Admittedly, my title is provocative. And I’m really not going to be offended if you use ‘OCD’ in a non-clinical sense, though I think you’ll shortly see that it might not be helpful to talk that way. That’s because I suffer from and am on medication for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and there may be others around you who are, too. They could use both your understanding and help as they navigate life with a very misunderstood disorder.
What is OCD?
OCD isn’t a synonym for being disciplined (in fact, when my OCD was at its worst, I was very undisciplined!). OCD is not a preference or even compulsion for things to be organized or done in an orderly manner.
I’ve found a five-minute explanation of OCD that’s very helpful. I encourage you to check it out before reading on for my own, very brief, explanation of it.
2 Components of OCD
At its core, OCD consists of two things.
- Obsessions – These are intrusive thoughts that the OCD-sufferer usually knows aren’t true, but can’t shake. “Did I leave the stove on?” “Did I lock the door?” “Is my house on fire?” And sometimes with Christians, “Am I really a Christian?”
Now, everyone has crazy thoughts every once in a while. Someone with OCD, however, cannot dismiss them. So, they can look at their stove being off while simultaneously not being able to trust that it’s off. They can look at their house not burning down and at the same time not truly believe their own eyes.
- Compulsions – These are rituals that someone with OCD invents to deal with the anxiety they feel at being confused about reality. While this might be something like handwashing, it isn’t always. I’ve more often seen it expressed with rituals like counting specific numbers mentally, making specific noises, or making specific body motions.
What OCD Feels Like
It feels like fear and shame.
There’s a frequent fear of something which the sufferer usually knows is false. This fear can become so debilitating that the sufferer might begin to avoid all situations which he fears may give rise to the intruding thoughts. They may pre-emptively engage in rituals to circumvent the thought-intrusions, even though they know this often doesn’t work.
People with OCD may also feel shame around people. They often know that their unshakeable thoughts are irrational. But they still feel real. As a result, they may think there’s something very wrong with them that other people won’t understand.
In addition, they may fear the shame that might come from others finding out about their compulsions—which may seem really weird to other people.
Imagine feeling like you’re crazy and feeling like you have to keep it a secret, all the while being afraid of your circumstances. That’s what OCD feels like.
What Does Scripture Say About OCD?
We believe that Scripture is sufficient to train us for all good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17). How does this apply to people who suffer from OCD?
There are two parts to the answer, because the person with OCD isn’t just sinning. They’re also suffering in a way that is reflective of having a brain that cannot dismiss particular thoughts about reality.
That said, there are particular sins with which the OCD-sufferer engages. While it may be true that not all feelings of anxiety are sinful (i.e. 2 Cor 11:28), many are (Matt. 6:25-34). Also, while in the flesh, all of our thoughts and feelings are at least tainted by sin (Phil. 3:12-14). An OCD sufferer must begin to see his thoughts and feelings as not morally neutral. He must actually confess his anxieties to God, cast them upon God, and believe that he has been forgiven for these sins (1 John 1:9; 1 Pet. 5:6-7). The OCD sufferer should ask for the prayers of others (James 5:16).
The OCD sufferer is also often placing faith in rituals rather than in God as sovereign over all things. He must turn from rituals that actually can’t help to the God who actually is in total control over everything (Eph. 1:11: Amos 3:6).
Yet, while there are sins with which someone with OCD commits in unique ways, he is also a sufferer. Intrusive thoughts are happening to him. He may or may not believe them. But they’re happening, almost as if from another person inside his mind. The anxiety and shame that this causes can be debilitating.
Hope for the Sinner & Sufferer
Where’s the hope for such a person?
First, there is hope in the last day. First John 3:2 tells us that, when we see Jesus—when he returns to earth—everyone who trusts him will be glorified—be made like he is—given a body that fits with the new heavens and new earth. The OCD sufferer must primarily hope in this promise, not in promises for temporary relief here and now. One day, the Christian with OCD will have a glorified brain, free from the stain and corruption of sin.
Second, the OCD sufferer, while hoping in Christ’s return, will find progressive purification from sins (1 John 3:3).
Third, the OCD sufferer should find love and acceptance in community. Let him talk about his crazy thoughts. Pray with him. Bear each other’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:1)!
Fourth, take care of the physical body. Sleep, diet, and exercise are important here. The Bible tells us that there is a connection between what goes on in our bodies, brains, and souls—that’s why Christians aren’t supposed to get drunk (Eph. 5:18).
Also, medications can be helpful to alleviate some of the mental suffering. Proverbs 31:6-7 says,
“Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.”
Now, this isn’t advocating getting drunk. It’s actually in the context of telling a king not to get drunk so he can make good decisions. But there are also times when someone is suffering and needs to be medicated for it. OCD can be one of those times, and some medications have been shown to help. Now this is important: medications can and will not make someone more holy. But they can help alleviate symptoms and suffering.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Let me offer three concise insights:
First, don’t say you have OCD unless you actually do. Second, if you know someone that struggles, be a good friend to them. Third, if this sounds like you, get help. And maybe my example will help you, too.
My Experience with OCD
I was fortunate that even though my OCD set in when I was a child, I had a very godly mother. By the age of seven or so, I had passages like James 1:2-4 memorized. Intrusive thoughts would come. And I would remember and recite Scripture. Sometimes I would internally yell them at my own mind—like the psalmist commanding himself to believe what God has said. I had to have Scripture memorized to fight the thoughts in my head.
I would also pray. I would confess my sins and ask God to send Jesus back—thanking him that one day I would be completely repaired and glorified with Jesus.
And I’m on medication. This limits the frequency and intensity of intrusive thoughts. I’m less worn out and have to fight thoughts less frequently. But that doesn’t make me more godly. No, the Spirit of God does that, through his Word, prayer, the fellowship of the saints, and the Lord’s Supper.
And one day, all of us who hope in Jesus the Messiah will be like him, because we will see him as he truly is.