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Am I Evil? Two Insidious Mindsets of Moral OCD 

 December 30, 2020

By  Jaimie Eckert

Am I evil? The unbidden question surfaces at each tiny mistake, each unintended blunder. A strange, intrusive thought makes me shudder. How could such a wicked temptation enter my mind? Maybe I am evil.

If you’ve asked this chilling question, you aren’t alone. Almost everyone in the scrupulosity community — that is, those individuals struggling with religious or moral OCD — are plagued by this doubt.

In my own journey with scrupulosity, I aimed for moral perfection and fell into severe self-condemnation when I could not reach it. A sharp word, an unforgiving thought, even an unmade bed — these caused me to feel that I had keenly missed the mark.

I used to pray a prayer that went like this: God, forgive me for existing!

All based on a painful and deeply-held insecurity: am I evil?

false guilt and moral OCD

Others in the scrupulosity community are paralyzed by the thought of perhaps being possessed by demons, perhaps having the innate ability to harm their loved ones, or perhaps being secret pedophiles.

They react in horror to these suggestions, despising the thought of being as truly evil as their passing thoughts propose.

Today’s post is for you if you feel like a danger and menace to society but have no real evidence to back that up. This is for those who want to answer the relentless question, am I evil?

Demystifying the Question, “Am I Evil?”

The question, “am I evil,” can be asked by any and all members of society. It’s a heart-searching question.

The criminal on death row can ask it.

The school bully can ask it.

The troubled teen dabbling in the occult can ask it.

And the highly conscientious, morally upright person with scrupulosity can ask it, too.

The casual bystander would be quick to point out that the situation is clearly different for innocent people with moral OCD. “You’re just overreacting,” they might say. “You didn’t DO anything wrong.”

But things aren’t so simple for us. Because of the nature of intrusive thoughts, we feel that there is great danger in our thoughts — even if we never actualize them.

For example, we might get a brief but intense thought flashing into our minds, a micro movie clip, of us doing something sinful — perhaps murder, or adultery, or sexual perversion. We immediately fight back against the thought, but it’s too late: the anxiety has already set it.

And with the anxiety comes the devastating question: am I evil?

Thought-Action Fusion

Let’s rewind to the Garden of Eden and remember how Adam and Eve fell into sin. It was through believing a lie, right?

Lying is how Satan does business — and it’s such a predictable strategy that Jesus actually called him the “father of lies” (John 8:44). As we grow up and move through life, we pick up lies that form the twisted, convoluted landscape of living in a fallen world.

A psychologist might call these lies “cognitive distortions.” A Bible student such as myself would talk about the same thing under a different name. Whether we speak of cognitive distortions or “lies of the devil,” we’re talking about the same thing.

am I evil - being stuck in thought-action fusion with OCD

No one is born with “black and white thinking” patterned into their genetic code. We don’t pop out with unhealthy thinking patterns that catastrophize, overgeneralize, or personalize. Depending on our unique family origins and environment, we pick up lies that embed themselves in our minds.

And because all that is evil and painful in life is brought about by Satan, we may certainly lay the responsibility at his feet.

One of these lies of the devil that we carry is something called “thought-action fusion.”

Thought-action fusion is the false belief that thoughts and reality are ontologically linked. That is, a passing thought is not just a thought. It’s a mirroring of reality. It may even be the cause of reality to come.

Oh, no!

Scrupulosity exaggerates the importance of bothersome thoughts because of this tendency towards thought-action fusion. It urges that an evil thought means an evil inner reality which means you really are evil.

But does Scripture support thought-action fusion?

Thought-Action Fusion and the Bible

In order for thought-action fusion to lose its oppressive power, we must go to the Bible to understand where thoughts and actions have their borders.

It’s helpful to study the concept of “temptation.”

Jesus Himself was tempted, yet Scripture says He was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). So there must be a boundary that exists between “thought” and “sin” (i.e. action).

