Discerning God’s voice when we have OCD can be a confusing, painful experience. How can we know our mental impressions are truly the voice of God?
I could tell you story after story of people with scrupulosity stumbling at this point. A keen thought flashes into our minds, instructing us to do something for the Lord. Maybe we are asked to give something up or witness in a strange way. Maybe we are asked to revise the micro-choices we make throughout the day just to feel that we are “in line” with God’s will. Whatever the case, there’s a clear, obvious impression coming to our minds. We aren’t making it up. We aren’t forcing it. It’s just there.
So, that impression must be God, right?
Let’s remember that religious OCD has intrusive thoughts, just like harm OCD or contamination OCD. But religious intrusive thoughts aren’t always a simplistic curse word against God. Sometimes these intrusive thoughts come to us in a form that sounds very much like God’s voice, which can make discernment more difficult.
The sad thing is that some of us have been following the dictates of a little impression in our mind for months or even years. This little impression, which I call “the god voice” (with a lowercase g) asks us to do strange, anxiety-inducing, or unreasonable things that are either not found in the Bible at all or are an overinflation of principles found in the Bible. We follow this little “god voice” fastidiously, believing with all our heart and soul and mind that we are doing our best to follow God.
But one day we wake up and realize this “god voice” has led us to a place of mental instability, confusion, and things that make no biblical sense. Our relationship with God is suffering due to our own bitterness and resentment. We experience growing isolation from our church family because we can’t explain why the “god voice” is telling us to do these senseless things. We hope against hope that the instructions of the “god voice” will eventually vindicate us and that we’ll see how it was God’s leading all along…but that never happens. We find only increased mental distress the more we obey the nagging impressions.
It can be emotionally shocking and even devastating to think that maybe this hasn’t been God’s voice that we’ve been listening to all along.
Such a mental shift can create a sense of great sadness and disillusionment with our spiritual experience. I understand that for some of us, it may be difficult to bring up the possibility that we’ve been following a lie, and that what we thought was God might have just been our own anxious mind, producing intrusive thoughts that sounded like a divine impression.
But I also recognize that for others, rejecting the “god voice” may actually feel liberating and bring a sense of relief. Following the “god voice” is not enjoyable. It doesn’t bring peace or comfort to our lives. It leads us to inflate the requirements of Scripture to unreasonable levels, to burn ourselves out, and in worst-case scenarios to be a poor witness for Christ through the sheer obnoxiousness of following these impressions.
And so, while it may initially bring a sense of disappointment that you may have been doing it wrong all these years, try to push through that disappointment if you feel like this applies to you. Recognize that there’s liberation in freeing yourself from the grip of OCD. As we progressively learn how to “be anxious for nothing” throughout our lives, we will see clear payoffs in drawing closer to God and thriving in His presence.
How God Does NOT Speak
I would like to begin by discussing some fundamental ways in which God does not speak to us.
The following faulty methods are ways in which people with scrupulosity often expect to hear God’s voice. Unfortunately, these unquestioning methods inculcate a toxic view of God and bring us under constant pressure and condemnation. Let’s look at three ways that God’s voice is misrepresented by OCD.
1) Promptings to Prove Yourself to God
Discerning God’s voice when we have OCD requires us to look at the underlying patterns we’ve been following. Our first observation is that the true voice of God doesn’t constantly require us to prove ourselves to Him.
The intrusive voice of OCD that masquerades as the voice of God will constantly demand that we do something to prove our love and loyalty to Him. This voice might come several times a day, several times an hour, or even more frequently. It will come in subtle ways and in the most embarrassing ways.
Maybe you, like many others with scrupulosity, have been triggered by verses like the following:
For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.Mark 8:38
Passages like this can spur compulsive behavior meant to prove ourselves to God. We don’t want to resist the “god voice,” because wouldn’t that show we’re ashamed of Jesus?
Thus, we may feel obligated to do every little thing the voice in our mind tells us to do, no matter how embarrassing or unreasonable, in order to prove ourselves to God.
For example, some people with scrupulosity may feel compelled to kneel down in the middle of a parking lot to pray in a loud and obnoxious way. We may behave inappropriately in social contexts just to please the voice in our mind. However, these behaviors have no true evangelistic function; they neither honor God nor draw people to Him.
But if the voice in our mind says to do it, we feel we’ve got to do it, even if it means doing something inappropriate, like the young woman who felt compelled to hijack the microphone during a high school graduation speech to declare loudly that Jesus is Lord. While I fully agree with the conclusion that Jesus is Lord, it is not appropriate to steal the microphone from another person or behave in obnoxious ways as a witness for Christ.
Let’s stop for a moment and remember that Jesus Christ has done everything for us.
He lived a perfect life as the Son of God, went to Calvary, and did everything necessary for our salvation. As our High Priest and intercessor, He ever lives to make intercession for us. He sends the Holy Spirit comfort and sanctify us, guiding us through the complex passageway of conviction, repentance, and growth in holiness. He has already made perfect provision for everything we need in salvation–there is not a missing puzzle piece that we must painfully manufacture in order to make it “work.” Our only role is to say yes–to accept His work in our lives.
This means we do not need to constantly prove ourselves!
