Intrusive thoughts about God are perhaps the ugliest part of having an anxiety disorder like religious OCD.
Strange, disgusting, and unwanted thoughts pass through our minds. We can’t seem to get rid of them, no matter how hard we try. We fast, pray, and believe until we are blue in the face–but nothing seems to rid our minds of these awful thoughts. Most people with scrupulosity are deeply ashamed of these thoughts and try to hide them.
And why wouldn’t we? These thoughts are weird. Like, really weird. They come in several forms.
Our intrusive thoughts about God might be violent in nature. One young lady told me about how she couldn’t stop having terrifying thoughts God abusing her, bashing her head on a spike. Others have spoken to me about having unwanted thoughts about Jesus raping them, or God choking them around the neck. We know God is not like that, but the thoughts present themselves to our minds in the most disturbing manner.
Our intrusive thoughts about God might be blasphemous. This is perhaps the most common type. Countless people have spoken or written to me about vile curses against God passing through their minds–unbidden, unwanted, and impossible to stop. We may have thoughts of denying Christ, the urge to willfully do something that we think will grieve the Holy Spirit, or other unmentionable attacks against God’s name. This throws us into absolute panic, because we don’t know where these thoughts have come from or how to stop them.
Our intrusive thoughts about God may also be intellectual. Typically, these are not in the form of a question, but a statement that “seems” to be coming from our own mind. “I don’t believe in God anymore” or “I don’t want to be a Christian” can come out of nowhere and make us fear for our eternal salvation.
Why, oh why, do we have these intrusive thoughts about God?
Intrusive Thoughts About God are Adaptive
Let us first begin with the recognition that our bad thoughts against the Lord are adaptive.
There was a time when I thought that maybe these thoughts were coming from the devil, who “walks about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). But if that were the case, then we would expect all religious intrusive thoughts against God to be in accordance with Satan’s agenda.
But this is not the case.
People of every religious background get intrusive thoughts against their gods. The devil described in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures doesn’t have a quarrel against any God except the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is called Yahweh, Jehovah, or Adonai. If our intrusive thoughts were insertions from the devil, I would expect 100% of these thoughts to be diametrically opposed to the God of the Bible.
However, I have met with people from many faith backgrounds and observed an interesting trend. Hindus have ugly blasphemous thoughts against the Hindu gods. Atheists have fearful intrusive thoughts against their atheistic persuasions. Muslims have oppositional thoughts against Allah. Catholic Christians get dirty thoughts against Mary. Protestant Christians get ugly thoughts against Jesus.
If these thoughts were truly coming from the devil, why would the devil bother torturing the atheist with intrusive thoughts against atheism? You would think the atheist agenda would serve Satan’s purposes very well, and that he would leave the atheist alone. But this is not what we observe. Jesus Christ said,
Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?Matthew 12:25-26
I might be inclined to believe that our intrusive thoughts about God were from the devil if I saw that these thoughts were only trying to tear down the Biblical God–Satan’s special enemy. Instead, we see that people of every religious background experience the same issue. Our intrusive thoughts “adapt” to whatever belief system we follow.
This is why I believe that religious intrusive thoughts are generally a biological issue related to having an anxiety disorder.
What Does “Adaptive” Mean in the Context of Religious OCD?
In one meta-analysis, researchers aimed to find out if people who were “more religious” also had a greater severity of OCD. Some hypothesized that the ritualistic behavior of ultra-orthodox Jewish, Muslim, or Catholic communities might contribute to higher OCD scores. But the findings were mixed. Some studies found correlations between high religiosity and OCD severity, while other studies said this was not the case.
What the researchers finally suggested was that religious intrusive thoughts can sometimes appear to be worse in people with high levels of religiosity because of the religious interpretations that highly religious people place upon these intrusive thoughts.
Put simply, some religious groups believe that intrusive thoughts against God are REALLY BAD, and this belief influences the person with OCD to get much more freaked out than others. The belief that these thoughts hold horrible consequences leads the person to work harder at eliminating their intrusive thoughts (which, of course, backfires for the person with OCD and makes the thoughts even worse).
It’s a bit of a mind trick.
If your religious upbringing has taught you that having a blasphemous thought against God is the unpardonable sin, you’ll be extremely bothered by it. On the other hand, if you’ve been brought up to believe that God understands anxiety disorders and He’s not so sensitive as to get hurt feelings from your OCD, you won’t be as bothered. Then, quite naturally, your OCD severity will go down simply by virtue of not seeing the thoughts as a big deal.
The beliefs that we hold about our thoughts, then, does seem to influence the severity of them.
Shapeshifting from One Belief System to Another
Intrusive thoughts about God adapt from one belief system to another. I’ve started to see very predictable patterns as I meet with and support people with scrupulosity.
Calvinists worry about whether they’re among the elect, but their historical opponents from Arminianism worry about whether they’re “doing their part” to be saved.
