Last updated on June 28, 2022  by 
Jaimie Eckert

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Dealing with unwanted spiritual thoughts is the daily reality of scrupulosity life.

Unwanted thoughts worm their way into our minds and shock us at will, throwing us into a frenzy of compulsive responses. The thoughts can be low-key and annoying, or they can cause panic attacks and in rarer cases suicidal ideation. Those of us with religious OCD struggle with complicated, never-ending rabbit trail questions, like:

Many people with religious OCD may also experience ego-dystonic intrusive thoughts, which can take some of the following forms:

Dealing with unwanted thoughts generally takes up an incredible amount of time and brainpower every day. But we don’t have to fight endlessly with our thoughts. What if there was a pragmatic, proven, and Biblical way to deal with these unwanted thoughts?

Why Should We Bother Dealing with Unwanted Thoughts?

The presence of unwanted thoughts might not seem like a big deal to someone who doesn’t have OCD, but frankly, it’s a horrible experience. Many of my clients have mentioned that they wouldn’t wish OCD on their worst enemy.

Dealing with unwanted thoughts is important, first of all, because of the inner pain it inflicts on us.

I’ve talked with strong, stoic men who break down crying as they tell me about their struggle with unwanted thoughts. I’ve spoken to people who have lost their jobs, dropped out of school, broke up with boyfriends or girlfriends, or live on disability because of their OCD. One of the men in our private group coaching community shared with us that he had become so distressed by the recurrent blasphemous thoughts that he took a shotgun and drove someplace with the intent to commit suicide. Thankfully, to our relief, he did not.

The agony of having a constant battlefield in our heads is reason enough to find healthy and appropriate ways to deal with these thoughts so that we can find lasting relief.

Will Unwanted Thoughts “Just Go Away?”

I’ve gotten emails asking if these unwanted thoughts will just “go away” on their own accord. Well, yes and no.

If we learn to respond to them correctly, they will most certainly go away on their own. In fact, that is the only way to be free of unwanted obsessions and intrusive thoughts–letting them depart on their own. But if we find ourselves in a maddening cycle of fighting with the thoughts, tiptoeing around them in avoidance, trying to neutralize them with opposite thoughts, or reassuring ourselves that they are not true, we are feeding the beast. The thoughts will keep coming back to feed on our attention, and they will not go away on their own.

So yes, unwanted thoughts will go away. But not if we feed them.

Feeding Our Unwanted Thoughts

I grew up on the east coast of central Florida, where alligators patrolled the rivers, lakes, and roadside ditches. Everyone knew the danger of leaving their dogs (especially small dogs) in an unfenced backyard. We heard many stories of alligators crawling across manicured grass, snapping up an unsupervised chihuahua, and disappearing back into the lake.

My family often talked about small dogs as “gator snacks.”

The surest way to keep a gator prowling around your property was to feed it small juicy Pomeranians and poodles. If you want them to get bored and stay away–stop feeding them.

stop feeding your unwanted thoughts

Dealing with Unwanted Thoughts: A Christian Approach

Let me describe for you two extremes that keep us feeding our unwanted thoughts.

At one extreme, we have the fighters.

Fighters are those kinds of people who get so distressed by the obsession or intrusive thought that they fight valiantly against them. After all, the Bible says we have to “take every thought captive,” right? (Um, not like that, but that’s a discussion for another post.)

Fighters react violently against unwanted thoughts. This typically takes the form of mental argumentation or compulsive behaviors meant to neutralize the thought. But ironically, the more fighters fight, the stronger these thoughts become.

It reminds me of the time I ran out of dishwasher powder and decided to use liquid dish soap instead. Bubbles galore! I tried to fight the bubbles by spraying water on them, but this only created a bigger problem. (Note: if you ever find yourself with a kitchen full of soap suds, use a saltshaker. The salt will effectively kill the suds; water will not.)

Fighters are the kind who keep spraying water on the soap suds, and are frustrated when they find the bubbles proliferating and poofing up to their neck.

At the other extreme, we have the avoiders.

Avoiders have figured out that head-to-head fighting with the thoughts does not work, so they decide to put those thoughts on a restricted do-not-think list and lock them away in Fort Knox. Every time the thought intrudes, they tell themselves a hearty “no!” (or perhaps a string of a thousand “no’s,” mumbled or shouted or gritted through clenched teeth).

Avoiders become so paranoid with avoiding the unwanted thoughts that they create a kind of reverse fighting mode. They tiptoe around anything that might trigger the thoughts and they put a fierce amount of effort into not thinking them.

