undermine your faith in Christ’s salvation, they will eventually begin to tire of that approach and only try it now and again, just to check that you have not reverted to being concerned by such attacks. However, reducing the attacks is not the goal at all. That would be a meaningless victory. Anyone can be victorious when not attacked. The goal is to glorify God by believing in the power of Christ’s forgiveness, regardless of whether the attacks continue every few minutes of every day for the rest of your life.
The spiritual powers firing unwanted thoughts into our heads are deceivers, and we make their day whenever we fall into their trap of supposing that their plan is to get us to think or feel wrong things. They hope to get us distracted by that so that they can ambush us. Their evil scheme is not to entice us to think or feel anti-God things but to dupe us into denying the saving power of Christ by us ceasing to believe in Jesus’ power to continually forgive every person who repents and puts faith in him.
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
(Even Jesus suffered temptation).
Temptation is attempted deception.
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:
Through Jesus’ death, God forgives my every sin.
The above eight lines are the skeleton of what I call the therapeutic exercise. In the next page we will explore this deeper.
If you need to take a break, please do, but when you start feeling disturbed again, there is no point in e-mailing me. You will need to keep reading this series of webpages.
Next: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Therapy
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.