This 3 part series explores a common question for Christians struggling with intrusive, unwanted thoughts: “Can thoughts be evil or sinful? What does that mean?” All good questions are best explored in community; consider this a conversation. I want to encourage you that this is not the same as therapy OR gaining direct wisdom from someone who can guide you in your specific faith community; I highly recommend both, especially if you suffer with OCD or an Anxiety Disorder.
Part 1: The difficulty with uncertainty if you are Christian and suffer from anxiety/OCD. Part 2: Definitions of sin are considered, exploring “How do I know if I’ve sinned?” and how God actually speaks to reveal sin. Part 3: Being Functional- and Faithful.
Christian doctrine teaches us sin ultimately anything that is contrary to God and his character- loving, just, holy, long-suffering. Sin exists in the realm of both actions and thoughts. There is such a thing as “evil thoughts” (Matthew 15:19). For those who suffer with OCD, anxiety, and scrupulosity, this can feel overwhelming.
What exactly does it mean that thoughts can be evil, or sinful? Like most things experienced under great fear, it feels worse than it may actually be. Getting clear on what this actually means- and what you can do about it- can serve to experience more joy, peace, and contentment.
The Major Points, First
As the shorthand goes, TL;DR (“too long; didn’t read”), here’s the summary:
- Sin does not have one singular definition.
- Nowhere am I aware that the mere presence of a thought or feeling is necessarily sinful (in Scripture).
- However, having a thought may actually reflect the heart of the person, or it may not.
- This uncertainty is very difficult to handle for those with a disorder, like in OCD, GAD, Panic/Agoraphobia, etc.
- Sins that do pertain to our thoughts appear to be part of a “bigger picture” issue.
- Sin does begin from an inward state, but God’s Spirit is the revealer of all sin, so we must learn to trust God to uncover what we need to know, leave the doubts to Him, and make commitments to work on not getting tripped up by other known problems causing impairment, such as compulsive thoughts and behaviors and false safety-seeking.
Living With Uncertainty
Evan* had the kindest eyes that were as sad as a Weeping Willow tree on a rainy day. Even his posture slumped like the iconic tree. He became relieved to be diagnosed with OCD and to be told a hopeful way forward. His positivity vanished when I suggested he start with Imaginal Exposure, particularly around the fear of whether he blasphemed the Holy Spirit and whether he lusted after other women. He would get caught up in doubt spirals, and upon “resolving” one, sometimes he would get a trigger within seconds and start again- hours of painful research and reassurance-seeking. When he got relief from that concern, he worried he wasn’t loving his wife or thinking the best about her. Surely he was living in sin or he wouldn’t feel so concerned or doubtful, right?
His two main subtypes of OCD were Scrupulosity and Relationship (ROCD).
Uncertainty proves to be one of the hardest trials for a person with OCD (e.g., a thorn in the flesh, ala 2 Corinthians 12:6-7). Brushing off distressing thoughts is not the luxury of someone with OCD.
We know from research and the examples of those who suffer that OCD intrusions are:
- More frequent
- More Distressing
- Harder to let go
So for the fortunate 97-98% of the population that doesn’t have OCD and get stuck very long with having an intrusive thought, like blasphemy against God, a sexually deviant thought, or a feeling you might get sick and die (and just to be clear, a LOT of people without OCD having these as passing thoughts), let’s be patient with the experience of those who feel they are more real because of the above bullet points. Evan was one of the many in history where a “simple doubt” felt very real.
Functional uncertainty is essential for all of us to live in freedom. We must learn to tolerate levels of not knowing- and move on- and we do every day in ways we take for granted. An obvious example might be “playing with fire” by intentionally flirting with a married coworker- hoping something might come of it. But what about finding a coworker attractive?
Biblically, there is no prohibition to finding someone attractive. In fact, acting godly in these moments is precisely where faith must be exercised. Just precisely when and where does it cross into lust? Sin? When you laugh a little too much at someone’s joke? When you feel some sort of positive chemical like oxytocin in your body when someone is kind and validating towards you? If you feel aroused?
There’s some nuance here, and it requires honesty, wisdom, and ultimately, the Spirit of God to work in our hearts in a meaningful way. We can’t turn that into a formula. That’s big:
We cannot turn faithfulness towards God into a formula.
What OCD (or an anxiety disorder) does is prey on the very mechanisms by which the average person is functionally able to move forward. Doubt and uncertainty are hallmark features of OCD. Moving on? Not so easy. What if?! I need to be sure! I can’t move forward or handle this without knowing! Just one more time….
Sound familiar? Join me for Part 2, where definitions of sin are considered, exploring “How do I know if I’ve sinned?”, and how God actually speaks to reveal sin.