Oddly, avoiders can spend just as much time locked inside their brains as the fighters. They are both fighting, but in different ways.

Thankfully, there’s a better approach.

Moving Parallel to Our Thoughts

Fighters barrel against their thoughts head-on. Avoiders run away from their thoughts.

Neither approach is effective.

What we must learn to do instead is to move parallel to our thoughts, neither fighting them nor avoiding them.

To use another Floridian metaphor, I call to mind the rip current.

If you’re ever swimming in the ocean during dangerous rip currents, you can easily get sucked out quite far from shore. No matter how hard you try to paddle back to the beach, you’ll never make it. The tide is far too strong, and it’s rolling in a “T” shape out to sea and parallel to the shore.

moving parallel to unwanted thoughts

One of the cardinal safety rules we learned as children was that if you get sucked out to sea, swim parallel to the shore until you can escape the rip current. (Cardinal safety rule #2 was to never touch anything that looked like a sack of jelly.)

This idea of swimming parallel to the shore is a useful metaphor for dealing with unwanted thoughts.

Don’t confront them. Don’t run away from them. Just let them be there in your conscious mind without interacting with them. Keep moving through your day. Do not stop daily life to give your attention to these thoughts in any way.

An Example of Moving Parallel to Our Thoughts

Let’s look at an example of how this might work.

Imagine I get an unwanted thought that says, “how do you know God is real and He isn’t just a psychological construct?” (Real life example, in case you were wondering.) When the doubt enters my mind, I am filled with tension, worry, and all kinds of bad feelings.

But, I’ve already dealt with this question. I’ve done lots of research and I am convinced God exists.

I don’t need to cover the same ground again.

My OCD brain, however, wants me to engage with this thought because my attention feeds the alligator. Depending on what day I get this thought, I might be tempted to fight it, or I might be tempted to run like the dickens.

Instead, I choose to respond blandly. Oh. There’s that thought again. Ok. Whatever. It’s just a thought.

I get out of bed. I go take a shower. I get dressed. I fix my hair. I make breakfast.

In other words, I go on with my day.

The thought is snickering on the sidelines, following me. But it cannot touch me unless I engage, either through fighting or through avoidance. I choose to move parallel to it throughout my day, and often–within a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days–the thought is gone.

A Christian Approach

The Biblical rationale for this approach is very important. I know it sounds terrifying to leave the thoughts alone. But if we build on a firm foundation of Truth, such a response will soon become second nature.

The Apostle Peter tells us the following:

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.

1 Peter 5:6-7

Notice what Peter says. We begin from a place of humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God. That is, we recognize that our own human capabilities are insufficient. We reject pride and our insistence on control. The passage begins with a mental picture of open hands and a bowed head as we let go of all we’ve been desperately clutching.

letting go of unwanted thoughts

Letting go, says Peter, is not a moment of defeat. It is the genesis of spiritual greatness. For it is in the letting go that God exalts us.

How does this occur? This process of letting go in humility and then being exalted involves “casting all your care upon Him.”

Your cares and worries are too much for you.

You have tried and tried to handle these thoughts. You have rejected them, and fought with them, and wrestled like Jacob until the break of day. But at some point, we find ourselves crippled, unable to continue.

We must cast our cares upon God.

We do this for two reasons–one, because we can no longer handle them, and two, because He warmly invites us to do so.

This leads us to the last part of the passage: for He cares for you.

God invites us to unburden ourselves–to “dump on Him,” if you will. He couches this invitation in winsome, tender words that remind us of His love. If the God of the universe cares for me, then I know I am in a safe place. I know I can leave my broken toys and shattered dreams and unwanted thoughts in His hands.

Because He cares.

Dealing with Unwanted Thoughts: Bringing It All Together

It is not enough to let go of our thoughts. It is a very good start, but it is not enough. We must couple that with trust in God’s care.

But it is also not enough to trust in God’s care. We must also humble ourselves to the point of letting go and casting our cares upon Him.

The combination of these two things creates a strong strategy for moving forward: on the one hand, letting go of the need to respond–that is, moving parallel to the unwanted thoughts–helps us deal with the biological propensities of our brain to create obsessive spirals. But on the other hand, trusting in God’s care gives us spiritual and emotional security. It legitimizes this strange and counterintuitive act of not fighting or avoiding.

By casting our cares and trusting His care, we find freedom.

