OCD: Hope for the Obsessive-Compulsive Disciple
The 4th grade was the first time I remember feeling it. As we walked to lunch in a single-file line, I noticed the design on the floor. It was divided into big square tiles. That’s when I felt it. Something inside of
me compelled me to take four steps in each big square. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know what would happen if I took five steps instead of four. I just knew that I needed to do it.
So I did. Each day as I walked to lunch, I made sure to take four steps in each square. I’m sure I looked funny. Maybe people thought I was just a kid playing a simple game. But that feeling stuck with me.
I started experiencing this feeling in other situations too. It was strange. I had to do everything in a very specific way. If I touched a bottle of ketchup with my right hand, I needed to touch it with my left hand too. Before bed, I had a certain routine, and if I messed it up, I had to start all over. Sometimes these rituals could last an hour or more.
I had to do these things. It was an urge that I had to relieve, similar to the urge to take a drink of water after being outside on a hot day, or like the urge to scratch a fresh bug bite. If I didn’t satisfy that inner desire, I would feel uncomfortable, tense, almost panicked. It would get worse and worse with each second until I did something about it.
Occasionally someone would notice me doing something strange, and I would explain it away. I did a pretty good job of hiding it, but my family noticed it the most. I remember the day my mom confronted me and asked me why I was touching things multiple times. I was embarrassed, ashamed, and confused. I knew it was weird and unhealthy, but I couldn’t explain why I was doing it. I remember crying and saying, “I just want to make it stop.” My parents wanted me to talk to someone about it, but I told them I could handle it on my own. (Hiding my problems is a major theme in my struggles that I’ll talk more about later.)
This feeling evolved throughout my life, sometimes getting better and sometimes getting worse. I went through stages where I could control it and other times when I couldn’t. For the most part, as I got older, I learned to manage it. The more I resisted that inner urge, the less powerful it was.
To be honest, I still feel it to this day. I used to pray as a teenager every night that God would take it away. He never did. It doesn’t dominate my thoughts like it once did, but it’s still there. Today, it’s mostly just an occasional mental battle where I want to read and reread things, count things, or make things symmetrical in my head. It’s kind of a complicated struggle, but I don’t notice it as much anymore.
So What Is It?
The psychology world calls it OCD: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Most people use OCD as more of an adjective to describe people who are extra neat or clean. Everyone seems to have a little OCD in them, whether it’s arranging your clothes in a certain order or making sure your car radio volume is on an even number. (Seriously though, if you ride around with your radio on an odd number, we can’t be friends.)
But OCD is a little more complicated than wanting a neat bedroom or alphabetizing your books. Medical professionals say it consists of two parts: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are the intrusive thoughts that pop in your head and cause anxiety. For me, these obsessive thoughts have always been about doing things in the “correct way”, usually involving symmetry and patterns. But for others, sometimes these thoughts can be about germs, sexual images, or even violence. These thoughts are unwanted and instantly recognized as unhealthy.
That’s what leads to the compulsions. A compulsion is a ritual or habit that eases the anxiety of the obsessive thought. It’s supposed to “fix” things, and it usually does…until the next obsessive thought comes along. The most common example is someone who repeatedly washes their hands because of the obsessive thought of germs. But each case can be unique.
Why Does It Happen?
Here’s the short answer: no one knows. Science doesn’t have a good answer. They say maybe it’s brain chemicals, maybe it’s genetic, maybe it’s a personality defect. Medicine might help with some of the symptoms, but it doesn’t seem to eliminate OCD altogether. Other solutions like cognitive behavior therapy have been proven to help people cope, but again, there is no simple fix.
As Christians who believe the Bible is the Word of God, there are a few things we know. We know that we are broken sinners, and this brokenness includes our brains and mental capacities. Just as our organs weren’t meant to get cancer, our brains weren’t meant to fixate on endless rituals. But this is all the result of the fall in Genesis 3.
As sinful people, we also know that we are constantly tempted to worry, fear, and distrust God. We think thoughts we shouldn’t. We often feel compelled to do the wrong things and have to force ourselves to do the right things. We all love to do things “our way”. We are incredibly self-centered and spend way too much time focused on ourselves.
All of these things are true. Now does that mean everyone who struggles with OCD is sinning with each and every obsessive thought? I don’t think so. I’m not sure we can always control the desires that pop in our brains just like we can’t always control when and how we are tempted. But I also don’t believe this is completely a physiological issue. We are all spiritual people. We all worship something. Our desires reveal the things we worship, and they show us the places we aren’t trusting God.
