Religious OCD: Don't Trust Yourself

A couple of years ago, my second son was learning to ride his bike without training wheels. As with many children, he was quite anxious about the prospect of losing his balance and crashing. With each new try, I would hold the back of his bike seat until he got going fast enough and then I would let go. A tendency of his when I let go was to stop pedaling. When he felt himself losing balance, this is what felt right to him, and what felt wrong was to keep pedaling … especially pedaling faster. In learning to ride a bike, you will remember that the opposite is true. To stop pedaling is the fastest way to lose your balance, but to keep pedaling, and actually, pedaling faster, is what helps you gain the balance you need to continue riding.

In our battle for faithfulness in the Christian life, this principle rings true as well. Specifically, for those struggling with Religious OCD (see the previous posts on this topic here and here), their compulsion feels like the right response to the obsession that often plagues them. According to CCEF faculty member Michael Emlet, a compulsion is using “ritualistic behavior or mental processes to temporarily ‘neutralize’ or reduce the anxiety associated with your obsession”. For scrupulous people, it feels like everything in them is telling them that their common compulsion is the way of escape from their common obsession, but the reality is that their feelings are lying to them. Paul is right in telling the Ephesians that their old way of living, which needs to be put off, “is corrupt through deceitful desires” (4:22).

A False Trust in Self
Like all other sin struggles, unbelief resides in the heart of Religious OCD. That is, trading the truth of God for a lie. Therefore, a good place to start in pursuing faithfulness to God is to develop a healthy distrust of self. As an example let’s use Henry, a man whose obsession is thinking that he has personally offended other people. For Henry, being around people provokes considerable anxiety at the thought that he may unknowingly hurt their feelings with something that he says or does. That is his obsession. His compulsion is to return to people that he thinks he may have offended and ask them if he has, in fact, offended them. He may do this directly or with questions that are more inconspicuous, but the motive is the same: to either get a satisfactory answer — “No, you didn’t offend me” — or if there has been offense, to make things right however possible. When the compulsion is applied as the remedy to the obsession, there is rest from the obsession, but only for a fleeting moment until another conversation with another person comes along. Then, the slavish cycle starts over again.

As a follower of Christ, what should be Henry’s perspective when he is haunted by his obsession? One of the first verses many Christians have memorized has the answer: Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding (Prov 3:5). Henry must replace trust of self with trust in God. The scrupulous person’s compulsion is the fruit of trusting in self. When Henry’s heart assaults him with the fearful thought that he may have offended a certain person, the act of returning to that person to inquire if his suspicions are correct is his way of trusting himself to address the problem.

The tricky part about this is that Henry’s self-trust is disguised with a mask of morality. Of course, if we have offended someone we need to go make it right. Confession of sin, seeking forgiveness, and initiating reconciliation are all godly habits to establish in our lives, but they should not be what we place our trust in for hope and peace when plagued with the fear of our obsessions. The apostle Paul, in writing to the Galatians, said, “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). We too ought to live our lives by faith in Jesus, not ourselves. The person struggling with Religious OCD may not even realize that he has exalted himself to the place of trust in his heart where Jesus belongs because it is so easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking that religious behavior is equivalent to trusting Christ.

Learning to Trust in Christ
With these things in mind, if you were counseling Henry how could you help him turn from self to Christ? To answer that, you will need to get to the root of his obsession. What is leading Henry to obsess over the thought that he may have offended someone? You will need to ask him open-ended questions that help you determine why this thought oppresses him. After some time probing his motivations, you discover that this obsession, for Henry, centers around the fear of losing the approval of others, especially those whose opinion he values most. This pattern is not only marked by self-trust but self-love as well.

With that information you will need to help him walk through what to do the next time the obsession begins to rear its ugly head. His heart will want to run to the compulsion of checking to see if the person in question was put-off by something he said or did. You must help him learn to pause and turn to the Lord at this point. Have him pray, confessing any sinful desires, asking God to help him turn from trusting self to trusting Christ, and requesting the wisdom to know what to believe about Christ in that moment. Then, the next step must be for Henry to begin rehearsing to himself what is true about Jesus and the gospel, so that faith will cling to him instead of the false hope of the compulsion.

Help him remember that everything is to be counted as loss “because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:8) — including the approval of others. Set before his eyes the truth that God made us alive “together with [Christ], having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” (Col 2:13-14) — therefore, he can rest in knowing that God already addressed his biggest problem in Christ. Have him preach to himself the reality that God has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3) — so he doesn’t need the approval of others. Have him meditate on the fact that it is when we gaze upon the glory of Christ in Scripture that we are being transformed into God’s image “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18) — so he can be sure that it is not the compulsion that brings change, but the Spirit working through the truth of Christ.

Concluding Thoughts
As with my son learning to ride his bike, at first this will feel scary to Henry — even wrong — because he has been trusting himself habitually in response to his obsession. But it is your job as the counselor to help him see that what may feel wrong is actually right. Living by faith in Christ instead of self is not established on what we feel, but on what is true.

With this new habit, there will be those times when Henry will need to go and inquire if he has offended someone and seek forgiveness for sin, but it will be a manifestation of his trust in Christ. It will come from a belief that his hope, his identity, and his satisfaction are in Christ. In this way, seeking forgiveness will not be to please himself, but to please his Savior.

Note: This article originally appeared on We encourage you to visit the Center for Biblical Discipleship and Counseling where you can find helpful, biblical resources by a number of trusted pastors and authors.

Brent Osterberg




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