When done consistently over time, our unwanted thoughts decrease, and often disappear for good.

A Troubleshooting Tip

Some people realize they shouldn’t be fighting and arguing with their unwanted thoughts, so they dutifully decide to not argue. Instead, the automatic replacement is thought-stopping.

Some inadequately trained therapists may even tell you to employ thought-stopping techniques, such as shouting “stop” or inflicting physical self-punishment, whenever the thoughts come. (And by the way, I’m not a therapist, so I don’t make it my business to criticize what therapists are trying to do, but every client I’ve ever had who tried thought-stopping techniques has reported that it made them even worse. And, here’s a team of OCD specialists, one of many, who say thought-stopping is NOT effective for people with OCD.)

If you’ve stopped arguing with your thoughts and have shifted to shouting or saying “no” whenever the thought arrives, you have swung from being a fighter to being an avoider. You may need to redirect your efforts.

Conclusion

Dealing with unwanted thoughts is the bread and butter of OCD life. I can’t say it’s fun or enjoyable, but we all know what it looks like.

In this article we’ve talked about the necessity of rethinking our approach. We mustn’t fight the thoughts, and we mustn’t compulsively avoid them. In either case, we’re lending our attention and feeding the beast. Instead, we must let go and trust, moving parallel to the thoughts without interaction.

Today, may you find comfort and strength by casting your cares on One who knows your heart and will never let your soul be endangered by unwanted thoughts.

Best wishes on the journey,

jaimie-eckert-signature

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  1. I am recovering from OCD. Currently practicing ERP and was getting WAY better!

    Things were going smoothly, I was progressively getting better, etc etc etc. But then something new happened. My OCD went "Aha! You know what I havent played with yet! His FAITH!". And I have suddenly started receiving "messages" from God through my thoughts. Now typically one would check to see if it lines up with scripture. And the problem is…they DO. They ALL do. Idk what to do.

    I have to ignore them, but at the same time, I have to listen to them? I personally dont even think God would talk to me through my thoughts as he knows my struggles and my pain. He knows the trials Ive walked through. It would be cruel to start to use that as communication. The bible states that God is not a God of confusion, yet I FEEL VERY CONFUSED! But I truthfully dont know. And its sending me backwords greatly.

    Forexample, I was giving into sin after fighting all day, and suddenly I had a loud "DONT DO IT" scream through my head.

    Or another time, I was contemplating whether something was a sin or not, and I had a "Get right with God" go through my mind.

    The problem here, is that they sound, IDENTICAL to my OCD. There is not ONE discerning factor about them. So im stuck here frozen in fear and anxiety wondering what I do.

    Im not a very experienced Christian so my knowledge is not very good, if someone here who knows a bit more than me could help, Id so very appreciate it!

  2. Thank you Jamie for sharing this article. I love what you have to say. Please continue to post articles like these. They are so helpful!

  3. hi Jaimie!
    your blog is really helpful for me. I was in a very bad phase of my OCD and your posts helped me a LOT. here in Brazil scrupulosity isn't something that most of people know about.
    so… since may/june my OCD lost so much power on me, but in the last days of June, I feel like it's coming back. and strong. and always the same stuff: promises to God, "should I do it or not?"questions and, the worst for me, the unforgivable sin. like, when I'm angry or thinking about give up and left my religion this thoughts coming so hard and seems like it was ME saying those things. and i feel nothing. like NO FEELINGS, i can't cry, i can't feel guilty even with my sins that i know that are actually sins. it's weird. and i always have this impulse to challenge God or something and sometimes I really do it, like when i'm so angry but i don't accept the suggestions of blasphemous words but i say things like "why my life is so bad". seems like ALL THE TIME we're fighting. and i know it's not like that but i think I'm challenging Him every hour, every minute, every second. and as i said: no feelings.

  4. What a wonderful article, thank you Jaimie! The 'rip tide' illustration was so helpful and the Scripture link a real blessing.

  5. Praying that the Lord would overwhelm each of us with a greater vision of His love for us, that He would help us to see just how big His salvation is, just how tight His grip on us is, and just how absolutely secure we are in Him through Christ Jesus, that it would disarm the thoughts that cause us such anxiety. May our scrupulous thoughts become puny in nature when compared to the weight and strength of God’s hold on us in Christ.