For me, I see both in my own life. I have a family history of depression, anxiety, and OCD. So maybe I am genetically predisposed to deal with this. But I also know my sinful heart. I have learned in what ways I’m prone to wander away from God. I have learned how my lack of trust in God worsens my OCD and reinforces my obsessive thoughts.
So I don’t want to speak generally for everyone who struggles with OCD, and I am certainly not going to give any medical advice. But what I can do is share my own experience in the hopes that it encourages someone and gives them hope. I believe that Jesus gives hope in the midst of every struggle. I believe his finished work on the cross is the lens through which we should view all of life, including mental health.
Let me share with you a few ways Jesus has given this obsessive-compulsive disciple hope as I follow him:
1. Jesus gives me rest.
For someone who wrestles with OCD, it can feel like their brain never cuts off. It’s exhausting, really. For me, I am a type A, over-analyzing, people-pleasing worrier. There are some days my head just hurts from thinking too much.
But in Jesus, I find rest. Rest not only for my mind, but also for my soul. Matthew 11:28-30 says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
These verses are precious for the obsessive-compulsive disciple. In Jesus, I can stop worrying and stressing, and I can rest in the truth that he is in control. In Jesus, I can stop over-analyzing and over-thinking, and I can rest in the fact that I don’t have to have it all figured out. I’m not all-knowing, but he is. In Jesus, I can stop people-pleasing, and I can rest in the truth that God is pleased with me because I am his child, a co-heir with Christ.
It is very difficult to stop your brain when it is speeding down the tracks to the worst-case scenario. But when I stop and re-fix my eyes on Jesus, I can lay my heavy burden down at his feet and find rest.
2. Jesus gives me assurance.
OCD is all about certainty. That’s why we perform our rituals. We want to make sure we get it “perfect”. That’s why some repeatedly check the oven, wash their hands, read and reread that sentence, or replay that conversation over and over and over again. We want to be absolutely certain that we did things the “right” way.
Here’s the reality. Nothing is certain. We can never be sure enough. That’s why the rituals don’t end and the thoughts keep coming. No matter how hard we try, we will not find assurance in ourselves or our performance.
But in Jesus, we can be certain. The empty tomb and the blood-stained cross provide all the assurance we need. 1 John 5:13 says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” God wants us to be fully assured and certain of his salvation.
Yes, doubts will come. But in Jesus, we discover that we don’t have to do everything right. He did it right for us. We don’t have to be perfect. He was perfect in our place. And because of his finished work on the cross, we know that we have eternal life. Nothing can change that. Nothing can separate us from his love.
No, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. Something bad may happen, and things won’t always go our way. But the worst thing that could ever happen to me has already happened. Jesus received the full judgement of God in my place.
So in Jesus, I can stop obsessing over my performance and rest in his. He is and always will be enough.
3. Jesus gives me grace.
This is, without a doubt, the sweetest gift of all. In Jesus, I have grace. I have saving grace, which means despite my sinfulness, I have been forgiven and clothed with the righteousness of Christ.
But in Jesus, we don’t just receive grace as a one-time gift. No, like manna in the morning, God continues to give us the grace we need each day. This is God’s sustaining grace.
One of OCD’s best friends is pride. They go so well together because pride feeds the obsessive-compulsive cycles. Pride tempts us to focus on ourselves and our own abilities. Pride says, “You can get this right. You will make yourself feel better if you just take 4 steps in each square. You can control these thoughts.” You can see how pride fuels the fire of OCD. Each time you give into an obsessive thought and act out a compulsion, you essentially tell yourself, “I don’t need God. I’m the one in control here.”
A prideful person will not receive daily grace. James 4:6 says, “But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’” Daily, sustaining, OCD-relieving grace comes to those who are humble enough to admit they need it. God gives us more grace. That is great news when you realize you always need more of it.
After all those years of praying, God didn’t take away my OCD. But he did take away my prideful belief that I was in control. God didn’t take away my temptation to worry and dwell on negative thoughts. But he gave me the grace to renew my mind and establish new patterns of thinking. And God didn’t change my desire to do everything “perfectly”. But he gave me a perfect Savior who did everything perfectly for me.
No matter what my mind may tell me, there is always hope in Jesus. And I’ve found that’s the one thing worth obsessing over.
This post is a part of a series on mental health. To read the other posts in this series, click the links below: