Point of view: you’re a person with religious OCD, just going about your day. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a horrible, blasphemous thought flashes through your mind. Perhaps it is a thought that you want to worship the devil, or that you reject Christ, or a string of vile curse words against God. These thoughts frighten you and send your anxiety spiking through the roof. But worse than the thoughts themselves is the fearful question: did I MEAN to have that blasphemous thought?
Many people in the scrupulosity recovery community are greatly perplexed at this very question. The nature of “intrusive thoughts” is that they are unwanted. However, the nature of obsessive-compulsive disorder is to doubt everything that can be doubted–including our own sincerity. Intrusive thoughts intrude, scare us with their initial presence, then scare us more by making us ask, did I mean to have that blasphemous thought?
No, you didn’t mean to have that blasphemous thought. Nor did you mean to have any of the hundreds of other weird, unruly, unwanted thoughts passing through your OCD mind.
I’d like to share some key ideas that I hope will help you stop asking this question.
What the Bible Says About Intrusive Thoughts
I wish there were overt, descriptive passages in the Bible about obsessive compulsive disorder. I wish someone like doubting Thomas would have written his own epistle to answer questions about doubt and spiritual sincerity. Maybe he would have included a few verses that would help us with our nagging question, “did I mean to have that that blasphemous thought?”
But unfortunately, the Bible isn’t razor-sharp in its specificity about all topics. It gives us big, overarching principles, and then we have to use our God-given intelligence and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit to apply these principles to everyday problems.
So while there aren’t any verses (that I know of) which speak specifically to the psychological phenomenon of intrusive thoughts, there are still some helpful principles.
Principle 1: God Understands
One of my favorite passages in relation to intrusive thoughts reminds us that God understands.
. . .The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.1 Corinthians 3:20
Even the wisest and most spiritual among us will have weird, unhelpful, futile thoughts. And God understands. He knows our words before we speak them, so it makes sense to say that God knows our thoughts even before we think them.
O Lord, You have searched me and known me.Psalm 139:1-4
You know my sitting down and my rising up;
You understand my thought afar off.
You comprehend my path and my lying down,
And are acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word on my tongue,
But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether.
Do you think God can understand the difference between a rebellious thought and an intrusive thought? Do you think God, our Great Physician, who understands all maladies of the body and brain, knows why these thoughts pop into your head?
You might be stuck asking “did I mean to have that blasphemous thought,” but God isn’t stuck there. He already knows.
And like any good physician, He’s not blaming the patient. He’s ready to help, heal, and comfort.
Principle 2: Sometimes We Think Things We Don’t Mean
I know many people in the scrupulosity recovery community are nervous to talk about the exorcism passages in the gospels. For some, this nervousness stems from fears of becoming possessed by a demon or fears that they might accidentally pray to Satan. For others, talking about demons being cast out can trigger negative memories of attempted exorcisms that failed to help them.
Yes, there is a surprising number of people with OCD who have loving, well-meaning church pastors who try to cast out the “demon” of OCD from them. I have never yet heard anyone tell me that this worked for them. If you’re someone with OCD who benefited from deliverance ministries, please comment below. I would love to know that there was at least one. But my suspicion is that OCD is not an issue of demon possession; it’s a mental health disorder that needs to be handled kindly and gently, and sufferers should not given any more fear than they are already experiencing.
With that said, I would still like to make a brief observation about one of the Bible’s deliverance stories. You may remember the demoniac in the country of the Gadarenes. This guy was possessed by a whole legion of devils. He was so uncontrollable that he lived among the tombs, cutting himself and crying in torment. No one could bind him, even with chains, and it appears that his friends and family eventually gave up.
But then, Jesus.
The demoniac rushed towards Jesus with the strangest mix of opposing reactions. On the one hand, the Bible says that the demoniac worshipped Him. But the words that came out of his mouth seemed calculated to reject Him.
When he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped Him. And he cried out with a loud voice and said, “What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore You by God that You do not torment me.”Mark 5:6-7
Somewhere, deep in his heart, this man wanted deliverance. He wanted to worship Jesus in freedom. But when he opened his mouth, unwanted words tumbled out.
He wasn’t free.