We must not live under condemnation or feel that we are always on trial. This is a denial of the beautiful salvation we have in Christ. To keep ourselves on trial is to resist the freedom He offers us, as He declared,
You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.John 8:32
To live as though we must constantly prove something is to believe that His work as our sacrifice and our High Priest is not enough. We cannot add to Christ’s work of atonement! We must come simply to Christ, confess to Him that we are sinners in need of His salvation and indwelling power, and permit Him to do His silent, all-pervasive work, like the quiet work of yeast permeating dough (Matthew 13:33).
The idea of needing to prove something to God stems from an unhealthy place of anxiety. Plain and simple.
In fact, what we find in Scripture is that God invites us to prove Him, not the other way around! Listen to the glittering promises of God in Malachi 3. The people were not sure that giving their tithes and offerings to God would really have any tangible payout, so God invited them to test and prove Him. He said:
Bring all the tithes into the storehouse,
That there may be food in My house,
And try [prove] Me now in this,”
Says the Lord of hosts,
“If I will not open for you the windows of heaven
And pour out for you such blessing
That there will not be room enough to receive it.
And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes,Malachi 3:10-12
So that he will not destroy the fruit of your ground,
Nor shall the vine fail to bear fruit for you in the field,”
Says the Lord of hosts;
And all nations will call you blessed,
For you will be a delightful land,”
Says the Lord of hosts.
God recognizes that human beings don’t always know how to trust Him very well. Therefore, He invites us to go through a process of proving His faithfulness. This is very different from the oppression under which we live with scrupulosity. Scrupulosity says that we must prove ourselves to God, as if there is something about us that He doesn’t yet know.
(Note: there are three verses in Scripture that speak about humans “proving” something to God. They are Psalm 26:2, Romans 12:2, and 2 Corinthians 7:11. However, in all these cases, the nuance present in the surrounding context strongly suggests a divine element, a God-at-work element, which precludes human self-sufficiency.)
My friends, if you’ve been listening to the OCD voice that you believe is the Lord asking you to do strange and unreasonable things to prove yourself to Him, I encourage you to begin rethinking your views. Perhaps some parts of your thoughts might not be from the Lord.
2) The Micromanaging “God-Voice”
Discerning God’s voice when we have OCD can also be a challenge in the small, everyday details of life.
This condition can make us feel like the voice of God is dictating and micromanaging the tiniest aspects of our existence, like the color shirt we put on, our daily breakfast choices, or the route we drive to work. The OCD “god voice” can often seem quite philanthropic, asking us to perform grand, selfless deeds, like giving away a beloved pet. It might tell us to sell all we own to move to Africa as a missionary without any plan for ongoing support or mission strategy. (Don’t do that.) Sometimes, the “god voice” talks big stuff with us. But often, it is just persistently interested in tweaking the mundane little decisions of life.
What’s going on here?
This voice is not the authentic voice of God. It’s an obsessive-compulsive, intrusive thought that deceives us into thinking it’s the voice of God.
There are two ways people usually respond to the micromanaging aspect of the OCD “god voice.”
Some of us may gain reassurance and comfort in being told what to do. This relieves us of personal responsibility. It can feel reassuring to think that God is watching over our every move and telling us what to wear, eat, drink, or even which parking spot to choose. Relying on a false “god voice” for constant instruction might not be totally destructive in the short-term (after all, it’s not the end of the world if you wear the orange shirt rather than the blue shirt), but such responsibility-shirking to a false leader is not sustainable. It can lead to spiritual disappointment and confusion when things backfire on us. This is the unhappy conclusion for one class of scrupulous people.
Others may feel annoyed and resentful, especially if we’re independent or strong-willed thinkers. It can be frustrating to feel like there’s a Divine Being micromanaging every aspect of our existence. Resentment towards God can build up–resentment that should be directed towards the OCD instead. Avoidance of spiritual things may happen over time due to frustration with what we believe is coming from God.
Properly discerning God’s voice when we have OCD would largely take care of this problem. Our issue is that we mix two things into one. We hear the genuine voice of God, and we also hear the voice of our intrusive thoughts, which can sound like impressions from God. When we mistake the two, we can grow resentful, confused, and spiritually insecure.
Let us remember that God created us as strong, noble beings made in His image, not predetermined robots. When God created Adam and Eve, He gave them dominion over the earth, inviting Adam to share in His creative ability by naming the animals. God could have sat Adam down to teach him the names of the animals that He had already decided; but this is not what He did. God is not interested in micromanaging us. He wants us to exercise our creative ability and make intelligent decisions.
We’re not made to be robots; we each have immense freedom within the boundaries of the Bible’s clear guidelines. God wants us to be unique, to make our own decisions, and to reflect Him in our choices. OCD fundamentally misconstrues God’s character when it paints God as a dictator who wants to control every aspect of our daily lives.
To the gal who listens every morning for the “god voice” to tell her how to style her hair, and to the guy who listens to “divine instruction” on how to prepare coffee for his coworkers–I appeal to you to rethink whether the majestic God of Creation, who made you in His own image as a creative, creating copy of Him, would want you to live like this.
The Voice of Condemnation
The third way that OCD’s “god voice” can talk to us is through the voice of condemnation.
Very often, we feel something that seems to be “conviction” because of an uneasy feeling in our gut–the same uneasy feeling that afflicts people dealing with panic attacks, social anxiety, or other forms of chronic nervousness. The uneasiness arises whenever we feel we’ve done something wrong, even though we may, objectively, be completely in the right. Due to our overactive conscience and chronic anxiety, we interpret uneasy feelings to be “conviction.”