    Since reading Jaimie’s article, I have been trying to meditate on truths that remind me of my righteousness that is found in Christ alone, and the sufficiency of Jesus’ sacrifice. The bigger those truths become in my heart, the smaller the scrupulous thoughts start to become. The more secure I feel in Jesus, the more confidence it seems to give me to respond calmly to the thoughts, rather than fighting or avoiding (because, for me, the fighting/avoidance behaviors where an effort to “prove” to myself and God that I wasn’t really as unrighteous as my icky thoughts said I was). Titus 3:4-7, 2 Corinthians 5:21, John 10:28 are all so encouraging.

    1. THIS: “May our scrupulous thoughts become puny in nature when compared to the weight and strength of God’s hold on us in Christ.” Thank you for sharing that!

      Jaimie

  6. Jamie, I agree with your approach to overcome intrusive thoughts. A few years ago I dealt with unwanted sexual thoughts. My thoughts made it seem as if I was attracted to the same sex. I knew I had no desire to be with a woman but the thoughts said differently. I prayed and cried for some years. Not until this year I learned it's called Sexual Orientation OCD. I didn't know what was wrong with me. I didn't tell many people about my mind battle; I didn't want them to think I was a lesbian. One night a thought came to my mind that helped me overcome the fear of those thoughts. My mind thought, "you know that's not who are, just let the thoughts pass by." I did just that. I let the thoughts pass without fighting them bc I knew, I know who I really am. After while the thoughts stopped affecting me. The battle was years ago. Occasionally a similar crazy thought will pop, but I say, I know that's not who I am then keep going with my day. The thought that use to have me tears now vanishes in about 2mins. It no longer has power over me. I've had to use this approach with other mind battles. It's the only thing that gives me victory. Thoughts still come sometimes but knowing who I am and what I truly believe helps to overcome thoughts that come against what I know of myself. I find that my intrusive thoughts stem from my fears. The things I would never want to do is what attack my thoughts. I also remember that every believer has a cross to bare or battle to overcome. Ours just happened to be mental. Lastly, I don't think we can just lose our salvation by way of thoughts because we didn't receive our salvation by a thought. We had to believe in our heart and confess with our mouth our hope in Jesus for salvation. We would probably have to do the same or something greater in reverse to give up our salvation. A thought alone doesn't save us or unsave us. Even Jesus had impure thoughts everytime Satan tried to temp Him. The temptations had to first register in Jesus head as an unwanted thought before Jesus was able to rebuke the devil with the Word of God. God knows the true us that goes farther than stinking thinking and intrusive thoughts.

  7. Jamie, you're an awesome writer. I can relate completely to this and many of your articles. Thanks so much for what you do. What helps me is sleeping and driving with my radio on Klove or Air1 worship. Both stations have a saying that's true, "the right song at the right time. God has various ways to speak to us. Sometimes the right song is playing when I first wake up or while driving in my car to remind me that God is with me despite how I feel. In case anyone want to YouTube the songs, they are: Patrick Mayberry-How You Love Me. Erik Neider-Faithful. Ryan Stevenson -No Matter What. Maverick City- Wait On You. Red Rock Worship – Never Leave. May these songs encourage you as they have me. Remember we walk by faith, not by feelings.

  8. So glad that you are back to writing posts! They are always so helpful and I've missed them. 🙂 Would you consider writing a post about how grief can complicate/worsen scrupulosity? Or, could you point me in a direction of some resources? I've looked online and found very little to nothing. Thanks for considering!

    1. Hi Melissa, thanks for your comment! And thanks for your patience…between my doctoral graduation and covid, I’ve certainly gotten behind on writing! Hope to get back in the saddle now!

      Could you elaborate a bit more on what you’ve struggled with as far as grief and scrupulosity?

      Thanks,

      Jaimie

      1. Yes, after I posted, I realized that I should have been clearer. I lost my husband very unexpectedly right before Christmas. We were married for 31 years. It has shattered my heart and rearranged my world in every possible way. I'm just not sure what strategies/tools to use to both deal with the grief and my OCD (intrusive thoughts). I had a therapist for my scrupulosity but she wasn't equipped to deal with the grief component. I'm now seeing a grief counselor but she's not able to tackle the OCD. Grief alone takes an enormous amount of mental energy so I feel a little vulnerable right now to the intrusive thoughts. Does that help at all?

        1. Yes, that helps! And I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. The first thing that comes to my mind is that stress is like highly concentrated fertilizer for OCD. So I can definitely see why your loss and the subsequent grief would make your intrusive thoughts flare up.

