If you’re a Christian and you’ve been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, you might be among the ranks of those who get weird, unwanted blasphemous thoughts. And if you’re in therapy for your OCD, you probably know that a big part of recovery is learning how to ignore blasphemous thoughts.
But how can a devoted, sincere follower of Christ learn to ignore blasphemous thoughts?
Sure, we understand that mental health disorders can do all kinds of odd things to our brains. People get split personalities and hallucinations and psychosis and manic episodes and yes, even the ego-dystonic intrusive thoughts of OCD. Talking about mental health can be a strange topic indeed, especially when it starts to intrude into the sacred halls of our private spiritual experiences.
Ignoring blasphemous thoughts is hard work, but I guarantee that’s what will make these thoughts go away. And in this brief article, I’d like to share one simple idea that I think can help you ignore those thoughts more easily and stop wasting so much time trying to “deal” with the thoughts!
But first, a case study…
Trina’s Blasphemous Thoughts: A Case Study
Trina contacted me from behind the locked doors of a mental health facility. She loved God with all her heart, she said, but she couldn’t stop having “bad thoughts” and “weird sensations” about Him.
I asked her to tell me more about what was going on.
Trina described having disrespectful thoughts against God whenever she read the Bible. These thoughts were sexual in nature, and when these thoughts came, she would also experience a corresponding physical sensation. She would try very hard to discipline her mind against these thoughts, and she had developed a blinking/squinting tic which seemed to help her force them out of her mind.
She kept analyzing why she was having these thoughts. Did she mean to disrespect God? Was it really true that she was “like that?”
The more Trina fought against these unwanted thoughts, the more destabilized she became (hence her stay at an inpatient treatment facility). It seemed like arguing with her thoughts wasn’t working. That’s when her biblical counselor began telling her that it was time to ignore the blasphemous thoughts.
Of course, it felt blasphemous for Trina to ignore blasphemous thoughts! Someone referred her to speak with me, and that was the first time she heard that there were others like her who also had unwanted thoughts about God that could be dirty, disrespectful, or blasphemous in nature. It came as a great relief to know that there is a name, and a cure, and a whole recovery community!
Coping with Blasphemous Thoughts
Do you feel a bit like Trina? It is hard, or next to impossible, to ignore the blasphemous thoughts when they come?
Maybe you’ve developed coping mechanisms. The unhealthy coping mechanisms are called “compulsions.” Perhaps you blow air, tap, count, clench your fists, blink repeatedly, purse your lips, shout “no,” or shake your head. Or maybe your compulsions are mental, such as analyzing your thoughts, thinking hard about whether you intended to have that thought, or scanning your spiritual life for any indicators that you’re turning against God. You might have a compulsion to punish yourself for your blasphemous thoughts–perhaps skipping dessert or entire meals, or refusing to allow yourself to go on a day trip to some favorite destination, or even cutting yourself.
The casual observer who doesn’t understand the intricacies of obsessive-compulsive disorder would probably imagine that these methods ought to work.
After all, you can teach a dog not to pee on the carpet by giving him a fierce look and a stern word over and over. Repeated, constant discipline works even for animals. Why not for intrusive thoughts? Why do all our attempts to sternly discipline our thoughts utterly fail to cure us?
Well, part of the issue is that we are working against brain abnormalities. The OCD brain differs in both function and structure than the non-OCD brain. You can be as Christian as Christians come, and you can try to pray away your disorder, but that’ll do about as much good as trying to pray away your broken leg.
When we sternly discipline and chastise ourselves for having intrusive thoughts, we are hyping up our emotions and creating a fight-or-flight response. This fight-or-flight response will be aroused in proportion to how “dangerous” we believe our thoughts to be. If you believe your negative thought is going to immediately consign you to an eternal burning hell, wow! Those are high stakes! Of course you’ll label your thought as “extremely dangerous” and will get a massive jolt of adrenaline.
But what if these thoughts were not spiritually dangerous? What if they were just ghosts of an idea, wafting through the corridors of your brain, looking for a landing place but finding none? What if they were just “passing through” and didn’t have any meaning at all?
Elsewhere, I’ve written about what I call the “Storymaker” function of our brains. The narrative-based construal function of our minds can spin “possibility narratives.” These imaginary narratives help us avoid danger and come up with creative solutions. It is the “what if” part of the mind, and it is often very helpful to us.
Sometimes these possibility narratives will come in the form of a “what if” question. “What if I leave my laptop in the car while I go into the store? Will it be safe?”
Other times, these possibility narratives come in the form of mental images.
*Masked robber punches through car window and runs away with laptop.* “Hmm, I better not leave my laptop in the car.”
And sometimes, these possibility narratives can be disturbingly self-reflective in nature, such as imagining yourself breaking into someone else’s car to steal their laptop, a thought which would cause great distress and confusion.
Of course, these are all forms of your brain suggesting possibilities. As such, they are all figments of the imagination until action is taken to turn these possibilities into realities. And this is where my simple idea for learning how to ignore blasphemous thoughts comes into the picture.
How to Ignore Blasphemous Thoughts
Most people with religious OCD get caught up with trying to figure out if that intrusive thought was true.
I think this is a waste of mental energy.
The only thing we need to determine is if the thought is useful.
If our brains come up with thousands of thoughts every day, there are bound to be a lot of useful thoughts and a lot of nonsense thoughts. It’s not worth analyzing whether or not we meant to “generate” our weird thoughts. Here’s what would make a thought useful to us:
- Does the thought help me solve a problem?