I work with many people who feel something they think is “conviction” about issues that aren’t sinful. Here are some real examples of things the “god voice” makes people feel guilty about:
- Eating desserts in moderation
- Buying innocent things like Bible commentaries, work computers, home improvement tools, or a puppy (guilt is felt due to the fact that the item is “desired,” which is misconstrued as idolatry)
- Using an extra drop of nice-smelling soap from a friend’s bathroom
- Failing to warn sanitation workers that there “might” have been trace amounts of dangerous materials in the trash
- Failing to stop and witness to every person passed in the office building due to time constraints
- Having thoughts that other people’s lifestyles are wrong and unbiblical (guilt felt due to concerns about being judgmental)
At some level, we may know that these behaviors are not unbiblical, but we just can’t shake the feeling that God is trying to convict us otherwise.
Honestly, differentiating between OCD and the voice of God may be one of the more difficult parts of religious OCD to navigate. On the one hand, we may recognize that we have a tendency to pay way too much attention to the random impressions passing through our minds. So, we may rightfully be trying to decrease our interest and our dependence on these thoughts. But on the other hand, we also want to be careful that we aren’t shutting out genuine conviction. What if God is trying to speak to us? We dare not ignore conviction!
How can we navigate these troublous waters? Well, the default for many people is to play it safe and listen to 100% of all the “convictions” that come up. Sure, we might be torturing ourselves with extra things that aren’t from God, but at least we comfort ourselves with the thought that we aren’t missing anything critical.
Well, maybe not.
I think that when we are stuck in the rut of indiscriminately listening to all these false convictions and fake messages from the “god voice” of OCD, we aren’t doing justice to our loving Heavenly Father. We are living under intense pressure and solidifying false views in our brains. Blind obedience to these false convictions might seem like the safest route, but the long-term damage is to neuter our relationship with God. Slowly, bit by bit, we begin to relate to Him as a taskmaster rather than a loving Father, one who rules us with senseless guilt trips and anger over minutia.
Thus, when we begin to rethink and ignore “impressions” that seem like intrusive thoughts rather than true conviction, it is a positive thing for our spirituality.
Some people have told me that ignoring the plethora of “god voice” impressions they experience on an hourly basis makes them feel rebellious and disobedient. For so long, they’ve fused their religious intrusive thoughts to their image of God, and it’s hard to separate between fact and fiction. Ignoring the OCD does, indeed, feel like spiritual suicide.
But it’s not.
If paying into the OCD narrative is contributing to long-term damage in our relationship with God, then stopping ourselves from paying into the OCD narrative is actually the best thing we can do to draw closer to God. Ignoring false impressions, as guilty this makes us feel in the moment, is part of a larger strategy to rewire our brains. We are making a conscious choice to stop relating to OCD’s “god voice” as truly divine, and we are committing to the difficult work of learning how to tune in only to the real God.
I know the guilty feelings and the voice of pseudo-conviction is loud and bothersome. Ignoring these impressions can be very difficult. It can fill us with insecurity about whether or not we are doing the right thing. But I encourage you: this is the most important thing you can do for nurturing a healthy relationship with God.
Healthy Ways of Discerning God’s Voice When You Have OCD
So how can we begin discerning God’s voice when we have OCD? How can we separate between fact and fiction?
In the following section, we will discuss four ways of discerning God’s voice when we have OCD:
- Good Counsel
- Common Sense
Discerning God’s Voice Through Scripture
For those of us with religious OCD, reading Scripture can be a daunting task, as it can trigger intense anxiety and intrusive thoughts. But Scripture is God’s divine method for communicating with humans, and it’s something we can’t ignore. If reading the Bible makes us anxious, it’s okay to go slowly, take breaks, read together with someone else, or come back later when we aren’t feeling so uneasy.
The Psalmist wrote,
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”Psalm 119:105
God gives light and guidance through His Word. As we spend time reading and meditating on Scripture, we can learn to recognize God’s voice. Is this easy for people with obsessive-compulsive tendencies? Nope. But we can’t learn about God from the back of the cereal box, so eventually we’ve got to find healthy ways of interfacing with Scripture, even if it’s triggering to us.
One of the most important principles for obsessive-compulsive believers is to avoid playing “Bible Horoscope.” You know what I’m talking about–when you randomly flip to a passage and read it like a direct message from God. (Come on, don’t pretend you’ve never done it!)
This leads to devastating results for the obsessive-compulsive person who flips randomly and then applies OCD’s rules of magical thinking. Somehow, we always flip to the scariest passages, and since we’re playing Bible Horoscope, we apply them full-force to ourselves.
Let’s not do that!
When we read Scripture, we are looking for principles, not spooky ouija-type messages. God is more likely to speak to us by leading us to think deeply about our current situation through the lens of broad, general biblical principles. The Bible isn’t a magic 8 ball. It requires us to use our reasoning powers and apply principles to our context. That’s why I believe the Bible can help me know whether or not I should use cocaine, even though it doesn’t specifically talk about cocaine. It gives me enough principles to make decisions on modern-day issues.
God respects us. He could have wired us like robots to receive His micromanaged instructions via binary code like computers. But He designed us to think, to grapple with biblical principles and decide “what seems to make the most sense in this situation.”
Many people with religious OCD get nervous if asked to read Scripture and then make their own decision based on “what seems to make the most sense in this situation.” This can indicate a longer term issue with decision evasion and a neutering of our noble humanity through over-reliance on the “god voice.”