But if this demon-possessed man uttered words that did not belong to him, isn’t it logical to say that people with mental health disorders can sometimes have thoughts that don’t belong to them? Certainly, the mechanism is different: in the demoniac’s case, his unwanted words were produced by the alien, demonic entities that possessed him. In our case, our unwanted thoughts are produced by the misfiring blips of underperforming brain circuitry. But the effect is the same: words, thoughts, or actions that we don’t want and don’t mean.
Once again, Jesus understood. He didn’t get offended or run away. He didn’t frown and tell the man that his words were so rude that he had committed the unpardonable sin. No, Jesus saw through the man’s struggles and glimpsed his heart.
For He said to him, “Come out of the man, unclean spirit!” Then He asked him, “What is your name?”
And he answered, saying, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” Also he begged Him earnestly that He would not send them out of the country.
Now a large herd of swine was feeding there near the mountains. So all the demons begged Him, saying, “Send us to the swine, that we may enter them.” And at once Jesus gave them permission. Then the unclean spirits went out and entered the swine (there were about two thousand); and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and drowned in the sea.
So those who fed the swine fled, and they told it in the city and in the country. And they went out to see what it was that had happened. Then they came to Jesus, and saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.Mark 5:8-15
Jesus sees you, too, dear reader. He understands exactly where your thoughts are coming from. You may be wilting in self-condemnation and despair, asking every day, “did I mean to have that blasphemous thought?” “Was it really from me, or was it my OCD?” “Did I consent to that thought?” But Jesus isn’t tripped up. He knows that sometimes we think and say things we don’t mean.
Trust His Word. He’s been dealing with people like this demoniac guy long before you came along. He’s not fazed at all. He knows all your thoughts, and He still loves you.
Did I Mean to Have That Blasphemous Thought?
I’d like to share a metaphor that I think can help you with the fear of whether you meant to have that blasphemous thought or not.
Imagine that you’re in the grocery store for your weekly shopping trip. You push your squeaky-wheeled cart from one aisle to the next, checking things off your list.
Eggs. Lettuce. Apples. Oatmeal. Peanut butter.
As you peer through the glass in the frozen goods aisle, hoping to find some frozen strawberries, another shopper stops her cart beside you. Nonchalantly, she surveys the contents of your basket.
“Oh, that’s what I forgot,” she mumbles to herself. Then she reaches into your cart, takes your jar of peanut butter, and walks away.
“Hey!” You call after her, suddenly indignant. “That’s MY PEANUT BUTTER!”
Most of us can imagine how it would feel if other shoppers started taking things out of our cart. But think about it for a moment–is it really your peanut butter? Just because you saw merchandise (which belongs to the store), took it off the shelf (which belongs to the store) and placed it in the cart (which also belongs to the store), is it yours?
It’s not your peanut butter! Location does not equal ownership.
Ownership is established the moment you put your money where it matters. When you take that peanut butter jar to the checkout lane, scan it, pay for it, get a receipt, and walk out of the store–now it belongs to you.
Location does not equal ownership; ownership is established by financially committing to that product.
How This Translates to Our Intrusive Thoughts
Most of the time, people with religious intrusive thoughts make the mistake of thinking that location equals ownership. Just because the thought is locationally “in” their brain, they think it must belong to and originate from them. It’s hardly any different from feeling ownership of a store’s product just because we’ve placed it in our cart.
But our thoughts don’t belong to us unless we commit to them. We’ve got to put the money where it matters. And believe me, if you’re reading this and thinking, “wait, did I agree to the thought? Did I commit to it? Did I mean to have that blasphemous thought in my true, inmost self?” if you have to ask those questions, you didn’t commit to the thought.
By the way, the “location equals ownership” is a psychological principle that is well-known amongst salespeople (I used to work in sales). Putting your product in a person’s hands while you make your pitch translates directly into higher sales. That’s why companies allow you to test-drive and try on products. Once you have it locationally in your possession, it’s so much easier to feel that it actually belongs to you.
But it doesn’t. Not until you make the commitment.
You can have all kinds of thoughts locationally in your head without actually having committed to them. Call those thoughts “temptations,” “intrusive thoughts,” or whatever else you want to call them–they’re not yours.
What Does Commitment to a Thought Look Like?
If there is a difference between the presence of a thought and my commitment to it, we need to talk about what commitment to that thought actually looks like.