Catholics tend to struggle more with confession, the seven deadly sins, and receiving the Eucharist. Charismatics tend to struggle with prayer, witnessing, healings, and concerns about the Holy Spirit. Classical Protestants may have a bigger struggle with doctrine, spiritual disciplines, or concerns with faith/authenticity/morality. (These are very broad generalizations, of course.)
It shouldn’t surprise us that our intrusive thoughts about God also shapeshift according to our beliefs. Catholics often have intrusive thoughts against the Virgin Mary, but I have yet to meet a Protestant who experiences this. Hindus have intrusive thoughts against the Hindu gods, but I’ve never met a Christian who is worried about offending Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, and so on. Muslims have blasphemous thoughts against Allah, but no Buddhist cares about this.
Can you see that our mind is telling us what’s important and what’s not? The content of our intrusive thoughts are informed by our religious beliefs. They adapt according to what we view as most significant.
What Your Intrusive Thoughts Say About You
If it’s true that intrusive thoughts are adaptive, this means that the content of our thoughts tells us something about ourselves. In short, it tells us what we value. It tells us what we find most important.
If our intrusive thoughts involve thinking something really offensive against the Virgin Mary, that means we think she’s quite important. If we think ugly thoughts against Lord Krishna, we think he’s very important. If we get blasphemous thoughts against Jesus Christ, or the prophet Muhammad, or the Buddha, our brain is merely informing us who and what we value most in our religious experience.
To people who get lustful intrusive thoughts, I tell them that this merely expresses that they value marital fidelity very highly, and that their OCD is trying to trip them up with “the worst possible thing.”
To people who get harm-related intrusive thoughts, I tell them that this means they are very loving and caring people who would never hurt a fly. Their OCD is, again, trying to scare them with “the worst possible thing.”
Likewise, to people who get intrusive thoughts about God, I tell them that this expresses their love and devotion to God, above all else, as the single most important thing in life. Their OCD wants to terrify them with “the worst possible thing,” which is to deny or offend Him.
So, take a compliment from your intrusive thoughts. Their content is merely an indicator of what you value most.
Encouragement for Those With Intrusive Thoughts About God
I’d like to remind you that there is a difference between purposeful blasphemy and the unwanted blasphemy of our intrusive thoughts. But let’s just pretend, for a moment, that you did mean to have that ugly thought (indeed, this is a common fear of people with religious OCD).
It’s not the end of the world. God forgives blasphemy.
Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter…Mark 3:28
All sins, and all blasphemies, will be forgiven.
This verse precedes the scary one that speaks about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which unfortunately cannot be forgiven. But you don’t need to be afraid of this, either. “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” is merely a code word for, “walking away from God and refusing to ask forgiveness for sins anymore.”
God forgives us for everything and anything we ask. Even blasphemy. Even ugly words and thoughts against Him. And that’s presupposing that your blasphemous thoughts were intentional. How much more if it was an unwanted intrusive thought–something generated by an anxious, obsessive mind?
God is so much kinder and more understanding than we give Him credit for. He is not easily offended; He’s got thick skin. That’s what the Bible means when it says He is “longsuffering” (Exodus 34:6). He doesn’t get upset at the things we think He’ll get upset over.
Deeply, and compassionately, and wholly. He bends over you with a sympathy that turns His heart inside out, a sympathy that makes His eyes sheen over with tears for your pain.
He understands and He loves. He loves you, dear reader.
Try to remember that you aren’t purposely generating these thoughts. And even if you were, there is forgiveness and healing in Christ.
I know that your intrusive thoughts about God are really bothersome. They hurt your heart. They confuse your mind. You struggle to reconcile your deep love and devotion to God with these vicious thoughts that arise against Him. Why, oh why, do you have these thoughts?
I would propose that these thoughts come as a result of the biological uniqueness of the OCD brain. Brain research on the cingulo-opercular network has shown that people with OCD have a proneness to generating more intensive “error messages” in the brain, combined with a decreased ability to shut these warning signals off. You are stuck in a constant “on-ness,” a toxic sort of hyper-vigilance that never lets you rest.
One of these error messages being sent by your brain is a slanderous report against whatever you love most.
We must learn, day by day, to ignore these thoughts. I encourage you, once again, not to waste your time arguing against these thoughts or trying to neutralize them with compulsive words or behavior. They are nothing but mental static. God knows that. At some level, you know that.
Stop for a moment to take a deep breath. Dig deep to reconnect with who you know yourself to be in your inmost soul. You know these thoughts bother you, which means they can’t possibly be coming from the “real you.”
(And for the minority of readers reading this who are neck-deep in spiritual burnout and feel so exhausted from the fight that they couldn’t care less about these blasphemous thoughts, but are getting freaked out from worrying why they don’t care about something so important: please don’t try to process this right now. If you’re in spiritual burnout, don’t pressure yourself to figure anything out. Just rest.)
Stop letting the thoughts bully you and push you around. Don’t give them your attention. Choose to believe that you’re going to be just fine, that God loves you still, and that nothing can snatch you out of His hand.
Thank your intrusive thoughts for helping you recognize what’s most important to you in life. Then go on your merry way, trusting God and leaving your thoughts in the dust.
Best wishes on the journey,