As we rebuild from the ground up, Scripture is going to be a very important element to break this addiction. We must learn to relate to the Bible in a healthy, balanced way so that we can hear God’s voice in the way He intended. Indiscriminately listening to everything that crosses our mental radar as the voice of God is not going to work anymore. Discerning God’s voice when we have OCD requires a strong reliance on God’s Word.
Discerning God’s Voice Through Good Counsel
Another way to discern God’s voice is through good counsel. Seeking advice from others can provide valuable insight as we seek God’s will. The Bible tells us,
Without counsel, plans go awry, but in the multitude of counselors they are established.Proverbs 15:22
Listen to counsel and receive instruction, that you may be wise in your latter days.Proverbs 19:20
Although the Bible tells us to seek counsel from multiple wise sources, we must approach counsel-seeking with caution. For the person with scrupulosity, there are two possible pitfalls to getting advice from others: first of all, we can turn this into unhealthy reassurance-seeking. And secondly, we can receive biased, inaccurate, or self-interested advice from others as if it’s the voice of God.
As believers, we are blessed to have the support and guidance of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” By leaning on the body of believers and seeking wise counsel, we can grow in our faith and understanding of God’s will for our lives. But gaining counsel from others is not a foolproof process. Weaknesses within ourselves can cause us to turn “counsel” into “reassurance” (a specifically unhelpful thing for the person with OCD). Weaknesses within others can lead them to give us inappropriate counsel.
We must use the tool of “counsel” carefully, like an ultra-sharp chef’s knife. But when we receive good counsel in a good mindset it can cut through the fog and help us find great clarity. Good counsel is one of God’s chosen ways for guiding us through confusing problems. If you’re struggling to figure out whether the particular dictates of your “god voice” is from OCD or not, why not try asking a trusted friend who goes deep in the faith? If you’re willing to receive counsel without peppering it with a million follow-up objections, it may do you great good.
If, on the other hand, you don’t think you’d be able to resist a long string of “yes, but’s…” then this method might only feed into your reassurance-seeking cycle. Discerning God’s voice when we have OCD can be made easier with good counsel, when done carefully!
Discerning God’s Voice Through Providence
Another biblical way that God speaks to us is through divine providence–the opening and closing of doors. Through opportunities blocked and opportunities granted, He often nudges us in specific directions. Through means unseen to the human eye, God can prevent us from being at the intersection at the moment of the crash, and He can push us to shyly greet someone destined to become a dear friend in Christ. He can give us job offers, introduce us to influential people, and get us rejected from the university where He knows we’d lose our way. Providential leadings are a way God makes His will silently known in our lives. The Bible says,
A man’s heart plans his way,Proverbs 16:9
But the Lord directs his steps.
Like in the previous section about seeking counsel, reading the pages of providence can also be tricky for Christians with OCD.
Why is it tricky? You may ask.
It’s tricky because of our propensity toward magical thinking. People with OCD see connections EVERYWHERE.
Even in places where there’s no legitimate connection.
(If you don’t know what we mean in the OCD community when we talk about “magical thinking,” please check out this article!)
A person with scrupulosity can see a butterfly and think it’s a sign from God. A girl with OCD might know it’s a bad idea to date a certain guy, but since he asked her out three times she’ll think it’s providence. A college student might be ill-suited to pastoral ministry, but feel like he “has” to switch majors to theology because he heard a sermon about ministry callings, had a dream about being a pastor, and ate Chicken al Pastor at Chipotle — all in the same week.
(I might get opposition for this, but I’m not of the persuasion that everyone is called to formal pastoral ministry or foreign missions, though all of us are called to serve God in the capacity where we are. But that’s a side note.)
So divine providence is an area where we need to be extremely cautious. Nevertheless, God does open and close doors in dramatic and providential ways. I’ve had experiences where I know it was God moving impossible barriers out of the way. There have been a few times in life where I’ve seen oceans part before my feet, I’ve felt a calm, guiding hand upon my shoulder, and I’ve just known that God is leading.
But, those cases are few and far in between. I don’t get miracles of providence every day. At least not ones that I am aware of!
What happens more often to those of us with scrupulosity is the oppressive, weird, OCD-type magical connections that suggest themselves as being providential but aren’t.
I don’t yet know how to articulate this, but the true and the false providence just feel different.
Maybe someone in the comments can elucidate further if you know what I am talking about. But there is a real difference between the pseudo-providence of OCD’s magical connections and the genuine providential leadings of God. Discerning God’s voice when we have OCD means we need to take care to know the difference between true and false providence, and this is something that can take us some time to sort out.
Discerning God’s Voice Through Common Sense
Some Christians are surprised when I commend the value of common sense!
Why would we even need common sense? Shouldn’t we just listen for that “god voice” and do whatever it says, even if it sound unreasonable? Doesn’t God sometimes ask us to do crazy things for Him?
Yes, sure, sometimes He asks us to do things that seem humanly crazy, but most of the time He asks us to use our noggins and do balanced things that compute well with Scripture. There’s nothing worse than a person who gets odd religious intrusive thoughts and does not feel bound to the dictates of reason.
Discerning God’s voice when we have OCD does involve an element of common sense. Unfortunately, it’s always easier to spot the baloney in other people’s faulty, obsessive interpretations of God’s will than in our own.
