By Esther Smith
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental disorder that occurs when people experience overwhelming anxious and intrusive thoughts called obsessions. In response to these obsessions, they engage in rituals and behaviors called compulsions that temporarily reduce their anxiety.
The common stereotype of a person with OCD is someone who is obsessively clean and orderly, but in reality, symptoms of OCD come in many forms. One particular type of OCD is known as scrupulosity or religious OCD, which involves obsessions and compulsions related to religious beliefs.
Here are some thoughts and behaviors a Christian with religious OCD might experience:
- Obsessive thoughts regarding assurance of salvation.
- Obsessive thoughts regarding specific sins, such as fear of committing an unpardonable sin, fear of grieving the Holy Spirit, or constantly wondering if certain actions are sinful or not. This can lead to a legalistic approach to life and a desire to live as perfectly as possible.
- Intrusive thoughts related to blaspheming or angering God.
- Obsessive thoughts and fears related to specific verses in Scripture that talk about judgement, hell, or other difficult topics. This can lead to either avoiding these passages or fixating on them.
- Constant searching for reassurance in Scripture, through prayer, and from people.
- Compulsive and repetitive confession of sin to God and other people.
Perhaps you can see yourself in these thoughts and beliefs. If so, what should you do?
Here are some important truths and actions to live by that specifically engage the heart of those who struggle with scrupulosity. Read through each truth carefully. Then consider the action that comes out of each truth and what it might look like in your own life.
- Christ’s sacrifice is complete. If you confess your sins, he is faithful and just to forgive your sins (John 1:9). Christ’s once and for all sacrifice means repetitive offerings of confession are meaningless and unnecessary (Hebrews 10:1-18). Your works cannot save you, which means legalistic strategies to avoid what may or may not be sin are in vain.
Action: Only confess one time when you sin. In general, focus on the heart of what God commands, instead of basing your life around legalistic rules.
- God speaks through all of Scripture. Each individual passage in Scripture must be interpreted in light of all of Scripture, which means fixating on or avoiding one verse that you find challenging will lead to an untrue interpretation. See all of Scripture in light of God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice.
Action: Sit with the discomfort of passages you find most challenging without engaging in unnecessary confession or reassurance. Then read further and deeper into all of God’s Word, discovering the whole of his message.
- Your thoughts are not as powerful as you think. Just because a thought crosses your mind does not mean it’s true or even that you actually believe it. For example, a person with OCD may experience an intrusive thought about blaspheming God that feels uncontrollable, distressing, and completely against every aspect of who they desire to be. There is grace for intrusive thoughts such as these.
Action: Remind yourself that intrusive thoughts are not as powerful or meaningful as they feel. Respond to these thoughts calmly, and as much as you are able, avoid engaging in whatever compulsion feels necessary in the moment. Remind yourself that intrusive thoughts can be related to physical and cognitive changes in the brain that don’t always represent a person’s heart. They will dissipate over time if you acknowledge them without fear.
You might notice that each of these truths leads to an action that challenges you to abandon compulsions and rituals that are common in OCD. They ask you to live in light of truth, even when your body and your mind desire control.
When you live out of God’s truth in this way, you are also treating the physical component of OCD. The most common secular treatment for OCD is known as exposure and response prevention therapy. It encourages you to expose yourself to your fears (i.e. your sin, difficult passages of Scripture, etc…), and then respond by stopping any desired compulsions (i.e. repetitive confession, reassurance, legalistic actions, etc…).
When people engage in new patterns and habits of living – stopping the compulsions they so desperately want to complete – it impacts the structure and function of the brain. The neural pathways that have supported OCD thoughts and behaviors are broken, while new neural pathways are created that support healthier ways of thinking and being. When we live life as God desires, it brings both our hearts and our brains back to places of health.
There is hope for scrupulosity. While change takes time, it is possible to find freedom from this challenging struggle that impacts many Christians.