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"And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable,  and perfect, will of God."   -Romans 12:2

 

Help For Christians Who Have Difficulty

Controlling Their Thoughts

by Rusty Entrekin

Ever heard of OCD?

Are you a Christian who has difficulty controlling unwelcome thoughts?

Did you know that there is a form of a mental ailment called obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD, in which people struggle very, very hard not to think unwelcome thoughts, but end up involuntarily thinking them anyway?  In medical terminology, these unwelcome, intrusive thoughts are called obsessions. A compulsion, such as constantly washing one’s hands, is something done in a vain attempt to relieve the anxiety caused by an obsessive thought. Sometimes these unwelcome thoughts may even include curse words or blasphemous words. People who suffer from OCD are usually very moral, conscientious people who would never, ever say or live out these thoughts that they are so fearful of. In fact, in his book regarding OCD, Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior, Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD, observes “No one ever does anything morally objectionable because of OCD.”

Dr Schwartz explains that there is actually an area of the brain that shows hyperactivity in those who suffer from OCD.  It is called the orbitofrontal cortex, and it is located on the underside of the front of the brain. It is believed that one of the functions of the orbitofrontal cortex is to help us assess the risks, punishments and rewards that will result from our behaviors. PET scans reveal that there is excess activity in this region of the brain in those who are going through an OCD episode. Does this mean that the orbitofrontal cortex is damaged in OCD sufferers? Perhaps not.  If the orbitofrontal cortex is constantly at work evaluating the consequences that could result from undesired thoughts during an OCD episode, then this hyperactivity of the orbital cortex may possibly be a result, and not the cause of OCD. 

Did you know that there have been some famous Christians who suffered from episodes of OCD, such as John Bunyan, who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress? In a lesser known book Bunyan wrote, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, he describes his struggles with OCD (although the condition was not called by that name then):

For about the space of a month after, a very great storm came down upon me, which handled me twenty times worse than all I had met with before; it came stealing upon me, now by one piece, then by another; first, all my comfort was taken from me, then darkness seized upon me, after which whole floods of blasphemies, both against God, Christ, and the Scriptures, were poured upon my spirit, to my great confusion and astonishment. These blasphemous thoughts were such as also stirred up questions in me, against the very being of God, and of His only beloved Son; as whether there were, in truth, a God, or Christ, or no? And whether the Holy Scriptures were not rather a fable, and cunning story, than the holy and pure Word of God?

Bunyan's agonizing mental struggles, which were very intense, went on for years, until he finally found relief and deliverance through the grace of God and a proper understanding of scripture. The things that he learned as a result of his OCD experience gave him a wonderful understanding of the grace of God, and this, in turn, was used by God to fashion him into a preacher who brought many souls into the Kingdom of God. Since Bunyan came out of his OCD experience a person who was greatly used by God, please keep in mind that the same could also happen to you or your loved one who is suffering from OCD.

The man known as the “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon, also suffered from at least one bout with OCD. In His book, All Of Grace, Spurgeon wrote,

I have heard another say, "I am tormented with horrible thoughts. Wherever I go, blasphemies steal in upon me. Frequently at my work a dreadful suggestion forces itself upon me, and even on my bed I am startled from my sleep by whispers of the evil one. I cannot get away from this horrible temptation." Friend, I know what you mean, for I have myself been hunted by this wolf. A man might as well hope to fight a swarm of flies with a sword as to master his own thoughts when they are set on by the devil. A poor tempted soul, assailed by satanic suggestions, is like a traveler I have read of, about whose head and ears and whole body there came a swarm of angry bees. He could not keep them off nor escape from them. They stung him everywhere and threatened to be the death of him. I do not wonder you feel that you are without strength to stop these hideous and abominable thoughts which Satan pours into your soul; but yet I would remind you of the Scripture before us - "When we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly." 

Both of these men found spiritual relief and deliverance from OCD through a correct understanding of the Bible. If you are also a Christian OCD sufferer, read on to learn how you can find relief, too! Even if you are not afflicted with this condition, all of us struggle with unwelcome thoughts from time to time. During such occasions, these tried and true scriptural principles can work for you, too! I can attest that they worked miraculously for me!

How OCD Works

Here is how an episode of OCD usually goes:

1.       The Christian OCD sufferer, because of his enlightened conscience and moral convictions, is fearful of thinking an unwelcome thought.

2.       He or she tries hard not to think the unwelcome thought, but the harder he tries, the more the thought is on his mind. You can’t consciously avoid something, unless you are mindful of it!