The book of Proverbs is perhaps foremost in speaking about things like “wisdom” and “discretion.” Wisdom is not the same thing as “knowledge.” Knowledge can be reduced to mere book learning or rote education. But wisdom is something practical that guides us in our daily behavior and big life decisions. “Discretion,” too, is something that helps us choose between various different options. It guides us to behave in a way that is best for the situation.
Wisdom and discretion are God-breathed sensibilities.
In that sense, there is nothing “common” about “common sense.” The ability to act wisely in any given circumstance is a gift from God, and it is one that Christians ought to exercise. The issue for the person with OCD is that quite often, using common sense requires us to go against the “god voice.” As mentioned earlier, this can make us feel guilty, rebellious, or disobedient if we’ve merged OCD’s deceptive “god voice” with the true God in our minds. Thus, we push down our common sense and follow along with the wacky, imbalanced impressions.
It is true that Bible characters often did surprising and unexpected things. Jonathan and his armor bearer faced a whole garrison of Philistines. Jeremiah bought a plot of land right before invading armies took Israel into captivity. The disciples went out on their missionary journeys without food or money. Paul said that God has chosen the “foolish” things of this world to confound the wise. Certainly, God often guides His people in ways that make no sense to the worldly mode of thinking.
And when God asks us to do something that makes no sense to the world, let us be the first ones to step forward in obedience.
This is called faith.
But when we jump off the high dive to obey some kind of weird calling that originates in a twisted, convoluted corner of our own brain, that’s not faith. No, not at all.
That’s presumption, pure and simple.
That doesn’t glorify God.
I’m not against doing things for God that make no sense. My point in this section is that if we depart from standard “common sense” for the sake of obedience to God, let us be very sure that it’s God we are following and not the OCD “god voice” in our heads. Otherwise it’s like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, thinking we’re going to have a great time.
Discerning God’s voice when we have OCD isn’t always easy–but God is ever so willing to draw near to us as He sees us trying. If you find yourself confused, my advice is to try to follow Scripture and common sense to the best of your ability and ask God to redirect you if you are making a sincere mistake. He will do it. You can trust Him!
Bonus Section: Your Own Preferences and Desires
Discerning God’s voice when you have OCD is not a replicable formula. God has unique ways of relating to each of us, just like any other relationship. I can’t tell you exactly what God is trying to communicate to you in any given circumstance. But I will say that there is one area that is often suppressed in the mindset of people with scrupulosity. It is the issue of our own preferences and desires.
What do you think? Does God want us to erase our personality as we sit and wait for His will to become clear?
I would argue, no.
God actually takes our likes, dislikes, and desires into consideration as He guides us through life. The Bible says,
Delight yourself also in the Lord,Psalm 37:4
And He shall give you the desires of your heart.
Some people have tried to whittle this verse down to mean that God wants us to only desire Him, and when all other desires are stripped away, He will fulfill our single desire by giving Himself to us.
I think that delighting ourselves in the Lord and finding our chief joy in His presence is definitely an application in this passage. But it doesn’t say that we have to cut off other legitimate desires in life. It’s a promise that as we seek Him as our chief delight, all other delights will be added to us.
But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.Matthew 6:33
This is about prioritization, not about earnestly trying to negate all other desires and wishes in life. God first, and everything else after that. And yes, God will give us every possible wish that will be in our best interest. Like any loving parent, He wants to give us as much as would be healthy for our growth. He is not an evil parent, taking away our favorite toys just to make us cry.
If you are the type to chastise yourself for having preferences, or if you actively self-sabotage when God tries to give you good things, you may wish to rethink this part of your life. Believe it or not, God does involve our heart as He guides us.
Imagine this scenario: your job is ending and you’ve got offers at two new places. Both jobs pay the same, are both morally acceptable, and would equally allow you to continue your personal ministry projects. There are no clear spiritual pros or cons to either job. You have been praying and praying for weeks but do not have any clear guidance from God in one direction or the other. You’ve gotten counsel from others, you’ve compared your options with Scripture, and still, both options are open from the perspective of “providence.” You don’t know what to do! The two options are tied, neck and neck, as far as you can see from a professional and spiritual perspective.
But one of the two job posts is in another state where you’d be right next to your best friend. This is an incredible draw for you. You’ve always wanted to move closer, and now it looks like the perfect chance has come!
What do you do?
Well, if you have scrupulosity, you might take the job that is not by your best friend, just to spite yourself and prove that you aren’t idolizing your friend or following your own desires. You might wait and wait and wait for God to send a sign, perhaps waiting so long that both job listings are lost.
But what if there was a healthier way?
What if God gives us the freedom to make up our own minds in cases where He doesn’t clearly indicate one way or the other?
As we continue discerning God’s voice as individuals with OCD, let’s remember that our preferences, personality, wishes, desires, and heart are also an important part of the discussion. No, God won’t always give us a bed of roses–sometimes His will is going to cut across our own. But other times, He’ll let us make a decision based on our own personal preferences.
Whew! This turned into a long blog post. Perhaps the number of issues connected with discerning God’s voice when we have OCD goes to show that we’re not totally crazy for struggling on this point. It can be tough!
Hopefully, this article has suggested a few ways that God does NOT speak to us, and some ways that He does. As I mentioned earlier, there is no exact scientific formula for knowing God’s will. We can’t put Him in a test tube or weigh Him on a scale. He is perfectly, majestically outside all of our boxes. Knowing God’s will–whether we have OCD or not–is something all Christians grapple with.
