When OCD Gets Religious

right and wrongBoth before and after I became a Christian I was a worried adolescent. I was terrified that I’d done something dreadful – much worse than other people. Forgiveness and acceptance might hold for the other folks: but in my case, well…I’m wasn’t so sure.  In my head, there were all sorts of reasons why I didn’t deserve the grace given to others. 

For some people, this is an ongoing and painful reality.  They’re literally obsessed with their sin –  believing that just thinking something (e.g; blaspheming Jesus) is the same as the action itself. When these obsessions take over, sometimes it gets to the point of a psychiatric diagnosis: ‘religious OCD’ or ‘scrupulosity’. Patients experience distress around the idea that they may have done something wrong or improper, so they may consult the Bible or religious authority figures over and over to see if they’re doing things right.  They may also avoid churches or institutions because of the anxiety that surrounds the condition. Of all OCD sufferers, the religious version of it is estimated to affect up to 33%.  

That sounds like quite a lot, but as someone who has suffered with OCD in the past, I think the figure’s more like 100%. Every time we’re driven by fear into self-atonement, we’ve bought into religion. Every time we trust in certain behaviours or systems to make sense of our world, it’s a religious kind of trust. We might be staunch atheists, but when we find ourselves compulsively performing rituals in order to make life “safe”, it begins to look a little superstitious doesn’t it?

So what’s the answer? Abandon all religion? Well, sort of, yes. But beware – you will find religion lurking everywhere. In the diets you must stick to, the house and garden you must maintain, the lifestyle you should follow, the relationship advice you must take, the routines that promise order and safety. Religion is everywhere – not just in religions. I’d say that all OCD is religious – before you ever think about holy books and ceremonies. Certainly I was religiously obsessional long before I met Jesus.

But, slowly, Jesus has helped me out of it – out of OCD and out of the “religious” thinking caught up with it. Meeting the real Jesus allows me to live with uncertainties in the rest of life – if He is my Rock, it’s ok that other things feel like sinking sand. If He is my righteousness, it’s ok if the rest of my life doesn’t feel right. If He is my sanctification, it’s ok if I feel a bit dirty. If He is my Lord, it’s ok if the world feels a bit out of control.

I still struggle at times – checking things, getting caught in routines and thought patterns – but the answer is not some fail-safe technique. Fail-safe techniques are OCD thinking – religious thinking. But Jesus lifts me up out of that and sets me on my feet. He says “I’ll be your perfection, you can get on and live.


More resources:

If you’re struggling

For friends and family of sufferers

For clergy seeking to help sufferers




6 thoughts on “When OCD Gets Religious

  1. Oh my … yes, this describes much of my adolescence. And now, truth to be told, I’m having difficulty not panicking in church settings because they remind me of my compulsions (which I have, by the grace of God, shed). Although, finding a natural rhythm with God (especially in terms of prayer) is a terrible struggle.
    But having someone write about this – it’s kind of freeing to know it’s not only me. And it gives me hope. Thank you.

  2. I’ve been having horrible (and they come out of nowhere since on Feb 2nd, 14) against my Faith, and I can’t shake them off of my head. It seems like they come from me, but they are so terrible and so furious that I refuse to believe that. The only thing I know is that it is ruinning my walk with Jesus, which was the most amazing part of my life. I don’t really know what to do when the thoughts come, and they come… All the time! It’s like a war, and I don’t have the strengh to fight it… But I can’t help feeling GUILT all the time!
    Thanks for sharing, you Always say something that gives me some hope!

  3. … sudden moment of realisation that the way I experience Christianity right now is more like this, and less like the way a lot of people speak about it. Thank you for talking about this, so much comfort in knowing I’m not the only one, and also some hope in knowing it doesn’t have to be my reality forever!

  4. Thanks so much for your comments. I’m going to do a post tomorrow on things I’ve found helpful: if you’ve any thoughts on stuff that you’d like included, would you send me an email via the contact page? :-)

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