Having lived with OCD for quite some time and experienced a lot of diverse obsessional themes, I can tell you that any persistent or long-held obsession is going to create a painful and debilitating level of anxiety, often accompanied by depression.
In order to demonstrate a level of respect and empathy for others, it is important for those of us with OCD to recognize that while our obsessional themes may differ, this doesn’t mean that our experience is more legitimate or painful than that of others.
“Religious OCD” or scrupulosity may not seem like a big deal to a person with OCD who isn’t a Christian but to those of us who have struggled with it, it is a very big deal. It might not even seem to be all that big of a deal to a psychologist who isn’t a Christian, because they cannot relate to the experience of being a Christian in comparison to the things which they deem to be real/legitimate to their own experiences. And, conversely; it might seem like a really big deal to a pastor who is trying to help someone who is suffering from religious OCD, but this may be because he might misunderstand it to be a spiritual problem instead of seeing it as a disorder.
These types of errant views about religious OCD can make the person who is afflicted feel even more isolated in their suffering. The isolation might go on for a very long time until they encounter other Christians who are going through the same thing or happen upon a Christian psychologist who specializes in the treatment of OCD.
The truth of the matter is that for the person with OCD who struggles with blasphemous thoughts or unrelenting questions and doubts concerning their relationship to God, it’s sheer torture. John Bunyan in describing how this form of OCD impacted him said: “Of all the temptations that ever I met with in my life, to question the being of God, and the truth of His gospel, is the worst, and the worst to be borne; when this temptation comes, it takes away my girdle from me, and removeth the foundation from under me.” (1)
While it may be true that most genuine believers will likely experience doubt at some point in their lives, most often it is of the fleeting sort and most definitely the sort which is laid to rest by the reassurance and truth’ of the Word of God. C.S. Lewis seemed to believe this to be the case when he wrote: “The soul that has once been waked, or stung, or uplifted by the desire for God, will inevitably (I think) awake to the fear of losing Him.” (2)
The experience of religious OCD is, however, entirely different; in cause, in duration and in the level of suffering it creates in the person who is afflicted.
The reason I wanted to address this form of OCD is that recently I’ve encountered a mindset on several OCD forums which either minimizes it in comparison to other obsessional themes or suggests that deep down the person who is experiencing it doesn’t really believe in God and therefore, should just let go of any or all efforts to know God or pursue religion of any sort.
Both of these attitudes err in regard to what it’s really like for the genuine believer to suffer from religious OCD and also in regard to what to do about it.
The first mindset suggests that the experience of Religious OCD cannot compare to the pain of other obsessions because to those who are making this assertion, religion is just a point of view rather than the foundation and underpinnings of a persons life. But, for the true Christian, religion isn’t just a point of view. Their “religion” is based in a very real and very meaningful relationship with the person of Jesus Christ. For those of us who have entered into this relationship, it is the central and most important aspect of what being fully human is. Our experience is different from the unbeliever because, “in Him, we live and move and have our being.” (3)
The second mindset completely dismisses the experience of religious OCD as being legitimate because the persons who are making this assertion feel that any belief in God is utterly nonsensical. To them, being anxious over the loss of a relationship with Christ would be akin to an adult falling apart because they weren’t sure that Santa Claus was real.
I have had several online conversations with people on OCD forums who have suggested to me that my “religious” obsessions could be easily overcome just by my admitting that deep down I didn’t really believe in God at all. These same people are quick to acknowledge the legitimacy of, as well as the agony that obsessions about contamination, health, sexual orientation, harming themes and themes which threaten their closest human relationships create. And yet, they remain dismissive of my experience of religious OCD.
Several of them have said things like; ” Yeah, I used to struggle with fears about God, but I finally realized that there isn’t any God, so I stopped going to church and now I’m not bothered by it any more.” Their solution to religious OCD is to suggest avoidance. Little do they realize that avoidance won’t work for a person who truly loves Christ any more than it would work for the person who is struggling with harming themes or relationship themes in regard to a close family member. The only thing that avoidance accomplishes in all these forms of OCD is to validate the obsessional fear and thereby bring even more distress and anxiety to the sufferer. These individuals would never suggest that the person who is suffering from harming obsessions or relationship OCD should avoid their child or their spouse, so why would they suggest that the Christian avoid Christ? The only answer I can come up with, is that they aren’t or never really were true believers and followers of Christ. They’ve never really understood what it means to have a relationship with Christ. They have never had the opportunity to actually; “taste and see that the Lord is good”, in the way that I have. (4)
My goal in sharing about my religious OCD is to reach out to those who are struggling and feeling isolated and alone in their experience. I want them to know that there are others out there who truly “get” what they are going through and therefore, can empathize and offer up encouragement and hope.
Religious OCD, while it has it’s roots in an actual disorder of the brain, also has it’s roots in the fact that OCD can only create obsessional themes about that which is nearest and dearest to the sufferer. And, for the Christian who is afflicted with OCD, it is, just as CS Lewis suggested, only natural that it would eventually pick on the most important relationship in one’s life.
To read more about my experiences with OCD please check out my E-book on Amazon at the following link:
(1)”Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners”: John Bunyan, Penguin Books Ltd.
(2) “Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer”, CS Lewis, Harcourt, Inc., Chapter Fourteen, Page 76.
(3) Acts 17:28 NIV Bible
(4) Psalm 34:8 NIV Bible
Mitzi VanCleve is a mother and an author with a very powerful witness of how God has provided her with grace and strength through her personal experience with OCD and Social Anxiety Disorder. She’s recently launched a new blog, The OCD Christian to offer hope and encouragement to others experiencing similar struggles. Her book, Strivings Within-The OCD Christian is available at Amazon.