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.
What Is Functional AND Faithful- At the Same Time?
Many people and even clinicians attempt to address compulsions by appealing to an argument of practicality- sounding something like this:
“If this is causing so much distress, then it’s important enough to change it.”
Egh…*Justin shifts in his seat.*
Practicality Must Stand On Principle
If a practical rationale helps you not compulse, awesome! Compulsions are pathological. Period. The problem for many Christians, like Evan, is an argument of practicality won’t be sufficient. And frankly, I respect that. I am fine being practical, insomuch as that practicality stands on principle. Those deeply committed to their faith and who think deeply about it will often see a faulty presupposition and error in theological rationale, arguing God hasn’t called us to not suffer, He has called us to follow Him.
Unfortunately, many Christians who are suffering only stop here and miss the bigger picture because they see it as only one option: be faithful to Jesus or do therapy.
You Have More Than One Option- Faith AND Treatment
I am here to say you don’t have to choose between only two options. You can reduce suffering and be faithful to Christ.
Here are 4 common approaches that I find help people move forward when they are stuck on the question of whether their thoughts are sinful:
- For more mild and moderate cases of OCD or those happy to just jump in, basic education on how OCD works is often enough to get started with treatment. A little rationale goes a long way.
- Most clients, in my experience, just need to see how the therapy works. They need to try practicing ERP and “get a taste.”
- Some clients actually need a more developed rationale (which is usually an overall smaller part of treatment, but it is often essential- especially with obsessions and mental compulsions dealing with taboo and “inappropriate thoughts”).
- Those who are so deeply mired in doubt and uncertainty often need something that can first help them stabilize their functioning. They may be so overwhelmed and impaired that other needs have to be addressed first. This is where any number of intensive strategies and/or stabilization may be needed- a temporary break from environmental triggers, intensive treatment, medication, etc. ERP, when rigorously applied, helps clients typically become less impaired and regain a significant amount of functioning, but sometimes a person is not immediately ready for ERP.
Getting encouraged by treatment success is one of the best things that can happen! It increases buy-in and willingness to continue. Evan needed a little of the first 3 in order to be successful. Once he did, he ‘put his hand to the plow’ and hasn’t looked back.
The last consideration I want to leave you with- the sufferer, family member, or clinician- is that when you are ready to do the most recommended therapy for OCD- ERP- typically we need to start like with a good Texas Brisket: “low and slow.” In other words, hierarchically (a lower-mid level of distress). In therapy, with the supportive factors that exist, I start most with a 3-5 “SUDS” (out of 10 on the distress scale), but this is maybe higher than someone can do on their own. Start with a challenge you can complete, not ones you keep failing at; an OCD specialist can help.
Sample Hierarchy (it will differ drastically from person to person):
|10 SUDS (Distress)||Write a full script and verbally share while preventing all compulsions (mental checking, review, etc:). E.g., “Maybe I said ‘I reject the Holy Spirit.’ I won’t be able to be 100% certain and maybe ______ [your imagined worst case] will happen.”|
|8||Take your #6 and say it 50 x in a row, as fast as you can (to make it difficult to assess how you’re feeling about the Holy Spirit at the moment).|
|6||Verbally stating the thought that occurs in your mind to a trusted person: “What if I blasphemed the Holy Spirit?”|
|4||Verbally saying, “The Holy Spirit”|
|2||Writing the initials, “H.S.”, on a piece of paper.|
How To Be Functional With Examining Sin
At some level, you can’t answer the question, “What is sin?” by focusing on a pinpoint with your own brain. It must first of all be revealed by God, if you believe what Scripture says. Cognitively as well, research suggests that the more “narrow-minded” you become checking for a distressing nuance can inhibit perceptual understanding (big-picture perception), and the more you “check” for sin, the less certain you might become (see my article for more).
To gain an “access point” therapeutically, we have to work at a point that is both
- Non- compulsive and
- Starting somewhere. Anywhere.
If you’re not ready to start and you have a rationale you can agree with, ask yourself: “What else is holding me back?”
If you have identified a problematic pattern of obsessing, compulsing, acting on (false) safety behaviors, or any other pathological response to an intrusive thought/feeling, “What if I sin(ned)?” / “Is this sin?”, check out some of the tips I commonly utilize in therapy:
- Have an informed idea of what you’re working with first.
- Just overthinking? Have you ever talked to someone who is more authoritative on the topic? Do that.
- Have no clue whether it could be an unwanted intrusion or a real-life worry? Read just a little to educate yourself. Be careful not to get lost in the weeds. Set limits to how much you ask, and once you get an idea from a reputable source, work on moving forward with the following.
- Have OCD? Then what are the helpful ways for a person with OCD to respond to their obsessive thoughts?
- Make a list of ways you get “tripped up.” This is your “LOG”; also identify what you can commit to working on changing (the compulsion or safety Behavior)- at a level you can currently agree with on paper.
- Identify a small way to practice feeling distressed by uncertainty or doubt without giving into fear, compulsions, or safety behaviors.
- Get practicing.
- Don’t miss the forest for the trees. As it pertains to your personal spiritual growth, let me encourage you not to be distracted by complex definitions and rather to tune in simply to what God might be saying to you today. Instead of focusing on what is very unclear, what are other ways that you can focus?
As a clinician, I’m here to help you be functional- and faithful. As always, if you have trouble, do like Evan and reach out to someone who knows what they’re talking about!
Dedicated to Jennifer. She knows what she’s talking about. Keep up the good work of graciously helping those who suffer.