When I think about the bodily compulsions of religious OCD, I think back to the first moment I realized my own bodily movements might not be “normal.”
I was in a small group Bible study some years back, and the group leader was trying to make a comparison between the really vital questions of life versus the mundane, subconscious choices we make each day.
“Nobody here actually thinks about the order in which you tie your shoes, right?” He asked.
I should have seen the question for what it was: rhetorical. Rhetorical questions are not supposed to be answered. But I blurted it out before I could even process it.
“Sure, of course I think about the order I tie my shoes,” I said. “It’s always left first, then right.”
The group leader looked at me as if trying to figure out if I was joking or not. His facial expression informed me that I had already backed myself into a corner, and I suddenly wasn’t sure if it would be worse to divulge further details or to appear as though I was mocking his question. I plunged forward. “Everything is left first, then right. Left pant leg first, left shoe first, left sleeve first. Also when I shower, I have to dry the left side and then the right side.”
The group leader cleared his throat. “Well. Let me rephrase my question, then. Most of us don’t really think about the minor details of life, do we?”
The group members tittered and glanced at me sideways while I busied myself pretending to look for the book of Nahum. It was, perhaps, one of the first times I realized that there were elements of my bodily movements, motions, and ordering that might not be entirely “normal.”
Surprising Bodily Compulsions of Religious OCD
I don’t think my preference for ordering my left side before my right side has any sort of religious flavor to it. It is, if anything, more related to my experience with symmetry OCD, where things don’t “feel right” unless done in a certain order or in a certain way. But did you know that there are some interesting bodily compulsions in religious OCD? After working with hundreds of people with scrupulosity, I began hearing patterns emerge. People told me about the physical expressions of their anxieties, and I would realize someone else had just told me the same thing. Others who attend our online Zoom sessions would share about the physical movements and bodily compulsions from their own religious OCD and others would exclaim, “me, too!”
Here are some of the most common religious OCD bodily compulsions that I’ve heard:
- Urge to achieve the “perfect” prayer posture
- Urge to wash hands before holding Bible or other sacred objects, and avoid touching body parts during Bible reading time which are considered “dirty”
- Clenched fists due to fear of giving God the middle finger
- Blowing air to dispel intrusive thoughts
- Random movements (like twitching nose) avoided out of fear that they “mean” something negative for spirituality, such as selling one’s soul to the devil
- Attempt to isolate “dirty” actions (like using the bathroom or sex) from any thoughts of God to avoid contaminating Him; may lead to repetition of act till it can be completed without thinking about God in order to “finish on clean”
- Tapping or touching for reasons that have overtly religious rationale, such as touching doorknob 10 times for the 10 Commandments or turning key in lock 3 times for the Holy Trinity
- Avoiding physical contact with certain people or objects due to concerns of religious contamination
I am sure that there are more that can be added to this list of religious OCD’s bodily compulsions—feel free to add yours in the comments below! In another post, I talked about how bodily sensations can trigger religious OCD—but this list above is specifically about when the bodily action is itself the compulsion. It is an attempt to satisfy the uncomfortable feeling raised by an obsessive thought.
Dealing with Religious OCD’s Bodily Compulsions
At some point, you may have realized that other people are noticing. Or that you’re doing the same movements over and over again and they just don’t make sense.
So what can we do?
As far as I know, there isn’t a verse in Scripture that specifically speaks about compulsive bodily movements. But there is a broader concept behind these behaviors that I think Scripture does address.
Think with me for a moment about what we are attempting to accomplish through religious OCD’s bodily compulsions. Depending on how far along you are in your recovery journey, you probably think one of two things:
- That these bodily movements will actually prevent the harm, catastrophe, and damnation that you fear (for those at beginner levels in OCD management)
- That these bodily movements don’t actually prevent or fix anything, but you know your actions are a hard-to-resist way of managing your own anxiety, so you continue doing them anyways (for those at more advanced levels of OCD management)
In either case, bodily compulsions are a form of self reliance. We are looking to ourselves to supply a solution to our real or imagined catastrophes. Many people with scrupulosity will advance to the point of recognizing that these compulsions are a crock of baloney and have zero impact on our salvation or any other spiritual reality. But we continue the same patterns simply because stopping them creates too much anxiety.
It usually goes like this:
I know it doesn’t make sense to think that twitching my nose means I am agreeing to sell my soul to the devil. But I can’t stop being hyperaware of what I’m doing with my nose. I guess it’s actually fine to twitch my nose, even intentionally—but what if it’s not? I feel so anxious when I do it! I better avoid it, just in case.