3.       He or she ends up involuntarily thinking the unwelcome thought, since it is always on his or her mind.  It may be hard for those who do not have OCD to imagine how this could be a problem for anyone. Let me give you an example that may help. Imagine that someone told you, “If you think about the Statue of Liberty, you will go to hell.” If you believed him, you would be in trouble; because there is no way that you could keep from thinking about the Statue of Liberty! As Spurgeon and Bunyan mentioned, there may also be a spiritual attack happening at the same time, in that Satan or his subordinate temptors may be suggesting thoughts to the person's mind.

4.       He or she feels very guilty and anxious for having thought it. The Temptor  may suggest scriptures which seem to condemn (all the while misquoting, misapplying, and twisting the intent of these scriptures, just as he did when he tempted Jesus, but this is not recognized at first by the OCD sufferer). As a result, the afflicted person is greatly troubled by tormenting questions such as:

“What an awful thing to think! Will God ever forgive me for it?”
“Does this mean that I am not really a Christian (or one of the elect)? A true Christian would not think such things, would he?”
“Have I committed the unpardonable sin?”
”Am I going to go to hell?”
“Have I fallen away from God (or lost my salvation)?”

(Since these questions cause considerable anxiety for an OCD sufferer, we will answer each one of them below.)

5.       The Christian OCD sufferer may resort to some sort of harmless compulsive behavior to help alleviate the anxiety caused by an obsessive thought.  (An example might be whispering prayers of repentance under one’s breath.)

6.       The Christian firmly resolves not to ever think it again.

7.       Because of the tremendous guilt and fear of condemnation by God associated with the thought, the OCD sufferer cannot get his or her mind off of it, and the whole cycle starts again. During an episode, it is like he or she is on a never-ending feedback loop or treadmill that he or she can’t jump off of! All of this time, the OCD sufferer’s orbital cortex is showing heightened activity. It literally overheats!


Something related to the OCD battle sometimes occurs in the minds of all Christians.

The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans chapter seven, “…I would not have known what covetousness is, if the Law had not repeatedly said, ‘Thou shalt not covet.’ Sin took advantage of this, and by means of the Commandment stirred up within me every kind of coveting; for apart from Law sin would be dead.”

Covetousness is wanting something that is not rightfully yours. Because one of the Ten Commandments was, “Thou shalt not covet,” Paul wanted to avoid coveting. But it is evident that at one time in his life, Paul struggled with all kinds of coveteous thoughts! How ironic that a moral law, which is a very good thing, stirred up sinful thoughts in Paul, which was a very bad thing!

What the apostle Paul is describing here sounds just like an OCD episode, doesn’t it? It is typical of the struggle with wrong thoughts and desires that all men and women have. Because of the similarity of an OCD episode with what Paul is here describing, I am convinced that OCD is a manifestation of our lower self, also called our sinful nature or flesh.  But there is one important difference between OCD episodes and other struggles with sin:  OCD episodes are always a battle that takes place in the mind only, because OCD sufferers would never purposely carry act out the terrible thoughts that occur during an OCD episode.

Now, as promised, let's answer each of those nagging questions mentioned above.

 

“What an awful thing to think! Will God ever forgive me for it?”

God Has Mercy On Us Because We Have Two Natures

When a person is struggling against sin, two very different aspects of his inward self are at war. What are they?

Dr Schwartz wrote that in his studies of patients with OCD, he came to recognize that there is an aspect of their will or mind that seems to be independent of their malfunctioning brains. The Bible calls this your spirit. This is your inner man, your sober mind, the true you. It is variously called your higher nature, your spiritual nature, your conscience, your will, or your true self. It is the part of you that wants to do what is right. It is the part of you that tells your brain what to think. The problem with OCD is that the brain, corrupted as it is by the fall, does not always obey the spirit.

Your spirit is the real you. It is the part of you that does not want to be thinking obsessive thoughts.

Then, there is your sinful nature. It is the part of you that is inclined to do what is wrong. It is variously called your old man, your sinful nature, your corrupt nature, or simply your flesh. We all inherited our sinful natures from our fallen parents, Adam and Eve because we were a part of them, or "in" them, when they rebelled against God in the garden of Eden. If you suffer from OCD, your sinful nature is the part of you that impulsively blurts out a forbidden thought against the will of your spirit.