In this article, we’ve talked about hearing God’s voice through Scripture, good counsel, the workings of providence, and common sense. We even talked about (gasp!) the role of personal preference in making decisions.
But combined with that, we also discussed some of the unique pitfalls that plague believers with OCD. I hope some of the perspectives have been helpful to you in learning how to discern between the OCD “god voice” of random, god-sounding intrusive thoughts versus the true voice of our Heavenly Father.
As you go forward in seeking God’s will, please remember this one very important point: God knows your heart.
You’ve heard this passage a million times, but I want to quote it again:
For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.1 John 3:20
Our loving Heavenly Father sees your heart. He knows your sincerity in trying to discern His voice. Trembling child of God, look up with confidence! He knows you’re trying your best to listen and obey. He knows the way your thoughts befuddle and condemn you. And He loves you.
Think of this: imagine on Monday I walk through the metro with a friend who has traveled there a million times. He knows the way and feels confident about where he’s going. We will go along together, chatting and paying very little attention to the route we are taking.
But imagine on Tuesday I travel through the same metro route with a different friend. This friend is not from the city, she’s from way out in the boonies where they don’t have public transportation. She’s never traveled by metro before, so she has no idea how to purchase a ticket, how to find the right train, or even how to get on without the doors closing on her backpack.
But more than this, my hypothetical friend is legally blind and has an anxiety disorder.
Can you sense the tension that my blind friend must be feeling as we travel through the underground together?
Who do you think I’m going to guide more carefully and tenderly–my first friend who knows the way for himself, or my blind, anxious, insecure friend who has never traveled by metro before?
Of course, my heart will go out with sympathy and protectiveness for my blind friend. You would do the same. We would want to guide her carefully and compassionately, helping her down every step and over the little gap between the station’s edge and the train’s door.
The more confused and fearful she is, the kinder we will want to be in guiding her.
If human beings can feel this way towards each other, how much more would God do the same?
God is carefully and gently guiding you through life. The more confused you feel yourself to be, the more you draw on Christ’s sympathies. His heart of love overflows for you. He yearns to help you over every bump in the road. And yes, if you take a wrong turn, will He not kindly guide you back in the right direction?
Discerning God’s voice when you have OCD is a journey of trust, not analysis. It’s not about how much you can figure out, but how deeply you trust God to guide you. Keep looking up, and I know you’ll find yourself at the right destination.
Best wishes on the journey,
How do I discern if it’s OCD or Satan speaking? Is it necessary for me to try and figure that out? I know, however, it is not God’s voice. This causes me to start spiraling down because I am unsure. God’s word says He will bring to my remembrance what He has said to me. When I ask a question, most the time the thoughts will come with what I have learned. Then I start questioning it. Is this where OCD comes in? Insight please. Thank you.
This is helpful, and also, does obeying these voices makes our Obsessive Compulsive Disorder even worse?
I’d say anytime we listen to false impressions, we are at the very least perpetuating our OCD. And perpetuating it makes it worse in the long run, because we are digging grooves into our brain with every repeated act, getting used to the habit of obeying that which sounds like God but is not God.
to be honest, my mind kept saying that God will punish me if I do not follow my compulsions, and I do not have any anxiety when these voices come, and there is one time that even if they struggle to discern the voice, the thoughts line up to the scripture, making it hard for them to think if God speaks to them or if it their ObsessiveCompuslive disorder.
Oh my goodness, have I missed reading these articles, Jaimie! Wow. Lately, I've been ruminating on a particular memory where I'm pretty sure I gave into scrupulosity. I was dealing with uncomfortable, unwanted emotions and I thought they would go away by quoting certain Bible passages like "We are foreigners in this world" (1 Peter 2:11-25). Of course, not verbatim, but the same concept. I felt icky after I said it because I thought that was what God wanted me to say. Needless to say, it didn't make me feel better. I've been feeling incredibly bothered by it lately.
I LOVED how you mentioned the desire thing. I've been struggling with this idea forever because when God blesses me with wonderful oppurtunities or gifts from loved ones, I feel like I don't deserve it because of the ugly thoughts and feelings I have. I try to be more mindful about it now, but then I see other people being led by God and many of their goals and dreams came true.
For example, when a child is discouraged at a young age that they shouldn't want to be a singer or a painter or an actor because their parent tells them that "they are a servant of God, not a performer/painter/teacher" and so on and so forth, that will make them feel very discouraged when they see God lead other people to those opportunities, it starts to feel like God favors them more and has forgotten about you. Then when you do get those opportunities, you start to feel bad because you feel like you never deserved anything nice.
But more recently, I was told by a wise person that no one deserves anything, but we gain it because of the price that Jesus paid. It is still a hard idea for me to grasp.
Thank you Jamie. You’re writing right to our hearts, right from yours..
May I please ask how to know you have scrupulosity when it can feel like a demonic oppression? The intrusive thoughts can be so awful, what else could they be?
Today I read someone’s thoughts about Christian’s not being demon oppressed because they can’t coexist with the Holy Spirit. Well, his answer was that the Holy Spirit is omnipresent, everywhere in the world, and that’s where demons can be found, so what’s the problem? Yes they can affect Christians. So that worried me!
I’d be helped to hear your thoughts on this please. Thank you
Wow, Jamie, of all the posts I've read (many, and all great) this is one of the BEST. It definitely hits home with me. Dome quote:
"I don’t yet know how to articulate this, but the true and the false providence just feel different."