          It sounds like a very good tactic to have two different therapists, one who specializes in coping with grief and another who specializes in OCD recovery. It’s true that there are generalized therapists who claim to treat everything, but that just means they dabble superficially in everything without being an expert in anything. I do think it’s a good idea to take a specialized approach for some of these more specific issues like scrupulosity or grief.

          My advice would be to not worry too much if you have increased intrusive thoughts in this season of life. Yes, you’re vulnerable now, because your world has been turned upside down. No, there is nothing “wrong with you” and this is not a permanent, incurable state that you’re in. This too shall pass. Try to look at this as nothing more than a tough season. This might help you to not get stuck worrying about why things seem to be a bit worse at the moment.

          Hope this comes as some encouragement.

          Many blessings,

          Jaimie

  9. A comforting article and thank you for printing the group therapy slides. I had an unwanted thought at church and it was not easy but I let it pass by. If I can think of a verse in the Bible or something Jesus said then it helps.

  10. I have had OCD for 3 months, after a bad depression due to overwork, as a job (nurse), I have three children. I resigned this year, in February, because I was exhausted. at work. Taking care of household chores, I began to notice that I could no longer concentrate, I had many fears about my spirit, I accused myself, I cried a lot, I no longer felt joy (it’s a feeling hard to bear, no it’s dissatisfaction, it’s something that doesn’t make you want to live anymore, it was also impotence, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep ..) I take medication from a specialist, but I got OCD. I have been composing Christian poems for about 23 years (from the age of 10). I am from Romania, as I said before and your advice helps me. I thought I was no longer a believer at the beginning of the OCD, but I calmed down, I think we can go back to how we were once.

  11. After reading the methods i felt somehow relieved thank you people so much I'll try the methods and see how it goes but I believe it's gonna work

  12. Instead of drowning in fear from unwanted thoughts which Jesus doesn't even want me paying attention to, I'm learning day by day to supernaturally "walk on water" just like Peter did as I look to Jesus and fix my eyes on Him. In other words, I'll still hear the waves crashing around me wanting me to fear but I choose to simply trust and rest in Christ alone and hear His voice more clearly day by day and step by step. We serve a loving Father, not a condemning Father. I remember several months ago I took a step of faith on the water… and read the whole book of Psalms and Romans. I simply needed to hear from God directly and to hear His voice and He saved me.
    "I sought the Lord, and He answered me; He delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to Him are radiant with joy; their faces shall never be ashamed. This poor man called out, and the Lord heard him; He saved him from all his troubles. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and he delivers them. Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!" Psalms 34:4-8

  13. Thank you so much for these strategies. It is so scary for me to think about not responding to the thoughts. One reason I respond is in order to “prove” to myself and to God that I really do not want or enjoy the horrible thoughts. I am going to try what you have outlined here and trust that The Lord knows ALL things and that my security and righteousness before God comes from Jesus’ sacrifice alone.

  14. Jaime, I appreciate your faith based approach to scrupulosity. However, my attempts to use biblical verses such as the one you cite in this article only cause me more distress because they have no meaning in that they sound pretty but do not come with practical instructions. How, do you “cast your cares upon God” ? God can take them away, but it not possible to be free of them by giving them to Him. Or is it ? I am not saying your suggestion is wrong, only that for some people with religious ocd, even the most helpful and comforting Bible verses can be triggers or impractical ( a directive with no instructions on how to carry it out.) This can lead to more distress.

    1. Hi Patti,
      I had hoped this was practical. This is how I overcome my own obsessive thoughts, and many others have had success with it. The idea is:
      1. Don’t argue with the thought
      2. Don’t compulsively avoid the thought
      3. Trust that God cares for me and will take care of whatever my obsession is about
      4. Move through my day as if God has already answered my need

      Beyond this, we don’t want to complicate what it means to cast our cares (our obsessions) on God. It’s best to try to keep it simple.
      Jaimie

  15. Jaimie, great article. I’m sure tons of people struggle with this on a daily basis, and you’re right trusting in God a his lovingkindness is the only solution. The difficult part for me is learning to “ just trust” and realize that God hears and listens and understands beyond my ability to realize.

    Thank you
    RW

  16. Hi Jamie, As you say in this paragraph, “Fighters are those kinds of people who get so distressed by the obsession or intrusive thought that they fight valiantly against them. After all, the Bible says we have to “take every thought captive,” right? (Um, not like that, but that’s a discussion for another post.)“ Can you forward me your post about taking every thought captive please, because I get tripped up by that verse. Thank you, Rich V

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