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:
- How do I know my motives are correct?
- Do I have enough faith?
- Is Jesus really who the Bible says He is?
- Was my prayer for salvation sufficient, or should I pray it again?
- Have I committed the unpardonable sin?
Many people with religious OCD may also experience ego-dystonic intrusive thoughts, which can take some of the following forms:
- Unwanted blasphemous words and phrases
- Unwanted urges to curse God or praise the devil
- Unwanted sinful thoughts that won’t go away
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.
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.
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, 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.
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,