There are surprising numbers of people stuck in the pit of religious OCD because of the infamous “just in case.” But that’s a topic for another day.
We are overcome with a panicky sense of doom whenever we tiptoe away from our irrational compulsions. And that feeling of anxiety is harder to deal with than the annoying compulsions themselves. So we keep doing the compulsions. The compulsions are our fix. They are our solution. WE are our own solution.
Relying on Self
What does the Bible say about self-sufficiency?
Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God.2 Corinthians 3:5
Paul reminds us that our sufficiency is from God, not from our own works. Our compulsive behaviors can’t prevent bad things from happening, no matter how much our brain spiritualizes these actions. (And no, God did not decide to make YOU an exception out of all the people on the face of the planet and require YOU and you alone to tap in patterns of threes to secure your own salvation. Please don’t try to rationalize your unbiblical compulsion by trying to make yourself the exception.)
The prophet Jeremiah spoke about the blessedness of those who trust in God rather than trusting in themselves. He wrote,
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,Jeremiah 17:7-8
And whose hope is the Lord.
For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters,
Which spreads out its roots by the river,
And will not fear when heat comes;
But its leaf will be green,
And will not be anxious in the year of drought,
Nor will cease from yielding fruit.“
The image of the tree planted by the waterside represents security and prosperity of the very best kind. Notice that Jeremiah has chosen a metaphor that shows the object which is prospering (the tree) and the object which causes it to prosper (the water). It is not the tree which makes itself live a long and healthy life. It is the water which brings it through drought and heat waves. It is the water which causes the tree to yield its fruit. The only act of the tree is to spread out its roots and receive the life-giving stream. How different this is from the first part of the parable!
Thus says the Lord:Jeremiah 17:5-6
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
And makes flesh his strength,
Whose heart departs from the Lord.
For he shall be like a shrub in the desert,
And shall not see when good comes,
But shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness,
In a salt land which is not inhabited.“
The difference between the tree and the shrub is not that one is naturally hardier than the other. The difference is that one is planted next to a source of life and the other is planted in the salt flats.
Self-reliance is like being planted in a desert. There is no life source for us. Our self-reliant compulsions are salt upon our tongues and hot wind against our faces. They dry us out, dehydrate our souls, and at the end, lead us to despair.
Why, then, should we not forsake our compulsions, despite the anxiety caused by doing so, and run to the source of all life?
Bringing the Bodily Compulsions of Religious OCD to Christ
I know that bodily compulsions bring a false sense of safety and security. But dear friend, they lead away from the water of life that will soothe our souls in a long-term, sustaining way. When you really stop to think about the net effect of your compulsive behavior, is it not true that your compulsions fail to give lasting relief? Religious compulsions give a whiff of promise, but they are no true balm for our suffering.
A few months ago, my husband and I visited an elderly member of our church who was dying in the hospital. He was receiving palliative care to make the last few days comfortable, and he knew the end was near. But despite the prospect of dying very soon, he was strong in faith. He asked us to read his favorite psalm, and he smiled a pained but peaceful smile.
“I cannot drink water,” he told us with labored breath, “I’m not allowed to drink. Everything has to come through my feeding tube or my IV.” He stopped to smile through dry, chapped lips. “But you know, I don’t mind. I am looking forward to drinking the water of life that flows from the throne of God.” He pumped his fist weakly in the air–a grand gesture of victory for a man who saw through eyes of faith. He was willing to cheerfully forgo the relief of drinking the water of this earth, because he looked forward to the true water of life.
Is it not such with our compulsive behaviors? Perhaps we will feel as though we are dying of anxiety to give them up—but in truth, we are merely drawing closer to the true waters of life–the true depth of trusting in God rather than in ourselves–which will alleviate our anxiety so thoroughly that we need not fear when drought is coming.
Dear friend, if you have been struggling with the bodily compulsions of religious OCD, may I invite you to bring these to Christ? Tell Him about them—identify what physical gestures, movements, or avoidances you’ve been dealing with that serve as a form of anxiety management. Admit to Him that you know these motions have no magical qualities, and you don’t want to trust in them anymore. Ask Him to help you overcome. Then, each time you feel the urge to engage in these bodily compulsions, run to Christ instead of performing the action.
Yes, you will feel anxious in the beginning as you start refusing to perform your compulsions. But the more you do it, and the more staunchly you choose to trust in Christ rather than the “magic” deliverance promised by your empty compulsions, the easier it will become.
Be encouraged, dear friend! God is with you as you seek to be planted by the living water which He has so freely provided. Trusting in Him will be a cooling balm to your soul, one which will never fail to satisfy.
Best wishes on the journey,