The union of one’s spirit and body (including our brain), makes us a living soul. One’s soul is the totality of his person, comprised of body, physical thoughts and spirit. A soul is known by its character. A soul who has surrendered to his lower nature and allowed it to rule him has an undisciplined character. He is a carnal, fleshly, or immature man. If he is a Christian, he is a babe in Christ. Paul told the Corinthians that this was their condition, because there was so much fighting among them:

I Co 3:1 And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.
2  I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.
3  For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?

On the other hand, a man who has gained control over his lower nature has a disciplined character. He is a spiritual or mature man.

If you are fighting hard against your lower nature but have not yet gained control, be encouraged. This is a sign that you are not content to remain a babe, but want to become mature. One of the most important prerequisites for winning any battle is an intense desire to win it.

If you are a Christian, it is not just your spirit and your flesh that are at war inside you. God’s Holy Spirit is also inside you, to help you overcome sin, so He is also at war with your fleshly nature. The Spirit of God dwells in you, communing with, leading and guiding your spirit. With the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, your conscience is now even more enlightened than before you became a Christian, so the war with your flesh may be more intense than before.  The apostle Paul writes about this battle between the Spirit of God and the lower nature in Galatians 5:17:

“For the cravings of the lower nature are opposed to those of the Spirit, and the cravings of the Spirit are opposed to those of the lower nature; because these are antagonistic to each other, so that you cannot do everything to which you are inclined.”

Have you ever seen someone run up to help a rider with an out-of-control horse? Our flesh is like a very powerful, spunky horse that cannot be controlled without some extra help from someone.  We need the aid of the Holy Spirit to control it. Without His help, we are doomed to remain carnal Christians!

Now let’s return to Roman’s chapter seven, where Paul described his experience with covetousness. As he continued his line of thought, he described the miserable condition of a carnal Christian who has not yet learned how to control his flesh through the help of the Holy Spirit:

“For what I do is not the good thing that I desire to do; but the evil thing that I desire not to do, is what I constantly do. “

Following this, Paul came to a striking conclusion:

"But if I do that which I desire not to do, it can no longer be said that it is I who do it, but the sin which has its home within me does it."

A thought is an inward action, not an outward one. But the truth Paul is expressing still applies, because when you think, you are doing something inwardly.  

If you think what you do not desire to think, it is not you doing it, but the sin which has its home within you.  

And let's also not forget that Satan and his demons, as temptors, are also able to suggest blasphemous thoughts to people's minds. Regarding this, CH Spurgeon wrote: 

These thoughts, if you hate them, are none of yours, but are injections of the Devil, for which he is responsible, and not you. If you strive against them, they are no more yours than are the cursings and falsehoods of rioters in the street. It is by means of these thoughts that the Devil would drive you to despair, or at least keep you from trusting Jesus. The poor diseased woman could not come to Jesus for the press, and you are in much the same condition, because of the rush and throng of these dreadful thoughts. Still, she put forth her finger, and touched the fringe of the Lord's garment, and she was healed. Do you the same.

Jesus died for those who are guilty of "all manner of sin and blasphemy," and therefore I am sure He will not refuse those who are unwillingly the captives of evil thoughts. Cast yourself upon Him, thoughts and all, and see if He be not mighty to save. He can still those horrible whisperings of the fiend, or He can enable you to see them in their true light, so that you may not be worried by them. In His own way He can and will save you, and at length give you perfect peace. Only trust Him for this and everything else. (Also from the book  All Of Grace by CH Spurgeon).

God will not condemn you for tempting thoughts that Satan or his subordinates suggest into your mind.

Paul recognized that it was not his spirit, the true inner man, that was doing sinful things, because he did not want to be doing them. Rather, it was a sinful nature that his spirit had not yet learned how to completely control.

This is a very important truth that Christians who suffer from OCD need to recognize.  When his patients find themselves involuntarily thinking undesirable thoughts, Dr. Schwartz encourages them to recognize this as merely a symptom of their OCD. He instructs them to think, “It’s not me, it’s my OCD.” It is not their true, inner person who is thinking such thoughts. The involuntary thoughts are merely a symptom of a portion of their brain that is malfunctioning.

As a Christian who battles with OCD, you can say something similar to yourself when unwelcome, intrusive thoughts occur: “That’s not me, it’s just my flesh.” Or, "That's not me. It is just a temptation."

Recognizing this truth helps sufferers of OCD to jump off the treadmill and stop the endless feedback loop. Unwelcome thoughts must be seen as what they truly are, as misdeeds of a fleshly brain that is not quite behaving like we want it to, or as temptations suggested to your mind by an outside source. When we recognize that these thoughts are not expressions of our true inner selves, then we can understand why God is willing to have mercy on us.

