Jacob Tilton is the Director of Music Ministries at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, TX. He courageously offered to share his story about his struggle with OCD, how it’s affected him, and ways where he has grown closer to Christ and moved through his struggles.
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Worship and OCD
by Jacob Tilton
When I became a Christian in college, I almost immediately began leading worship at my campus ministry where I went to school in Louisiana. My heart was filled with so much joy and gratitude in those early days of 1996. And then, a few weeks later, just before I was to help lead worship at another Tuesday night college bible study, I began to examine my heart in preparation. At that point, I started to mildly panic. “I don’t think I can lead worship tonight,” I said to a friend. “I don’t feel…worthy anymore.” Whatever “perfect” worship state of mind and heart that I had been enjoying for weeks began to show some signs of weakening and I was scared to death. This would be my first of many experiences of the paralyzing effect of OCD and perfectionism as it related to worship.
The Discovery of OCD
I would come to find out many years later at age 36 that I struggle with OCD, intrusive thoughts, and scrupulosity. And now, at age 46, I’m still leading worship and still fighting perfectionism. I still get disappointed with my own level of emotion in worship. How did I get here? How did we get here? Here are three of the factors that lead to a feeling of condemnation when we evaluate our hearts in worship.
First, we often place too much emphasis on emotion in worship. It’s hard to read exuberant verses like Psalm 34:1, “I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth” or the enraptured words of the apostle Paul in the first chapter of Ephesians, and feel like your emotions measure up. I’m sure David and Paul had some very emotionally mundane days in addition to the days they wrote those beautiful verses. On any given Sunday, our feelings in worship can go from genuine gratitude to surprising boredom. Sometimes the psalmist enters worship and has his heart attitude set aright (Psalm 73). Other times, he’s downcast and remembers times of worship that were filled with “glad shouts and songs of praise” and longs for those days again (Psalm 42). God welcomes all of our emotions in worship, even when they are weak or quiet.
Secondly, we sometimes place too much weight on introspection. When I was growing up in church, I was told many times to examine my heart and look for any unconfessed sin or any doubts about my salvation. Instead of relying on a biblical assurance, I was on the hunt for 100% mental certainty and could never find it. This extreme pressure to look within and examine my heart combined with a naturally melancholic disposition was a formula for an OCD timebomb just waiting to go off.
The same Paul who said in 1 Corinthians 11 to “examine yourself” before communion also said earlier in 1 Corinthians 4, “I do not even judge myself.” Of course, we must always try to remain sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s convicting us of sin, but we should trust that He will do a thorough enough job and then decidedly turn our eyes back toward our Savior Friend. Like the Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne said, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” For some of us, this requires more intentionality.
Misunderstanding the Course of Emotional Maturity in Relationship with God
The last reason why we might experience unnecessary disappointment and condemnation regarding our emotions in worship is that we misunderstand how emotions mature and develop in our relationship with God over time. I have been married for 26 wonderful years. The emotional graph of our marriage has changed over time. Sometimes, I do miss the flood of brain chemicals that come with being young and in love. But at the same time, there is now more emotional stability and steadiness in our marriage that could only develop over many years. The same applies to our emotional life with God. When we are young, our worship times are often filled with such strong physical effects. And those are great! However, we need not feel guilty when our blazing hearts turn into a softer glow.
Once, I was lamenting to a spiritual director about how much I missed feeling the presence of God as strongly as I once did earlier in life. I was surprised when the Franciscan priest with a strong New Orleans accent replied, “Feelings? That’s baby stuff!” Now, of course a marriage or our relationship with God should contain love that is with all our heart, soul, and mind, but that will look and feel differently over time.
Our Infirm Delight
As a worship leader and a worshipper, I am often reminded of an Emily Dickinson poem where she mentions “our infirm delight.”[see below] Even our ability to enjoy life, love, or God, is not what it should be. In worship, the best we can do is bring our real selves, whether we are young and passionate or older and more quiet. God wants to know the real worshipper, not the one we wish we were.
One day, our “infirm delight” will be made whole and there will never be anymore need for introspection ever again. For the same broken heart that has been wasting away will be fully renewed and made able to gaze at the dazzling glory of the Son of God. At that time, worshipping will be the most natural thing we have ever done.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant — (1263)
By Emily Dickinson 
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —”
 Tell all the truth but tell it slant—(1263) by Emily Dickinson from The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998)