Today I’d like to write to the Church and why we should not only be aware of the mental health struggle of Religious OCD but also ask ourselves some hard but necessary questions.
I’m writing this as someone who has gone to church since before I could even walk as well as someone diagnosed with Religious OCD. And while Religious OCD is a diagnosis given to people around the world, to people of different religious beliefs, I can only write from my own personal experience attending Evangelical Christian Churches.
Is Religious OCD the Church’s fault?
The short answer: no. Religious OCD is a diagnosis given to people who have had little to no religious upbringing too. Often it’s referred to as Moral OCD. While it’s not the Church’s fault, there are things that the Church does that don’t help. In fact, at times, it encourages it and promotes it as healthy.
How Does the Church Encourage and Perpetuate Religious OCD?
1. Shaming and Guilting People.
Whether it’s guilting and shaming people into giving money for sinning, for not praying or reading their Bibles enough, for their choices, or for not being “spiritual” enough; it’s harmful. But on top of the Church using guilt and shame, often people feeling them are told “they’re being sensitive to the Holy Spirit” or “they have a soft heart.”
Guilting and shaming in the Church is unhealthy for anyone, but for someone with Religious OCD it can be completely crippling and paralyzing. Someone with this form of OCD, already feels more guilt and shame on a daily basis for things that they shouldn’t, and they don’t need more. As a Church, I think we need to look to Jesus who never shamed or guilted people. He loved them. It’d bring more health and wholeness to everyone if we did that too.
2. Praising the Compulsion to Pray.
Some of the symptoms of Religious OCD do not only get praised in the Church but even celebrated. Praying is a common compulsion and sometimes the sufferer is left praying the same prayer, or various prayers, over and over and over. And over. This, as anyone can imagine, gets exhausting. But praying too much? Well, it’s praised in the Church, even though, in this case, it’s unhealthy.
Praying has a very narrow definition for many Evangelical Christians. It has to be out loud, in your heart or your head, and you have to say the right words, and you can never pray too much. In fact, no one ever prays enough— and on, and on.
But I don’t remember Jesus saying there was a wrong way to pray, which is what the Church is implying with all of these specifications.
For someone with this form of OCD, as they get help for their mental health may end up finding it difficult to pray in the traditional sense at all without lapsing back into compulsory-praying and may find it easier to avoid it completely. But this leaves them feeling guilty as the Church hammers over and over the importance of praying a lot.
What if we stopped defining what prayer is, how often it should happen, and leave it up to Jesus and each and every individual? Praying for one individual might be taking a deep breath as they watch the sunset. It might be praying in the more traditional sense. It might be reading a bit of poetry aloud that was inspired by nature.
Jesus didn’t make rules about prayer and I don’t believe that we as the Church should either.
3. Celebrating Life Choices and Demonizing Others.
Did Jesus say, “Missionaries are more holy.”?
Did He say, “People who have kids are better than people who don’t?”
What about, “Be sure you go to a Christian college.”?
One more, did He say, “Don’t pierce your nose.”?
Nope. Nope. Nope. And nope.
And yet in many Evangelical Churches, certain life choices are more celebrated than others and some are even demonized. Think about how in the examples above, some of those life choices are pretty small in the scheme of things, and others are completely and totally life-altering. And yet the Church has decided to have rules, albeit mostly unconscious or simply implied ones, about even the decision of whether or not to dye your hair. This is unhealthy and didn’t come from Jesus.
Think about how this perpetuates the constant struggle of someone with Religious OCD as they try to make choices about their life. They can be left feeling like there is a wrong and right answer when really, Jesus doesn’t care whether we get a tattoo or have a pet or get married or not. This can lead some people with it into deciding to be a missionary or a pastor just to choose “the right answer.” People, and not just sufferers of Religious OCD, should not be making those choices because they believe God will be more pleased with them. And yet, the Church helps people believe that God is happier with becoming a missionary than He is with someone becoming a bus driver.
Jesus gave us all we need to know about what life choices to make: love God and love others. If our choices reflect that, then I don’t believe we should be going around demonizing what music someone chooses to listen to or celebrating the fact that someone decided to go to Bible College.
4. Encouraging Self-Sacrificing One’s Self.
Yes, before you start quoting scripture in the comments, I know what the Bible says. I just think that we as the Church, have taken it to an unhealthy extreme if we even understood what God meant in the first place.
In churches across the world, it is taught to sacrifice ourselves to God. Serve in a church even when your life is busy and full, volunteer for everything possible even if it means you have no time to rest during the week or go into missions to sacrifice everything. It is inadvertently taught that suffering and sacrificing is what pleases God. Unfortunately, too often self-sacrificing one’s self is taught when it benefits the church itself.
Someone with Religious OCD often has the compulsion to be self-sacrificing or punish one’s self to atone for sins or mistakes. They will feel that suffering is what pleases God, and it even gets rewarded in Church. This can look anything like selling everything to go to Africa as a missionary, to signing up for every volunteer job possible at church even if they don’t enjoy it or want to do it. This can even mean purposely not taking the time to relax, rest, or take pleasure in life at all.
Jesus took the time to sit back after a meal and talk. He turned water into fine wine. He even took naps. I think we could follow His lead and remember that He wants us to take care of ourselves too.
5. Pressuring People to be Perfect.
God doesn’t even expect us to be perfect and He sees us as we are so I don’t know where we as the Church got that idea but it has done damage. Scriptures are wielded as weapons in the fight to make everyone stop being sinners. And when people fail, they have to keep it a secret to keep up the appearance of being a sinner.
Do you worry too much? You’re a sinner.
Do you lie? You’re a sinner.
Do you ever lose your temper? You’re a sinner.
When Jesus told people to “sin no more” I know for a fact He expected them to sin again. Look at Peter (who was like always hanging out with Jesus IN PERSON) betraying Jesus behind His back and Jesus still making him the rock for the Church. We’re human and God knows that better than even we do. We need to stop expecting perfection out of each other.
This is so hurtful for everyone but think about how that can hurt people with Religious OCD. They’re constantly trying to be perfect and constantly failing and they feel like they’re the only ones struggling. They put more pressure on themselves to never sin and get caught up in a thought spiral when they do. They need to hear that we’re sinners and we’re not going to be perfect. And that’s okay.
We, as a Church, need to expect more imperfection from each other because it’s honestly completely normal. We can stop pretending to be perfect because Jesus sees through it. We can quit trying to be perfect because it’s impossible and Jesus never even asked us to.
I hope that you can think about these five points and even share them. We can make the Church a healthier place for everyone, with one person at a time.