We can now recognize, as Paul did in Romans 11:32, “For God hath shut up all unto disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.” (ERV)

We have but to confess our sins, including sinful thoughts, and God will forgive them:

1Jo 1:9  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

With the Apostle Paul, we can conclude, as he did, “So then there is no condemnation at all for those who are in union with Christ Jesus. For the life-giving power of the Spirit through union with Christ Jesus has set us free from the power of sin and death.”

Did you catch that? "THERE IS NO CONDEMNATION AT FOR ALL THOSE WHO ARE IN UNION WITH CHRIST JESUS." Because it is not the real you, your spirit, thinking those unwelcome thoughts, God will not condemn you for them, because you are in union with Christ Jesus.

So, in answer to the question, “What an awful thing to think! Will God ever forgive me for it?”

Yes! God will forgive you, if you but repent and confess! He will forgive you for three reasons:

1.       It was not the true you, your spirit, that initiated that unwelcome thought. It was your flesh.

Romans 7:20 But if I do that which I desire not to do, it can no longer be said that it is I who do it, but the sin which has its home within me does it.

OCD thoughts come from your own brain. That is what makes them seem so scary. But let me stress again the following things:

The real you, your spirit, is not the same thing as your brain. Your spirit is the center of your will. It tells your brain what to think. But with OCD, your brain does not always think what your spirit wants it to. It impulsively thinks undesirable thoughts, and yes, sometimes momentarily even wants to think them. This is much more likely to happen if your brain is tired, over-stimulated, frustrated, or frightened. When you think an OCD thought, your flesh momentarily gains control and does not obey your spirit. 

So how can you tell if a thought came from your own spirit, or from your sinful nature? If you are not happy about it when you think such thoughts, regret them, and want to quit thinking them, then it was your flesh that thought them, not the real you. 

That is why when the apostles were trying to stay awake and pray, but fell asleep anyway, Jesus observed, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Jesus was not pleased that the disciples fell asleep. But He did understand it, and forgave them.

That is why God will forgive you for such thoughts. He knows that your spirit is willing, even though your mind does not always obey your spirit.

2.       Jesus died for that sin:

 John 1:29  The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!

3.       He promised to forgive us if we confess our sins:

1 John 1:9  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Knowing that God will not condemn you, you no longer need fear punishment. You can jump of the treadmill! Now you can turn your mind away from those sinful thoughts to other things, to good things.

 

“Does this mean that I am not really a Christian (or one of the elect)? A true Christian would not think such things, would he?”

Christians are not perfect yet.  Even the apostle Paul wrote, in Philippians 3:12, “ I do not say that I have already won the race or have already reached perfection. But I am pressing on, striving to lay hold of the prize for which also Christ has laid hold of me.”

None of us will be made perfect until we are in heaven with Christ (Hebrews 12:23).  However, we can and should grow towards perfection or maturity.

So yes, it is possible for a true Christian to think unwelcome thoughts. As we have already seen in Romans chapter seven, Paul himself sometimes struggled with unwelcome thoughts. All Christians do.

Of course, non-Christians struggle with unwelcome thoughts, too.  But there is one crucial thing that distinguishes the elect from the unsaved. It is faith, or trust in Christ.

Joh 6:47  Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life.

Have you placed your trust in Jesus to save you? Have you trusted Him to be your Lord and Master? Have you committed yourself to serve Him? If so, then according to the verse above, you NOW HAVE  everlasting life. You possess it right now!

Just think of it. Eternal life is life that never ends. If you were to ever lose it, it would not have been eternal, would it? Jesus defined eternal life along these very lines when He said,

Joh 5:24  "I most solemnly say to you, whoever listens to me and believes Him who has sent me possesses eternal life, and will never come under condemnation, but has already passed out of death into life.

If you possess eternal life, then you “WILL NOT COME UNDER CONDEMNATION” – you “have already passed out of death into life”!

John 10:27  27  My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28  I give them the Life of the Ages, and they shall never, never perish, nor shall any one wrest them from my hand. 29  What my Father has given me is more precious than all besides; and no one is able to wrest anything from my Father’s hand. them to me is stronger than all, and no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.

Do you listen to the words of Jesus? Do you follow Him? Then He knows you to be one of His own. He gives you eternal life – “the life of the ages.” You will "never, never perish" !  No one can take you out of His hand! Not Satan, not a false teacher, not even you! If you could ever perish, then you would not have true eternal life. But according to Jesus, you already possess eternal life! Yes, you have already been given true, never-ending eternal life, if you have placed your faith in Him.

“Have I committed the unpardonable sin?”

Please read the article, What Is The Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit to understand what the unpardonable sin is. For now, suffice it to say that If you had, you would not be worried much about it, because those who do this cannot be renewed to repentance, as we will now see.


“Have I fallen away from God (or lost my salvation)?”

Are you sorry for the things you have done, and are you willing to, and trying to change? Then you have not fallen away from God or lost your salvation. Those who have fallen way from God cannot be renewed to repentance. Rest assured, if you are repentant, then you have not fallen away!

Hebrews 6:4  For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost ,5  And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, 6  If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame…


Not only that, but those who fall away never trusted in Jesus to begin with, because as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews goes on to say, “falling away” (abandoning Christ) does not “accompany salvation.”  Rather, it is the final end of those who stubbornly bear “thorns and briers” (evil deeds) despite many opportunities from a loving and merciful God to repent.

Hebrews 6:7  For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God: 8  But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned. 9 But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak.

Are you repentant? Do you still love Jesus? Do you still want to serve God? Then you have not fallen away.

Set your mind at ease, dear Christian friend. Those unwelcome thoughts are just symptoms of your lower nature, your flesh. God knows that your higher nature, your spirit, does not want to think such thoughts. He understands and will forgive you.  So confess these sins to Jesus and resolve, with His help, not to do them anymore. He will forgive you and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. Stop worrying about them, and these unwelcome thoughts will go away. They cannot separate you from God’s love. Nothing can do that:

Romans 8:35  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36  As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. 37  Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. 38  For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, 39  Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Remember that “ God Himself has said, ‘I will never, never let go your hand: I will never, never forsake you.’ "    ( Hebrews 13:5b)

God will never let go of you; He will never, NEVER forsake you, even when you are in the midst of a struggle with OCD!

When that false fear of condemnation goes away, you will find that the unwelcome thoughts will go away, because then you will be able to turn your mind to other things, to good and peaceful thoughts. This is important. Relax. There is nothing to be afraid of now! Think of how much God loves you: so much that He sent his only begotten Son to die for you.! If He gave His precious, only begotten Son for you, won't he also give you all that you need to be at peace, and much, much more? Think of the forgiveness, the wonderful, free-flowing forgiveness that you have in Jesus! Think of the Counselor, who is there to comfort you, to guide you, and to strengthen you. Rest in the arms of the Good Shepherd Jesus, and be at peace! He will allow no harm to come you. Rest, and you will find that God will renew and refresh your weary mind.

Philippians 4:8 Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Rest, my dear Christian friend, in these promises of forgiveness, of everlasting life, and of unending love.  Give all of your anxieties over to Him, and find the peace that passes understanding:

Philippians 2:6  Be anxious for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7  And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

Hear the words of Jesus:


John 14:27  Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world gives, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.


~

If you are a Christian who suffers from OCD and need some additional encouragement, please feel free to email me, but please, not until you have read this article and it's companion thoroughly, and spent time thoughtfully contemplating the meaning of it and the scriptures contained within it.

 
 

Rusty Entrekin is a theology graduate of Louisiana College. He was set free and has remained free from the power of severe OCD over 25 years ago when, in answer to the prayers of concerned family and friends, God graciously and mercifully granted him understanding of the scriptures contained in this article. He wrote this in hope that through understanding the same scriptures, others will be set free, too. He and his wife Julie have seven children, with four still at home, and four grandchildren. Currently, he resides in Kennesaw, GA. He writes apologetic and theological articles to help people come to know Christ and grow closer to the Lord. 

If you are a Christian who suffers from OCD and need some additional encouragement, please feel free to email Rusty, but please, not until you have read this article and it's companion thoroughly, and spent time thoughtfully contemplating the meaning of it and the scriptures contained within it.

If this article has blessed you, and you would like to free him up to write more, feel free to make a donation below. (But please do not do so if OCD has affected your income and you cannot afford it. And please especially do not feel obliged to make a donation before writing to Rusty!)

Rusty previously decided not to apply for 501c3 ministry status, so that he can write about political matters without worrying about government interference. Because of this, your gifts will not be tax deductible. However, you will receive a far greater reward for your donation:  treasure in heaven!