What is religious OCD?

What is religious scrupulosity?


Being stressed makes you more stressed. Some Christians seem forever anxious—even obsessed—about spiritual or moral issues. In extreme cases, that's caused by something called "religious scrupulosity," or "religious OCD," meaning Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Of course, everyone worries sometimes. There's a reason we've taken the time to address panic attacks, overthinking, general anxiety, and how to help each other cope. But excessive worriers, or people with scrupulosity, feel like they are in a cycle of anxiety all the time.

Memes and pop culture like to pretend that arranging shoes or books a certain way is "OCD," but the real, diagnosable mental illness of OCD is much more serious and invasive to one's life. The same is true of religious scrupulosity; it's a whole new level of worry. Religious OCD is characterized by pathological guilt about moral issues that is highly upsetting and disruptive—not only to daily life but also to internal thoughts. This level of anxiety can lead to depression and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Like OCD, true religious OCD or scrupulosity can only be diagnosed by a professional. "Regular" anxiety is hard enough—let alone when fears and concerns turn into obsessions. The struggle to think and do "rightly" just adds stress upon stress. A common vicious circle for those with religious OCD is anxiety about having anxiety. They think, "Because I'm have anxiety/worry, that means I don't have enough faith," which compounds the existing distress and makes everything seem even worse. A person can't just flip a switch to stop thinking about something. That's not how the brain works.

Jesus knows better than anyone (Hebrews 4:15) that you can't change emotions like changing socks. But He also tells us not to be afraid (Matthew 6:25, 34). So, what can someone trapped in the anxiety cycle do?

Gather Your Support People

Some of the best help often comes through loving reminders from caring friends. Our support people can provide reassurance that we don't "have to" feel the way we do—that the extra worry is unnecessary and that we can choose not to let those feelings control us. True friends can acknowledge another person's struggle while reminding them that there are some areas where they still have control.

They can also point out the difference between good (useful) worries and bad (harmful) worries. A "good" worry sounds like, "I smell smoke. I need to be sure there isn't a fire." Bad worries are things like, "If I don't read the Bible enough today, God will be mad at me." Sometimes we need an outside perspective to see those differences.

Having anxiety does NOT mean you're not saved.

Suffering from anxiety, or any mental illness for that matter, does not mean that person lacks a saving faith. Lots of the psalms include emotional outbursts directed at God (Psalm 42:5). Those are written by the same people who later agreed they needed to rely on the Lord for relief.

In the Old Testament, Daniel showed as much bravery for God as anyone (Daniel 1:8; 5:22-23; 6:10, 22). He was also given tremendous knowledge (Daniel 1:7). But that same Daniel also had moments of intense fear, doubt, and anxiousness. It would be crazy to say Daniel lacked faith. Instead, look at how Daniel responded to his fears. When anxiety hit, Daniel admitted what he was feeling. Then he turned his mind towards truth (Daniel 7:16). He moved towards God, not away, because he knew God would not let him down. Daniel was anxious—that didn't make him an unbeliever.

For those struggling with anxiety, please remember that what you feel is not a sign that you're lost. You can't just "snap out of it," and God knows that (Romans 8:26). But you can make good choices about how to respond to those feelings.

Anxiety doesn't feel right, and it doesn't match what we know about God. You can't change how you feel, but you can "own" it and take steps. Sometimes just putting things into words is helpful in managing fears. Scripture is full of useful tools. Prayer is crucial. God also gives us resources like doctors, medication, research-based education, friends, and counselors.

The Devil's Favorite Tools

Fear and anxiety are some among the devil's favorite tools (Ephesians 6:11). Religious OCD is like a lever Satan uses to make his lies even louder, tempting us to doubt God's immense love for us (Romans 5:8). Worry and anxiousness stop us from living the abundant life Christ wants for us (John 10:10). Satan tells us God is checking off a long list of impossible rules, looking for an excuse to abandon us or punish us or even worse. That's completely FALSE.

Jesus said we can have eternal life if we simply trust in Him (John 3:16-17). Satan hits us with the same tactic he used on Eve: "...but did He really say that?" (Genesis 3:1). These doubts trigger our deepest fears that our imperfections mean we're not really saved. Religious OCD can inspire panic over issues unrelated to sin—like how often we study, the way we pray, or if we preach the gospel enough.

Jesus lived as a real human being (Hebrews 4:15), so He knows this is a real struggle. That's why He tells us to be confident, not afraid, when we come to Him (Hebrews 4:16). He promised to never reject the sincere seeker (John 6:37). And He guarantees that He won't let Satan take a saved believer away (John 10:28). God knew everything about us before we were born (Jeremiah 1:5). He understands our needs even when we can't put them into words (Romans 8:26). And He specifically told us we don't need to worry (Luke 12:25–26). He already knows what we need, and He's in control (Matthew 6:34).

Renew Your Mind

"Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will." —Romans 12:2

The key to responding in a healthy way to anxious thoughts is using our non-emotional mind (Romans 12:2). When anxiety strikes, we can examine it, asking, "Does this thought make logical sense?" That doesn't mean trying to suppress emotions. It means asking, "Is this thought coming from a good place, good reasons, and good evidence? Is there anything faulty? Is this the same cycle of thoughts that always seem to pop up?"

Of course, just knowing a fear is empty doesn't make it go away. But it can help us make better choices. Instead of responding in fear and potentially feeding those worries, we can choose to say, "I'm anxious, but I'm not going to let that feeling control me. I don't have to do what my OCD / fear / insecurity tells me to do or believe. This feeling will pass, and God will never abandon me."

If you truly feel you have no control no matter what you try, it would be wise to seek help from a medical or mental health professional. Chemical imbalances in the brain are real and can be helped with certain medications and/or therapy.

Keep Space Open for God

Prayer can be extremely helpful in times of worry and doubt (Philippians 4:6). There's great value in being honest with God, telling Him, "Lord, I'm really scared about this. I know I shouldn't be, and there isn't really anything to be afraid of. Thank you for loving me—even when I'm feeling broken. Please help me remember Your promises and be less afraid."

When we feel anxious, we can refer to those truths and resources. We can celebrate that God gave us so many tools to work with (1 Timothy 4:4)—including friends, pastors, doctors, and family. Mental health issues usually need more help than any one person can provide for themselves. Getting assistance is not a sign of weakness or lack of faith. In fact, it's exactly why God put us around those people in the first place.

Satan wants us to fight a battle that is truly beyond our power and insists we must do so while trying to hide from God. God wants us to acknowledge our weaknesses and bring them to Him. You are not lost or abandoned. God has walked right alongside you the whole time and will lead you through this dark valley.

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." --Psalm 23:4

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TL;DR

God doesn't want us to be anxious about our faith or how He sees us. But sometimes we are, and some may become so obsessed with fears about their spiritual life that it affects their ability to function or ever find joy. We can't always control how we feel. But we can remind ourselves that what we feel doesn't have to control US. We can rely on prayer, reminders about God's promises, and the fact that being anxious doesn't mean that we're lost. We can gather support—friends, doctors, counselors, and other tools—to help us make good choices in response to anxious feelings. Satan wants us to fight a battle that is truly beyond our power and insists we must do so while trying to hide from God. God wants us to acknowledge our weaknesses and bring them to Him. You are not lost or abandoned. God has walked right alongside you the whole time and will lead you through this dark valley.

Writer: Jeff Laird

Jeff is a staff writer with Got Questions Ministries and used to be a mechanical engineer. When he's not accidentally setting things on fire in his workshop, or petting strange dogs, he loves helping people better understand God’s Word and how it applies to our lives. Jeff's calling is to untangle the "big picture" of Christian faith, making it easier to understand.

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