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OCD and How A Simple Question Triggered Years of Questioning

Cali Yee / 7.14.21

Faith is often associated with the heart, the place in which the Spirit dwells. But what of the mind? There are multiple ways in which the mind can respond to faith, ways that can be significantly affected by their brain chemistry. For some, belief may come easily to them. For others, they may need to logic their way through faith and find evidence of God’s existence. Either way the mind is influential (and perhaps too powerful).

For Katie Langston, author of Sealed: An Unexpected Journey into the Heart of Grace, her faith is deeply encroached upon by her mind.

I knelt in bed, sheets and blankets tight around me, head on my pillow. Should I get down on the floor? I thought. Is this reverent enough? But it was cold, and I was frightened, so I began, “Dear Heavenly Father”—I paused, terrified that perhaps even this wouldn’t work—“Dear Heavenly Father, thank thee for this day, thank thee for my blessings, thank thee for my mom and dad and Neal and Jenny.” My customary petitions spent, I searched for words. “Please bless me that I won’t be so scared, please forgive me that I watched Unsolved Mysteries, please forgive me of all my sins, please help me to have good thoughts and dreams.” And then, noticing the anxiety in my stomach, I added for good measure, “And please bless me that I won’t throw up. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

I let the whispers linger in the air, as if willing them skyward, and when I didn’t notice any change, I tried again. 

Langston repeated her prayer, over and over, as if speaking it again will turn the key just the right amount to unlock the door to forgiveness. The words don’t seem to work, so she tried another combination, hoping for a different outcome. Laying back down, she tried:Please forgive me of all my sins.” The process of repetition began again, this time with a new wrinkle. Perhaps she was emphasizing the wrong word of the sentence. She continued, repeating the phrase over and over again, putting emphasis on different words — now jiggling the key to make it fit into a lock that isn’t hers to open.

Eventually I settled on a combination that expressed both humility and thoroughness: “Please forgive me of all my sins.” It felt better, so I repeated it. “Please forgive me of all my sins, please forgive me of all my sins, please forgive me of all my sins, please forgive me of all my sins.”

It soothed me enough to relax into a sort of sleep, and I curled into a ball, drifting in and out of consciousness. When I stirred, I began again: “Please forgive me of all my sins, please forgive me of all my sins,” a new ritual born, less a prayer and more a protocol, a mindless sacrament meant to dull the ache of fear.”

Such a moment, like Langston’s, occurred for me in seventh grade — in the deep depths of pre-teen hormones, braces, and awkward phases. 

It was a typical Wednesday night in Foundations class at my home church. You know — the class where you are forced to read the Bible, Luther’s catechism, and answer questions like “how is your faith life?” (How the heck does a person, let alone a 12 year old answer that?). My mom was leading our small group of teenage girls (how she put up with us? I have no idea). One of the girls, a friend of mine, had come across the passage of Matthew 12:30-32. The passage in which Jesus warns the Pharisees that the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven. She asked a simple question: is there really an unforgivable sin?

Now you must be thinking, how is that a simple question? I say simple because it was asked easily. It wasn’t meant to be taken as a serious and morally debilitating quandary. But my brain didn’t care how simply the question had been asked. It grasped onto the idea that there was a sin that God couldn’t and wouldn’t forgive.

Forget that it was something Jesus said to the Pharisees. Forget that I wasn’t in the same context as when it was said. My brain didn’t care. The thoughts were intrusive and the fear was paralyzing. 

“Have I committed the unforgivable sin? If I say something in my anger to God or His Spirit will I go to hell? 

Damn the Holy — NO! Lord, I did not mean to think that, it just came into my head. 

Am I responsible for all the thoughts that come into my head? Do I mean those words and thoughts?”

What was supposed to be a one-time discussion sparked years of uncertainty about God and His promises — doubts that I still struggle with in my early twenties.

It wasn’t until the end of my freshman year of college that I realized why my brain was stuck on this one thing. I had just been diagnosed with OCD — thirteen years after I first remember experiencing symptoms of the disorder. The diagnosis was mainly for my fear of contamination (ie. germs) that had left me unable to function in daily life. But it also became clear that my relentless doubts about God were intensified by the mental illness’s infection. OCD isn’t just a fear. Take note of the name: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. 

The disorder is defined by those two words, obsessive and compulsive: “Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings. Compulsions are behaviors an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease his or her distress.” Many people like to say “I’m so OCD about…” but they are not acquainted with the torment that follows the real thing.

The obsession over the unforgivable sin and the compulsion for reassurance from Google or my mom (apparently anyone but God), became a cycle that kept moving around and around like an endlessly buffering web browser. And I was the one repeatedly pressing the refresh button.

As far as my mind was concerned, I had committed a sin that put me beyond God’s forgiveness. Yes, God was loving but I was unlovable. Yes, God was gracious but I was not worthy to receive His mercy. Yes, God was forgiving but I was too dirty; how could I ever be clean? My life was full of “buts” and “what-ifs,” keeping me from prayer and in my own despair.

And the truth is I am not worthy of God’s grace. My actions, or words, or thoughts, will never be enough to deserve His mercy. But this grace is not dependent upon my deserving of it. His love is not dependent on how I feel or what I think about Him. The mercy and forgiveness of the cross is completely independent from whatever I have done and whatever I will do.

It feels too simple. And yet, why is it so difficult to understand? It’s easier to hit the refresh button and watch the screen buffer — hoping that Google will provide me with tangible answers to my nagging uncertainty. It feels more comfortable to go over the doubts in my mind than it is to trust in God’s promises. Trust is hard. And I am still not good at it.

It’s taken me a long time to realize that I can’t rely on how I feel about something (even now I still need the reminder — c’mon I’m the poster child for feeling your feelings!). But a feeling is just a feeling and God is greater than my emotions. His love is true. It’s pure. It cannot be based on my feelings nor tainted by my sin.

I can’t trust my brain or even my heart to be able to remind me of God’s grace. But I can trust in His Word, His Spirit, and His body and blood, to seep into my soul and whisper you are forgiven, My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness.