What makes religious OCD so dangerous? Unlike traditional forms of OCD where the sufferer recognizes their behavior is out of sorts and illogical but still cannot keep from engaging in such behavior, religious OCD sufferers oftentimes do not recognize their OCD as an illness, in fact it is often seen as a moral strength indicating closeness to God. Unfortunately, this belief is oftentimes encouraged by churches and even pastoral leadership due to a lack of discernment in differentiating real spirituality from religious OCD.
I am heartbroken to say that I know individuals who suffer from religious OCD and yet are unconscious of their sufferings. On this page I will grapple with the necessity of unveiling religious OCD and approaches friends, family, and counselors can utilize to bring healing to an individual suffering from religious OCD.
Talk to a Therapist
Begin by going to a therapist if at all possible. You will need their encouragement and guidance as you seek to help your loved one.
Ideally, you’ll want to find a therapist who has worked with OCD. It is even better if the therapist has experience treating religious OCD (scrupulosity). It may be helpful if the therapist shares the same faith as the sufferer, as the sufferer may be willing to view this person as an authority figure and will be more willing to accept their advice than someone whose basic worldview they distrust.
Recognize the Sufferer’s Mindset
The religious sufferer is stringent in their beliefs. The sufferer sees the suffering as a necessary component in drawing close to God. Scripture does indicate that suffering and loss will oftentimes be part of our life journey in relationship with God, but this view is taken to an extreme which minimizes Scriptures regarding the grace and blessings of God. In any case, the sufferer will not accept (generally) direct confrontation about those sufferings. The sufferer will view this as an attack upon the sufferer’s belief system – which is at the core of who sufferers consider themselves to be.
A few characteristics to note in the sufferer:
- They will give authority for direction in their lives to people they agree with, however as soon as they find this person believes in a way differently from them on a core issue they will discount this person’s ability to speak anything valuable into their lives.
The Indirect Opportunities
Religious OCD manifests itself in subtle ways. One must take the time to recognize these subtleties and confront them rather than the core issue. By so doing you can eventually unravel the core issue. It is like a yarn of thread – you begin with the outlying thread and move slowly towards the core. You cannot simply move to the core without cutting apart the entire ball and rendering it useless.
- Anger/Rage – The sufferer may struggle with an unreasonable rage. They will mask this behind a stoic face to the more general public and it requires time to enter their inner circle (e.g. the family circle) where this rage manifests itself. In general they are polite and kind – except for people they consider themselves to have some form of moral responsibility over and whose incorrect actions[Ref]At least in their minds.[/ref] directly implicate their spirituality. They find themselves unable to maintain composure and when they explode there is an opportunity to discuss the sinfulness of this uncontrolled rage and the underlying causes for it (their feeling that they are responsible for the actions of others).
- Traditional Symptoms – Thankfully religious OCD may be accompanied by traditional OCD symptoms. One will not see them manifested regularly but steady interaction with the sufferer will cause them to manifest. These may include repetitive phrases, vocal noises, repetitive body movements, or excessive washing.
- Offended Religiosity – The sufferer oftentimes feels a compulsive need to apologize for perceived sins – even the smallest things, oftentimes repeatedly. In this occasion one has an opportunity to tell them such repentance is unnecessary, that love covers a multitude of sins or that it did not offend you. They will continue in their behavior, at which junction you have the opportunity to confront them on their serial repentance – suggesting this is the sin against you. That they are more concerned with constantly repenting than interacting in love with you. It may lead to an opportunity to discuss the role of grace in their lives.
Essentially, with the religious OCD sufferer we are looking for the weak point in their armor. Religious OCD sufferers may not take pride in their spirituality, but they do judge those outside and while they are intensely critical of themselves privately when they compare themselves to others they find themselves immaculate. One must look for the ways they self-criticize, the areas they perceive weakness (e.g. diligence, rage, compassion) and grab this thread, this kink in the armor to begin the unraveling.
Religious sufferers are eager to change themselves for the better and if approached in the appropriate way will readily admit their faults. The challenge then is to lead them slowly but steadily towards the realization that their faults are much wider than they at first imagined. Let the OCD sufferer do the talking – let them share how this fault affects them. They will enter a state of vulnerability in which they are willing to discuss additional areas of moral failure and from here one can carefully help them recognize the significant discord between their self-perception as an infinitely wise moral judge and the reality of a lost soul redeemed by the grace of God – just like us.
It is exceptionally important to note that one is entering into the broken and hidden places of a sufferers soul. One can perform healing or inflict significant suffering and relational damage. This must be done under the counsel of a therapist who can guide you through this process. We each suffer from our own brokenness and we need someone with experience dealing with the mentally ill to help us keep perspective. Otherwise we are likely to enter a dysfunctional dance with the sufferer that does not further healing.
We cannot lightly take upon ourselves the role of conduit for God’s healing. It is a course of action which requires humility, prayer, and community. It should be the role of a community, not a single individual. No single individual is capable of bearing the wounds of another’s soul and intellect.
The amazing fact is that if a religious OCD sufferer is finally brought to face their sufferings the change is radical and beautiful. They will not overcome the challenges but they will be willing to accept help and experience a new humility in their relationships with others. Unfortunately, the unveiling is not a one time process. Religious OCD sufferers oftentimes relapse into an unperceiving mode as their OCD transforms from one symptom to another. This is best countered by ongoing treatment, medication, and a supporting community that lovingly helps them remember their foibles while not judging them and encouraging them in God’s grace.
- Please note that I am not a trained therapist, these are my lay experiences with fighting my own OCD as well as engaging others’ sufferings.↩
- In the future I’d like to add references to the Scriptures to which the religious sufferer turns as well as those which are oftentimes under-represented in their thinking.↩
- An individual will not allow themselves to be cut in this manner.↩
- In my experience, it has always been.↩
- Which they would deny, but practice in actuality when judging moral matters.↩