Question:

I have a serious and tormenting question. I am a member of the church of Christ and have been for a while. Four years ago I was diagnosed with OCD-religion. This is a mental illness which produces unwanted and intrusive bad thoughts. I have been in pure misery and have been paralyzed by fear over this illness. My thoughts usually center around blame as well as other things. I have been to many doctors, psychiatrists, and church counselors who have chalked it up to anxiety and have prescribed me with medication, but, unfortunately, I still have these tormenting and condemning thoughts.

I am in constant prayer all through the day asking for forgiveness and to be cured of this, but as of today I'm still struggling. Despite these bad thoughts, I continue to go to church worship, study the Bible, and take communion. I even got baptized two times to hopefully comfort my fears, but to no avail.

My church counselor and family assures me that it's my illness, not me, that makes me feel like I'm having the bad thoughts on my own. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed that I think it's me and I must be a really bad person on the inside. I have to recite scriptures in my head daily to help ease the pain and fear. I love God so much. Why, oh why, is this happening to me? I am so afraid I'll commit the unpardonable sin and be sentenced to eternity in hell. I'm always in fear of this. I have no peace in my head. It's pure misery. While some days are good to where I will not have as many pop-ups and I feel better, they eventually pop-up again. Actually there are certain words that produce bad thoughts such as Satan, etc. My head is like a tape recorder and I can't turn it off. Sometimes I can't even read the Bible because my head gets verses tangled up to make a bad thought.

I know this illness is rare and I don't have much support. I have written to you before and you have helped me. I was hoping that you can help me with this issue. Any suggestions? Any comforting words? Anything? Can you reassure me that I will not commit the unpardonable sin in my head? I love God so much and only want to be a good Christian. I find myself feeling jealous and envious of people who seem to have the perfect Christian life and I am suffering every day with continued fear. I recently had a cancer scare and that made my fears even more paralyzing. Please respond if you can help me in any way. I am suffering so much I need peace in my head so bad. Can you help me?

Thanks so much for your time and patience. Hope to hear from you soon.


Answer:

"Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:6-7).

Your description definitely sounds like a classic case of scrupulosity, which is the older term for being obsessive compulsive in matters of religion.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in General

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) afflicts about 2.5% of the population over a lifetime.1 Most of those afflicted with the problem have an irrational fear generated by intrusive thoughts, which they attempt to manage by some compulsive or ritual behavior. Even those suffering from OCD understand that their fear isn't reasonable, but they have difficulty managing it. But notice that there are two halves to the problem, a fear and a response. The responsive behavior might or might not be related to the fear, it is more a way that the person finds "comfort" so as to manage the anxiety. Treatment of OCD focuses on both halves.

First, the person has to realize that their anxiety is not really a part of them. They have a short-circuit in their brain's wiring that makes odd thoughts pop-up in their minds. Actually, it is believed that all people have odd thoughts pop-up, but for the OCD person those thoughts are given great significance. They begin judging themselves for having those thoughts, deciding they must be bad for having them. It is important to understand that most OCD sufferers do not like or enjoy the intruding thoughts. They fear that because those thoughts come that it indicates that it might be true about them. People without OCD have odd thoughts pop up and quickly dismiss them as being irrelevant to who they are. OCD people can't let go of the thoughts.

The odd thing about the way the human brain works is if something is accepted, we tend to forget about it quickly. An example of this is try to meditate on the image of say a moose for five minutes or more. Very quickly your mind wonders off onto other topics. It becomes a struggle to keep the image in your mind. But if we try to force ourselves to forget something, that image keeps worming its way back into our conscience. Again, if I ask you to focus on not thinking about a moose, it will keep popping up in your mind.

Therefore, the first difficult task is to embrace the thought. Things that trigger the thought are purposely invoked so that the person's anxiety about the thought can be dealt with. Repeated exposure deadens the feelings that accompany the thought.3

The second task is related and that is to break the compulsive response to the anxiety. A person faces his fear and then doesn't do what he typically does to "control" his anxiety.

It should be noted that OCD is managed. It typically doesn't go away. Instead the person learns how to properly view their intrusive thoughts, not to get anxious over them, and how to keep from lapsing into compulsive behavior. Flare ups often reoccur at odd times and often the OCD manifests itself in a different way.

Religious Obsessive Compulsive Disorders

When OCD and religion intermix, the results are more difficult to deal with. The intrusive thoughts are known to be bad or sinful, and so a person becomes highly judgmental about the type of person he must be for having such thoughts. Dr. Frank Penzel notes:

Religious obsessions can take on any of the following forms:

  • That the person has sinned or broken a religious law, or displeased their god in some way, either in the past or present, and may therefore go to hell or receive some other punishment
  • That prayers have been omitted or recited incorrectly
  • Repetitive blasphemous thoughts
  • Thoughts about impulsively saying blasphemous words or committing blasphemous acts while attending religious services
  • That the person has lost touch with God or their beliefs in some way
  • Thoughts of being "unworthy" of salvation in some way
  • Intrusive sexual thoughts about God, saints, religious figures, etc.
  • That the person, through negligence, has broken religious laws concerning speech, dress, food preparation, modesty, etc.
  • Intrusive "bad" thoughts or images that occur during prayer, meditation, or other observances that "contaminate" and ruin or cancel out the value of these activities
  • Believing that one's religious practice must be 100% perfect, or else it is worthless or worse
  • Thoughts of being possessed4

Often the thoughts are countered with religious activities. Dr. Frank Penzel lists the following:

Some typical compulsions that are used in response to religious obsessions might include:

  • Saying prayers, or carrying out religious acts repetitively until they are done 'perfectly (a process that can last for hours)
  • Saying prayers or crossing oneself a special "magical" number of times
  • Constantly asking for God's forgiveness, or telling God that you didn't mean what you said or did
  • Rereading passages from holy books over and over to make sure nothing was misunderstood or missed
  • Repeatedly asking religious leaders or authorities the same questions on religious practice to be sure of understanding the answer, or to get reassurance about specific acts or words being sinful
  • Double-checking different religious acts or observances to be sure they were done correctly
  • Repeatedly reviewing past thoughts or actions to determine if they were sinful or not
  • Protecting religious symbols, ornaments, books, or pictures from "contamination"
  • Constantly reviewing one's own words or phrases for double meanings that might have been irreligious or blasphemous
  • Trying to imagine special "good" religious images or thoughts to cancel out "bad" and irreligious images or thoughts
  • When any activity was performed with a blasphemous thought in mind, having to redo it with a "good" thought
  • Excessive confessing of religious misdeeds or sinful behaviors to obtain forgiveness or reassurance
  • Having to carry out religious dietary, dress, or appearance codes perfectly

This list by no means exhausts the possibilities.  They are almost endless. 4

But as Paul noted, such man-made solutions don't work. "Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations-- "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," which all concern things which perish with the using -- according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh" (Colossians 2:20-23).

Treatment of religious OCD is a bit more difficult because it borders on the truth yet is twisted.

Recall that OCD sufferers put too much emphasis on intrusive thoughts. This can manifest itself in a variety of ways according to Laurie Krauth.5

A person might convince himself that having a bad thought is just as bad as actually doing something sinful. Actually, this is a warping of Jesus' statement, "But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). Jesus didn't say if you had a passing thought about a woman (a temptation) that it was the same as committing adultery. He said that if a person looks to lust for a woman has committed adultery in his heart. In other words, when a person contemplates the idea, accepts it as something they want to do, and only lacks the opportunity to do it, then it is little different from actually doing the sin. That is a key difference from most OCD people and other people as well. When we are faced with a thought about sin, our gut reaction is to reject the thought -- that isn't lust!

A variation on this is that a person might convince himself that having a bad thought will lead to the actual action. They discount the fact that they don't like the thought. They don't realize that their hatred of the sin will produce the opposite effect -- they will be less likely to commit such a sin. "I will set nothing wicked before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me. A perverse heart shall depart from me; I will not know wickedness" (Psalm 103:3-4).

The result leads to irrational thinking (again from Laurie Krauth):

Control of thoughts: When people try to control their thoughts, they usually find the thoughts become harder to prevent. (Try that old experiment: first attempt to think about a brown bear for five minutes, noticing how often your mind drifts. Then try not to think of it for five minutes. You discover that a thought becomes more tenacious when you try to stifle it.) Scrupulosity sufferers are distraught that inappropriate thoughts enter their mind. Instead of dismissing them with a shrug as people without OCD do, they become horrified that they had the thoughts at all and try to stifle them, which has the opposite effect.

Intolerance of uncertainty:  Sufferers need to know absolutely that they are morally or religiously in the right because they believe that the consequences, such as eternal damnation, will be severe if they are wrong. For example, when John tried to reassure himself that he was good, it led to over-analysis of his past thoughts and deeds, paralysis, and senseless rituals and avoidance.

Emotional reasoning: People with OCD think that if they feel something, it must be true, regardless of the evidence. So even though John knew he was committed to keeping his children safe, if his senseless harm obsessions worried him, he took that worry as evidence that they truly were in danger from him.

All-or-nothing thinking: Scrupulosity sufferers believe that if they don’t practice their faith perfectly, they have failed. When John had a bad thought in church, it virtually wiped out the good in his otherwise constant devotion.5

The Solution

The solution is found in the passage I quoted at the beginning from Philippians 4:6-7.

First, you need to face your fears. Purposely expose yourself to the thoughts that trigger your anxiety. One method is to write out a script of your obsessive thought and what you fear will result. Record it and play it back repeatedly. This will get you use to the idea and allow you to actually consider it without your emotions getting in the way. After a while you will get to the point that you realize it isn't a rational fear.

Then take it to God in prayer. Let God worry about it.

Next, be thankful! It is easy to get so focused on bad things that we forget all the blessings God has given us. If we really appreciate all of God's bounteous gifts, then you will realize that fears of God's rejection is really a lack of appreciation of God's love and faith in His promises. So start trying to enumerate God's blessings in your life and put life back into proper perspective.

The result will be peace, which is what we all need.

Resources:

  1. Antony, M. M.; F. Downie & R. P. Swinson. "Diagnostic issues and epidemiology in obsessive–compulsive disorder". in Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder: Theory, Research, and Treatment, eds. M. M. Antony; S. Rachman; M. A. Richter & R. P. Swinson. New York: The Guilford Press, 1998, pp. 3-32.
  2. Wikipedia: Obsessive-Compulive Disorders
  3. Morelli, Frank; Obsessions Are Not the Real Problem, Change Your Thinking
  4. Penzel, Fred; Let Him Who Is Without Sin: OCD and Religion
  5. Krauth, Laurie; Scrupulosity: Blackmailed by OCD in the Name of God

While I appreciate all the information you provided, I am still very worried that I have committed the unforgivable sin in my head. Can you reassure me I haven't done that? I'm very terrified and need some relief! Some say it's rejecting God's word. Some say it can't be done in this day and time. Please define blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. You seem to be very informative with this subject. Have you dealt with this problem with other people? Please respond. I need reassurance I'm OK. There's no way I can blaspheme when I love and believe in Jesus, right? Hope to hear from you soon.

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).

It appears that not much of what I wrote registered with you. You are doing the very thing I warned you about. The problem is that I can't reassure you because I can't give you faith. I can explain it until I'm exhausted and you will still seek reassurance because of your lack of control over your OCD.

There is plenty of answers to questions regarding "the unforgivable sin" and "blasphemy of the Holy Spirit." I try to avoid repeating topics. See:

Blasphemy Against the Holy Ghost
What is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?
Can you be forgiven after blaspheming?
Doubts about possibly blaspheming the Holy Spirit
How can I be assured God will forgive me?
Is it possible for a person to blaspheme today?

I just wanted to say I'm sorry for bothering you so much. I'm living in such an awful state of mind. I am, however, so amazed at how you are so aware of scrupolosity. Many people have never heard of it. I'm so glad I found you and that you understand. Even my church counselor has never heard of it and still denies the fact that I have OCD. He thinks I just have anxiety. He thinks of OCD as counting, skipping, etc. I have read and reread the information you sent over and over. My psychatrist agrees with you that I must accept the thoughts like a passing cloud, no matter how awful they are. She suggested that I do not pray afterwards, but I feel I must.

I do have faith in God and I know He knows my heart. Also this illness makes me feel like I'm the bad person, not the OCD. Thats why I feel like I need the reassurance from others. I love God very much and believe in Him, trust Him, and have faith in Him, but it all just gets so overwhelming at times. I have not rejected God. I still go to church regularly worship and pray.

I think it's only natural that a person feel scared with these awful thoughts due to OCD. I still have trouble of letting go of prayer after intrusive thoughts. And, yes, that does weaken my faith at times, but I know deep down inside that God knows this condition and will not punish me for something I can't control.

You mentioned faith before. Are you saying my sometimes lack of faith during my thoughts is blashemy? How can I, when I love cherish and believe with all my heart, and I will never turn away from God? I will continue to stay strong despite the thoughts.

People without this illness has no idea of the fear and torment that comes along with this illness. So as long as I keep the faith (believing in God's promise) and continue to walk in the light of Christ there is no way I can blaspheme, right? I know I sound like I'm doubting again and it makes me feel awful, but, you're right, I just need reassurance of my salvation.

I hope you will respond. Thanks for being so understanding and not judgemental. I appreciate all the help you can give me. Please pray for me daily.

One of the difficult parts of dealing with religious OCD is that some of the things you need to do sound on the surface to be the opposite of what you should be doing. When your psychiatrist tells you not to pray in response to an OCD compulsion, it is not because she doesn't want you to pray. The problem that OCD people don't realize is that it isn't a real prayer.

I know, it sounds shocking, but you know that the anxiety isn't due to a real problem. Thus you pray out of compulsion to pray and not from a real need. Think of it in terms of the OCD person who because of anxiety over germs feels the need to wash his hands. He'll wash so many times his hands are raw. Worse, there was no real need to wash, so the scrubbing was a worthless effort. You're doing the same thing with prayer.

Pray because you have real things to pray about, but don't pray because you are feeling a compulsive urge to pray as a result of being anxious. You need to develop control over your impulses and not give in to them just because they sound righteous on the surface.

The reason I'm challenging your faith is because you are not accepting what God said in the Bible. Instead you are seeking out what other people tell you. Therefore, without realizing it you are putting more trust in men than in God. You know from a factual basis that you are doing what God wants you to do, yet you are not willing to let that be enough. That is what you must master. That is a part of building your faith to a higher level than it is currently.

Notice, too, that I haven't said you can't control your OCD. You can. Others have done so and you can too. It takes a lot of effort, but time is better spent in that effort than in anxiety.

Nor will I tell someone that they can't commit a particular sin. Sin is always crouching at the door and if we fool ourselves into thinking that we can't fall for a particular trap, then we won't be on guard against it. "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (I Corinthians 10:12). At this moment, you don't understand what blasphemy truly is. As a result, you see it in every little thought. I gave you material to read to learn what it is and I rather you learn for yourself. But one important point is that someone who blasphemes God doesn't care what God or anyone else thinks about what he has done. Currently you do care. That is why I know your fears are empty ones coming from your OCD.

The key to managing your OCD is learning to distinguish real problems and concerns from the empty ones that come from OCD. It takes practice -- lots of practice. Yes, I do understand the torment you go through. I have a good friend who has scrupulosity. He has flare ups once in a while, but for the most part he is able to keep it under control. I think you can do it too.