I hope to make this as easy for you as possible. Commitment to a thought or idea occurs when:
- You make external decisions/actions based on that thought, OR
- You make definite plans to act on the thought in the future
As an example, imagine Joe Schmoe the businessman and his gorgeous office secretary, Jane Schmane. Joe is already married, but he keeps getting thoughts about Jane every time they interact. At first, the thoughts bother his conscience, but as time goes on, he starts to deliberately ignore his conscience in order to make flirtatious advances.
Joe is acting out his thoughts via his behavior.
Jane accepts Joe’s advances, and soon Joe begins to make plans for how he can have an affair without his wife finding out.
These two criteria indicate that Joe has committed to his adulterous thoughts. He has acted them out, and he is making plans to go deeper into his sin.
Did I Mean to Have That Blasphemous Thought? How to Know
If you’re asking, “did I mean to have that blasphemous thought?” you’re trying to find out whether you’re guilty of the content of that thought.
And I understand. I’ve had some wild thoughts pass through my mind, too. (For the record, I bet Satan also tormented Jesus Himself with unwanted thoughts.)
But here’s the thing: most people with scrupulosity are extremely worried about whether they meant to have their blasphemous thoughts…and yet, people with scrupulosity are the least likely to ever act out those thoughts.
I mean, doesn’t it seem a little odd that you have thoughts about rejecting Christ which really bother you, and yet you keep going to church? You keep praying, agonizingly, for forgiveness? You keep reading your Bible every day, hoping to grow in grace? You keep offering your life to God as an offering?
Doesn’t that seem at least a little different from what you’d expect to see from someone who is genuinely rejecting Christ?
You can probably recognize that your life–bumpy as it may be–is still in an onward, upward trajectory towards heaven and glory. You haven’t given up yet. You keep coming back, with all of your messes and struggles, to kneel at the feet of Jesus.
That counts for something. Indeed, that’s the only thing we can do in this whole plan of salvation. We can show up.
We can’t be justified by our works. We can’t fix our problems. We can’t by any human means save ourselves.
But we can show up, empty-handed, at the foot of the cross. We can come, just as we are, and say, “Lord, nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” He will then “work in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”
He’ll take your blasphemous thoughts away. Trust me. It might take a long time as He teaches you new mental health strategies and takes you deeper into new levels of trust, but He’ll do it.
The Tricky Part
The most difficult part of dealing with religious intrusive thoughts is typically the ragged junction between failure and success. As we begin implementing techniques like response prevention, in which we learn to stop arguing with our intrusive thoughts and just let them leave the brain on their own terms, we’ll often see a change begin to take place. For some people, the intrusive thoughts will show slight signs of reduction right away. For others, the intrusive thoughts will immediately get worse.
The spiritual, conscientious person tends to have layers of worry about response prevention. “If I just let the thoughts be there without responding to them, aren’t I somehow agreeing with them?” They ask.
And I say, no.
Location does not prove ownership. A thought that is present in my brain is not necessarily “my” thought. Unless you’ve made external actions or concrete plans that prove commitment to the thought, they aren’t yours.
Keep up the good work with response prevention. Don’t be dismayed by thoughts that your fledgling successes might be a sign of spiritual disaster. As you begin to have success through non-response methods, you might get some anxieties about this. But letting the thoughts just “be there” until they exit is exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. Keep it up.
“Did I mean to have that intrusive thought?”
No, I highly doubt it.
You don’t even need to tell me about you, about your situation, or about your specific thoughts. The very fact that you’re worried enough to ask the question is evidence that you just aren’t comfortable with your thoughts.
(It’s kind of a parallel to the truism that “if you’re worried about having committed the unpardonable sin, you haven’t.)
Jesus understands why you have these thoughts and exactly where they come from. You might be worried, but He’s not. Location does not prove ownership. Keep on pressing forward in ignoring the thoughts. Don’t argue with them or try to force them out–this is precisely the worst thing for a person with obsessive-compulsive tendencies to do! Just wait patiently for God and let Him fight your battles for you.
If you’d like to tell us about other strategies that have been helping you deal with unwanted thoughts, please feel free to share in the comments below. I always love the wealth of ideas the readers of this blog share! I hope this has been encouraging to someone. Keep looking up and I know you’ll have progressive victories over your intrusive thoughts.
Best wishes on the journey,