James chapter 1 uses a metaphor of impregnation to describe the process by which a thought (temptation) becomes an action (sin).

But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.

James 1:14-15

Notice a few elements present in this experience of giving birth to sin.

  1. “Desire” is present. This leads us to ask if intrusive thoughts are actually a temptation, because no true “desire” is present. Instead, a sense of abhorrence and aversion comes with the unwelcome thought.
  2. Desire “draws you away” and “entices” you. Think of this in the “consent” language of today’s sex culture. Sin is not conceived by rape; only by consent. Doing a word search for “entice” brings up references to men alluring women into premarital sex and pagans alluring the Israelites into the worship of false gods. But there is no force involved.
  3. The “consent” or enticement discussed in point two is a real action, because the verse goes on to speak of conception. No biological child can be conceived by a thought alone. Likewise, temptation without action is insufficient to father the sin-child.

Thought-action fusion is VERY difficult to sustain from Scripture. Although it is certainly possible to harbor bitter or depraved thoughts, the burden of proof is on those who believe that unwanted thoughts are actually sin.

Thought-Action Fusion and Logic

For those caught in the mire of wondering, “am I evil?” because of distressing and unwanted thoughts, it can also be helpful to face this lie of the devil with our God-given common sense and logic.

If thoughts and actions have some sort of ontological or causal connection, why not just think really good thoughts and save the planet? Why not think up a stupendous future for all of us?

In actuality, we simply aren’t that powerful. We are simply overestimating any potential evil that might be within us.

In another article, I discuss the “danger paradigms” of OCD. People who chronically wonder, “am I evil” are most likely entrenched in the “dangerous me” paradigm.

Am I Evil? Dealing with False Guilt

Another lie of the devil that plagues those of us with moral OCD is false guilt.

Guilt exists as a helpful emotion to move humans towards moral decisions. Guilt for wrongdoing and self-respect for right-doing are the emotional responses we experience in daily life choices.

And this is really helpful. It’s like hunger motivates us to eat, but glutted feelings of overindulgence motivate us to stop eating. All these feelings in life exist for a purpose.

But not all guilt is true guilt.

intrusive thoughts make me wonder if I am evil

Sometimes the conscience can be misinformed.

I’ve had clients with scrupulosity who feel that they are evil because they pick their nose or because they accidentally saw a woman in a bikini on a TV ad. But the reality is that we have to do a lot of misconstrual of God’s character in order to turn these things into sin.

But of course, the hardiness of the OCD error-detecting system will always find something new to label as “potential evil” within you. There will always be some new “sin” to send you down a path of endless rumination and compulsive behaviors meant to cancel out your supposed inner evil.

That’s why our response to the “am I evil” question needs to immediately recognize that not all guilt is true guilt.

Am I Evil? A Biblical Response

We can respond to the “am I evil” question in two main ways.

  1. We can fight against it and constantly remind ourselves that we are not guilty of what we fear and would never do the strange things that pop into our minds.
  2. We can embrace the reality that we are all sinners and we are made pure by the righteousness of Christ.

The problem with fighting against our scary inner thoughts is that fighting breeds repetition. The more we try to argue with ourselves, the worse the thoughts become. 

Why?

When we argue against an intrusive thought, the brain immediately labels that thought as “dangerous.” Any time it comes up again, we are obliged to keep fighting against it — hence, the deadly OCD cycle. OCD intervention typically involves learning to gradually decrease the attention we give to these thoughts until the point that they arouse little to no anxiety when they appear.

From a Biblical point of view, this may seem terrifying, because nobody wants to get comfortable with the idea that I might be evil. We ought to fight against our evil inclinations, right?

Well, it depends on how you look at it.

Many world religions teach that we are not natural sinners. We are born pure and perhaps just “learn” sin from our environment. I remember a large place of worship of a non-Christian group invited community members to attend with a bold marquee stating, “Join us! Here, we won’t tell you you’re a sinner.”

But that’s not what Scripture says.