- Does the thought help me avoid danger?
- Does the thought draw me closer to Christ, make me a better Christian, or give me spiritual joy?
- Does the thought support my core values as a Christian?
Let’s look at a few examples for each of these points.
Does the Thought Help Me Solve a Problem?
Here are some examples of a helpful and an unhelpful thought, both of which come to us from the topical category of “blasphemy.” One thought helps us solve a problem, and the other does not.
Useful thought: “Would it be blasphemous if I make a joke about having godlike powers and being able to pardon people’s sins? Hmm…I think that would be spiritually inappropriate. I better not joke like that.”
Intrusive thought: “God, I reject you and want to be god of my own life!”
Thought #1 is useful and helps us solve a problem–a fundamental question about how to behave. Thought #2 does not help us solve a problem–in fact, it seems to create another problem by leading us into a rumination cycle. It’s the kind of thought that tempts us to spend several hours trying to figure out if it was true or not.
But if the thought isn’t useful to us, then we don’t adopt it as our own. And if we don’t adopt it as our own, it’s clearly not true for us.
Does the Thought Help Me Avoid Danger?
Useful thought: “I would like to study the books of Daniel and Revelation more so that I can avoid end-time deceptions that are predicted in Bible prophecy.”
Intrusive thought: “I must be the antichrist!”
Okay, so thinking you’re such a horrible person that you classify as the antichrist might not be the first thing you think of when you think of blasphemous thoughts. But I’ve had a few people email me about this, so I’ll include it as an example of disturbing religious intrusive thoughts.
And, as discussed, it’s simply not a helpful thought. Not only is it theologically useless (believe me, friend, you’d have to twist the Scriptures mightily to call yourself the antichrist of Bible prophecy), but it’s also psychologically useless. It doesn’t help you avoid any real danger. It doesn’t help you create any positive solutions. It’s just pure negativity.
Does the Thought Benefit Me Spiritually?
As I mentioned earlier, a “useful” thought is one that helps you draw closer to Christ, makes you a better Christian, or gives you spiritual joy. Most of our intrusive thoughts do not accomplish any of these goals.
Useful thought: “God has always been with me during my life. In the good times and in the bad, I can genuinely look back and see evidence of His presence. That makes me so grateful.”
Intrusive thought: “I curse You, God!” (A thought that comes “out of nowhere” to a person who actually loves God very much.)
Again, more useless static. Don’t stop to analyze whether these intrusive thoughts are “true” or not. We ignore blasphemous thoughts due to their lack of pragmatic worth. Out of the millions of random thoughts passing through your mind on a daily basis, huge percentages of those thoughts will be false and invalid. Figuring out if the thought is “true” or if it says something “true” about you is a waste of time. Is it useful? Keep it. Is it useless in drawing you closer to Christ? Ignore it and keep moving.
Does the Thought Support My Core Values as a Christian?
Useful thought: “Oops, I just got a spammy text message. Someone is sending me a link to what I’m guessing are explicit images. I’m not going to click on the link, because I want to be pure in heart.”
Intrusive thought: *Sees a mental image of Jesus engaging in sexual acts and freaks out*
Let’s just talk for a moment about values. Your values are chosen; the thoughts crossing your mental radar are not necessarily chosen. You can’t help seeing a half-naked person walk across the street in front of you, but you can choose whether or not to dwell on that thought and let it “nest” in your mind. Likewise, you can’t always choose the thoughts that pass through your mind, but you can choose to focus on them or ignore them if they don’t match your values. Your core values are the chosen virtues that help you structure your life. They are characteristics and goals that you find worthy.
And this is perhaps THE defining feature of an intrusive thought: it is completely opposed to your values. This is where we get the term “ego-dystonic” to describe intrusive thoughts.
If you ever get a thought that cuts across the grain of your chosen values, you can swiftly judge that thought as unuseful to you and ignore it. We can safely ignore blasphemous thoughts because although we can’t always choose what thoughts pop up in our minds, we can choose our values.
Everyone, everyone gets random, useless thoughts that pop into their minds. But the person with OCD will have a higher-than-average quantity of such thoughts. The person with OCD will also tend to analyze these thoughts with more intensity, and have a much more anxious reaction to them. Then, the anxious reaction to intrusive thoughts creates a habitual atmosphere of fear around the thoughts and hypes us up into intensive rumination or compulsive behavior.
How much better it would be to ignore our blasphemous thoughts!
I hope this simple tweak to your thought process will help you tremendously: stop trying to figure out of the thought was true, and just ask yourself if it was useful.
This has helped me move past so many intrusive thoughts. I try not to let myself get horrified with whatever mental picture entered my mind. Instead of asking, “would I really do that? Did I really mean that?” which is, in essence, a “truth” question, I simply ask if the thought was useful to me.
Not useful? I slap it with a big, fat, sarcastic “whatever.”
Just another wacky thought.
And voila, in a little while the thought is gone, minus the crazy-making cycle of rumination about it.
I would love for you to have the same experience. You can move through your anxiety; you can ignore blasphemous thoughts effectively. You can get back to normal and enjoy the precious life that God has given you.
I know recovery is tough, but don’t give up hope. You’ll get there. Keep taking baby steps and keep looking up. God will continue helping you.
Best wishes on the journey,