I think on the one hand is calm assurance, and the other hold anxiety to perform right now. There are other distinctions probably, but this comes to mind.
"If you find yourself confused, my advice is to try to follow Scripture and common sense to the best of your ability and ask God to redirect you if you are making a sincere mistake. He will do it. You can trust Him!
"Discerning God’s voice when you have OCD is a journey of trust, not analysis. It’s not about how much you can figure out, but how deeply you trust God to guide you."
This is huge for me. Thank you for your insights into this plaguing condition. Please keep writing; you are helping us ore than you know. God bless! Dawn
Thanks for your comment! I am always glad to know when my posts are helpful.
Keep looking up, and be blessed!
I feel that somehow your blog posts could be turned into a very practical book on religious OCD. Truly, your material is some of the best and most helpful for me personally, and I realized at 64 that I've probably wrestled with this challenge since I was ten or so. (I just got your newest devotional from Amazon on Matthew. Thanks for writing that one also!) I hope you will consider the potential project prayerfully, (NOT intrusively, compulsively, or with obsessive guilt feelings…!) God bless. Dawn
Oh thank you for this message, Dawn! I do love writing and am already working on Gentle Jesus Volume II: The Gospel of Mark. We have our first baby due in a few months, though, so I am not even going to attempt making a prospective timeline on when the next book will be out. 🙂 But thank you! I am certainly more motivated to write when I know that people are being blessed by it.
First kiddo?! Fantastic! (Of course you are aware of the potential OCD backlash of post-partum hormonal brain chemistry…just to head it off at the pass, so to speak.)
I am reading your Matthew devotions in the morning with my husband–wonderful work!
Question: As a (very retired) nurse, we know so much about how to take care of physical hearts, but I wonder at our very limited knowledge of how to take care of our brains? You used the phrase, "give your brain a hug", You had also mentioned the "boot camp" you attended when younger (nutrition, rest and sleep, exercise) and the Lord also told me to be outside as much as possible, do something creative every day, and concentrate on relationships. What are other ways to care for the brain, to give the brain a "hug"? How do we show compassion and patience with an over-wrought brain which is trying to rewire new pathways?
Again, thanks for all you do. And massive congrats on the pending new arrival!! Enjoy–it all goes way too fast. Dawn
Challenge accepted on distinguishing true and false providence!
As with physical parent-child relationships, not all of God's providence is obvious or explainable when it happens. Many times, it takes years of hindsight – years of walking down God's path – before we can see the difference between our lives with that thing (or person, or absence of either) versus our lives in a different way.
I'll borrow from tort law here: God's real providence, in my understanding, will have a lot of but-for causality to it: if not for happening X, happening Y would not/could not occur. To understand that requires a decent amount of understanding plain ol' causality to begin with. In other words, magical thinking throughout life will be magical thinking here too.
And this is where providence – which we often won't recognize at the time, by its nature – differs from a sign, which is the Magic 8 Ball (or Urim and Thummim!) thing a lot of us want in the moment. We often are receiving providence while we crave a sign! But they are different things.
Great comment as always, Brandon. I didn’t even think to mention the Urim and Thummim! Imagine how addictive that would be for people with OCD if we had access to it nowadays…no need for faith or trust, just go and consult the Urim and Thummim and get an instant answer. I can understand why God might have decided to remove that from His people…
Thank you for writing this article. It so accurately connects with my experience and answers ongoing questions I have had:- 'Does anyone else experience this kind of OCD?' and' Is it even OCD or just a result of my lack of willingness to trust and obey God?!'
I like that you label these kind of intrusive thoughts as the 'god-voice'. I am currently working with a counsellor to grow in discerning God's voice rather than following the many impressions I get that I think are probably the 'god-voice', but that I am also afraid may actually be God. I recognise that trying to heed or even filter these impressions does leave me feeling 'resentful, confused, and spiritually insecure'. Yet, ignoring them is also tough. It's even worse when circumstances seem to indicate that the 'god-voice' was right!
At the start of my OCD recovery journey I was able to identify that the voices telling me to do strange, embarrassing things was not God's voice, but I am with others who have experienced the pain and shame of this. It's a big way OCD can erode sense of self, and I'm glad you have highlighted it here.
Thanks for articulating all of this Jaimie!
Great article! The only caution I would add is that people who have scrupulosity will seek counselors who agree with the thoughts that they have. I have experienced this in my own life and I have seen it in others. You are so desperate to have assurance that the voice you hear is from God so you will talk to those of the same mindset.
This was so helpful. I got tears in my eyes feeling finally someone understands my struggle.
Recently after a young therapist couldn't get me and my thoughts right I started thinking it can't be ocd and I might be crazy 😔
This was really helpful! Thanks, Jaimie!
This was awesome. Thank you for taking the time to write it. All of it.
Holy cow. I have not-too-severe intrusive tendencies for ill placed magical/providential thinking quite often, but man does every paragraph, example, and concept laid out in this article really seem extremely specific to so many things that have been going on in my head, heart, my life, and even things that happened two years ago.
I literally had a time where I thought God wanted me to simply kneel to “prove” myself. Right there in the middle of work. And I did it. Later on, I thought it was a demon impersonating God trying to humiliate and degrade me. That demon thing is a whole other story which I am GRATEFUL that Christ freed me from. But now you have me wondering, I wonder just how much of that “demon” was OCD? I had been asking God whether that experience was demonic, mental illness, or both.