Sin and Salvation: Embracing the Truth

The entire Biblical message is predicated on the reality that we are born sinners. So, in a way, we all come prepackaged with a propensity to evil. 

When we meet the Lord, we are thrilled by His holiness. We yearn to be cleansed and lifted from the pit of sin. Looking at our sinful natures, we are disgusted and wish, as it were, to crawl out of our own skins.

“Stop!” cries the humanist. “You mustn’t hate yourself. You need to love and accept the skin that you’re in. Stop talking about ‘holiness’ and just be you.” 

“No!” cries the Christian masochist. “You ARE disgusting. Roll in your sinfulness until the maggots cover your decaying body. Perhaps God will accept your humility.”

“Wait!” cries the moral perfectionist. “I see that I am sinful, but I must work very hard to change myself. With intense effort, I believe I can become truly good.”

At all this, Christ must shake His head sadly. 

  • Unlike the humanist, Christ brings REALISM — we are sinful.
  • Unlike the Christian masochist, Christ brings DIGNITY — we aren’t meant to stay that way.
  • Unlike the moral perfectionist, Christ brings DEPENDENCE — by His power and His power alone, this radical change becomes possible.

So let’s get back to the question, “am I evil?” If you read your Bible (and I hope you do, even if you find it to be triggering), the conclusion is YES…and NO.

Yes, because God’s word affirms that all have sinned (Romans 3:9-26, James 2:10, Romans 7:18) and we all have an ongoing propensity towards sin. This is called the sinful nature.

But no in the sense that Christ’s dramatic rescue program involves a complete restoration of the image of God in us — which means the eradication of evil.

  • In a moment, we are justified — our past is cleansed
  • Throughout our lifetime, we are sanctified — we grow up into holiness
  • At the return of Christ, we are glorified — our natural bend towards evil is removed

And thus, clinging to Christ like the branch clings to the vine, can we truly say we are evil? If we are being justified, sanctified, and soon to be glorified, where is the room for evil?

No, dear friend — you are not evil. Banish your feelings of despair and self-disgust. A realistic view of yourself will admit your sinful nature and ability to make mistakes. It will admit the need to run often to the Savior for help in every emergency and for forgiveness in times of need.

surrender to God in moral OCD

But at every moment, it will cling by faith to the truth that we are clothed in the white garments of Christ’s righteousness. Imagine yourself wrapped in the loving embrace of Jesus. No one can see you or your problems — they only see Him. And the longer you cling to Jesus, the more His righteousness seeps into you and produces a deep change of heart.

Yes, we COME evil — but we don’t stay evil.

What To Do With Thoughts of Being Evil

One of my Bible teachers used to say that Jesus is like a shower. He receives us, allowing us to come just as we are — but He certainly doesn’t leave us that way. He cleans us up! What good news!

If your strand of OCD causes you to fight feverishly against thoughts that you might be horribly evil, here’s what you do:

  1. Stop arguing with yourself.
  2. Agree that you (and everyone else on the planet) are evil.
  3. Recognize that there is nothing you can humanly do to change that.
  4. Let the full force of point #3 sink in.
  5. Fall on the rock and be broken: this means giving up your attempts to obsessively and compulsively work your way to a solution. It won’t work. Ever.
  6. Give Christ full responsibility for working in you to will and to do of His good pleasure. This is a simultaneous act of surrender (giving up control) and faith (depending on the work of Another).
  7. Rest in what has already been done FOR you to bring about your restoration to God-given dignity and holiness.

Verses that Celebrate Christ’s Righteousness for Us

But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.

1 Corinthians 1:30

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

2 Corinthians 5:21

In those days shall Judah be saved, and Jerusalem shall dwell safely: and this is the name wherewith she shall be called, The Lord our righteousness.

Jeremiah 33:16

For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.

Hebrews 10:14

And be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith

Philippians 3:9

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.

Galatians 2:16

Conclusion

You might be tempted to wonder, “am I evil?” There are a number of reasons why this thought might flit through your mind. You may have bought into the thought-action fusion lie. You might have fallen for false guilt. Or you may simply have a weak understanding of righteousness by faith.

Good Christian theology actually helps us in exposure and response prevention (ERP), the best response to OCD. Constantly fighting against the feeling that we may be evil is exhausting and self-defeating. But we can face those fears head-on by recognizing that we are sinners and we have nothing to prove.

Nothing to prove and everything to gain. Thank God for the gift of His Son! We were bent on evil but are now redeemed!

The cure for OCD — and, ironically, the message of salvation — is one of surrender. It is a giving up, a release of control, a recognition of defeat. But this defeat is one that whisks us into ultimate victory. Just as we discover true faith by letting go of control, we also discover the same joyful freedom when we learn to let go of the demands of our OCD — demands that come in forms like “thought-action fusion” and “false guilt.”

We’ve all heard people respond naively to scrupulosity by saying “you just need to have more faith.”

But maybe what we really need is the right kind of faith. A faith that allows us to face our biggest fears (like wondering if I am evil) and resting the entirety of our weight on Jesus Christ.

Best wishes on the journey,

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  1. Again, a very good topic, Jaimie. This was one of the questions which I most struggled before being diagnosed with OCD. Prior to the "Pure-O" symptoms, my OCD focused basically in cleanness and some superstitious/magical thinking. While pretty bothersome, it was bearable. But someday, one thought regarding suicide appeared in my mind. I can't tell how horrified I felt. I always tried to be a good, moral person, so of all the thoughts, this was the one I should never have had. I felt dirt. Needless to say, the thought started to appear again, and again, and again. It's hard to describe the guilt I felt. Sometimes I would be afraid of losing control and trying to kill myself and if I did that, I would never forgive myself (this shows just how absurd it was: I was afraid not of killing myself, but of trying). Then one day I helped an old lady go to a check up in the university hospital and after that I was saying to myself: "See, you are not so evil after all, you help people!". That gave me courage to see if someone else suffered my symptoms, so I googled: "fear of losing control". The first thing that appeared was a page titled "Absurd ideas and fear of losing control". Well, so I wasnt the only one. I clicked it and couldn't believe it. The author described exactly what I was feeling and said those were symptoms of OCD, something I knew I had. I can't describe the happiness I felt, it seemed like I was born again.
    Later the thoughts started to involve religion (some I mentioned in a comment in a previous post), but I was already better equiped to deal with them. After researching about scrupulosity I actually got a much better idea about God and Christianity then before, so in the end, OCD indirectly helped become a better Christian.
    A big thank you for your site, Jaimie!
    God bless you!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Gabriel. Isn’t it crazy how you needed an external event (helping an old lady go to a hospital) to somehow “prove” to yourself that you are a good person? Most people would call themselves a good person by citing the bad things they DON’T do. But those of us with scrupulosity don’t have the same baseline. We can’t accept “omission of major crimes” as a good enough proof that we are good people. We have to go above and beyond. When I would get those awful feelings that some nebulous thing was wrong with me, I used to pray spontaneously, “God, forgive me for existing!” It’s this deeply held belief that we are not good enough unless we prove it with grand acts of kindness and benevolence. Ultimately, it’s a self-defeating pattern because it’s little more than righteousness by works. Our path to faith and wellness is to cling to the Bible’s promises of what Christ does FOR us, and learning to simply sit still like a trusting child and depend on those things that are done for us.

      1. Exactly! That's why I said OCD actually helped be a better Chrstian. I didn't have a very good religious education as a child, so before those episodes, I felt like I was responsible for everything, including my salvation. If only I could be good enough…
        But as you said, it's a self-defeating pattern, specially when our disorder, which likes to disguise itself as our "conscience", is never satisfied.

  2. Thank you Jaimie. I appreciate the amount of work you put into creating really helpful content such as this.

    You totally did justice to this topic. Thorough, informative and liberating!

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