Thank you for this article! I am just so shocked at how much you have illuminated for me and even gave me words for things that were happening that I recognized but could not linguistically explain it, and had even been asking God for a way to explain them. 😭
I’m so glad to hear that you resonated with this article! In regards to your thoughts about demonic involvement in OCD…I have really grappled with that concept, because I do place OCD within the theological framework of a cosmic conflict between good and evil, but I don’t think there’s a literal demon on your shoulder whispering intrusive thoughts into your ear. I haven’t yet figured out how to articulate this in a balanced way, and I still have a few elements I’m wrestling with, but eventually I hope to put out an article about how OCD relates to that ambiguous thing we call “spiritual warfare.” (Which is a slippery enough thing that I’m not sure how to really pin that down and define it accurately first.) But I CAN tell you that I’ve had lots and lots of clients go to deliverance ministries to get the “demon of OCD” cast out of them, and I do not know of a single case in which it helped at all. So that’s saying something. I would tilt much more towards seeing this as a mental health disorder, although mental health disorders still fall under the umbrella category of Satan’s destructive work in the world.
This article was incredibly healing for me. Scrupulosity wasn't a word I had in my vocabulary until a year ago after an experience where I felt like "god" was asking me to do something I really didn't want to do and made no sense just to prove my love and loyalty to him. I'm in a much better place now but in the aftermath of that experience, I specifically still struggle in this area of listening to God. This article made me feel so seen and gave me great hope as I continue healing. Thank you!
Praise God for how He is healing you! I am so glad to hear about your forward progress. And glad that this article spoke to you! You are not alone!
Great article Jaimie! I think it'll be very helpful for many people. Much appreciation for all the effort you put in.
Hi Jamie – I have the problem that when I get anxious, I have to ‘fix things’ right now, that is, follow that weird thought immediately to put things right with God. As you say, it’s just a mechanism to feel better, if just for a while. I have learnt that I have to wait – how long depends on how big an action it is. So some things are, I’ll give it to the end of the week, and if I still feel the same, then I’ll act, for some things it would be, if I still feel the same this time next month or in 6 months, then I’ll act. If it’s genuine, God will wait for you to be sure. If it’s not genuine, chances are you will have forgotten by the end of your time limit (or will have replaced that thought with a different one)
Great thoughts! I really like the “time limit” response to these thoughts. It may not work for some of the more sticky thoughts (I have worked with a few clients that have the same big bad obsession for YEARS at a time), but this method will probably cut out at least 80% of our false convictions. Thank you for sharing that, I hope others will read your comment and try it out as well!
You’re right, it doesn’t work for ‘big’ thoughts like you describe, but it does work for those random ‘if I do/don’t do x, God will be pleased/angry’ thoughts that you might act on just to feel better, but will regret later
This is so helpful and freeing. I don't have enough words to express that. Thank you thank you for sharing, friend!
such a helpful article! my wife and I are so greatful that you posted this! it actually was an answer to prayer because I had an episode of some pretty bad OCD today and it's like you knew exactly what was going on when you posted this! thank you so much!
Jamie, God really is using you to help me through my journey of recovery from OCD !
I was literally just thinking about how to know if these wired thoughts and feelings that you described were God’s voice or not. I’ve been trying to find answers for so many years! Thank you so much for writing this article!!!!!
Do you have any tips on how to overcome fear that God won’t forgive me. One time I felt I had to do something, then I got a thought “just say if you do that, it means you’re blaspheming the rejecting God, or blaspheming the Holy Spirit. I felt like I agreed to that thought and eventually, even though I had that thought I gave into that ocd “thing” because I was afraid I’d go to hell if I did not. But now im scared im going to hell anyway because I had agreed to that thought. Now it is very hard for me to ever be comfortable with God because I feel like im a hypocrite coming into his presence.
Im sorry I know this is long and confusing, but if you have time, I would greatly appreciate some advice
Your comment about getting an intrusive thought urging you to say that “if you do that, it means you’re blaspheming,” that sounds just like the magical thinking connections we have with OCD. It’s like the classic OCD adage, “step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” Please check out my article on magical thinking! Magical Thinking and Scrupulosity
Thank you so much I certainly will 🙂
Jamie! I really thank you for this post. It’s a breath of fresh air for all of us with intrusive thoughts and OCD. I love to read and share these! Would love to meet you personally one day. God bless you!
Oh it would be lovely to meet you as well! I hope one day we can have a big scrupulosity get-together!
After years of work, I was truly finding success with my OCD and my relationship with God.
One summer night, last year, I came down from my bedroom hoping for continued rest on my couch.
As I fell off to sleep, these words were impressed on my mind. "The angel of death is upon you"
scared me terribly.
My Goodness, Your article was fabulous!!
Sure, these are intrusive thoughts, plain and simple. I’ve also had thoughts about how I’m going to die or God’s gonna “get me” for this or that. But it doesn’t happen. Instead, I just get more grace, more tender understanding, and the guiding hand of a gentle shepherd. This disproves the anxious thoughts. The fact that you are still alive means the angel of death was just an intrusive thought. Why would God terrify us with these sorts of thoughts? Jesus said He would send the “Comforter,” who will guide us into truth and teach us the right way. How interesting that the One who guides us into right-doing is also called the “Comforter,” not the terrifier. 😉