Have you ever wondered if God is trying to tell you something in various signs and “fleeces?” Have you intuited mysterious connections between certain numbers and divine providence? Do you wonder if God’s will is communicated through certain symbols, colors, or events? You might be dealing with the “magical thinking” of scrupulosity.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder, in general, is associated with a thought fallacy called “magical thinking,” and this pops up in religious OCD (scrupulosity), as well.
Yes, magical thinking can happen to believers. You might be the staunchest, most conservative Christian in the world. You might be decidedly against magic of any kind, even restricting your children from reading Harry Potter or watching Disney.
And yet, you might be the most magical thinker of all.
What is this fallacy called “magical thinking,” and how does it pop up in the minds of those of us with religious OCD? Let’s talk a bit about magical thinking and scrupulosity.
A Definition of Magical Thinking
Magical thinking is a thought fallacy that connects two objects or events without supporting evidence. It’s a common symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder and some other anxiety disorders. Simply put, magical thinking is a causal fallacy because it produces faulty understandings of the true cause of things.
Here’s a common example of magical thinking:
“Why is my bus late? Let me light a cigarette, because every time I light a cigarette, the bus always comes.” Or, “I need to tap on the hood of my car three times before leaving, otherwise I’ll get in an accident.”
Can you see how the brain creates a causal link out of thin air? There simply isn’t any connection between lighting up a cigarette and the bus arriving. But maybe it happened once or twice, and so it becomes a superstitious little thought in the back of your mind.
So what does magical thinking look like when it’s expressed in the realm of obsessive-compulsive religion? Let’s look at a few examples of magical thinking and scrupulosity in action.
- “I need to avoid seeing the number 666, because every time I see that number, something bad always happens to me.”
- “I better keep my hands in my pockets at church, because if I extend my hands, I might be giving the middle finger towards the cross/pulpit/pastor and God will be angry at me.”
- “If I don’t envision God correctly in my mind as I pray, my child might die on the way to school.”
- “I need to touch the doorknob ten times on my way out…because of the Ten Commandments.”
- “If I purchase a shirt while I’m having lustful thoughts, the shirt will be morally contaminated, and if I wear it, I’ll be sinning.”
- “If I’m thinking a thought at the same time that someone else verbalizes the same thing, it must be God sending me a message.”
- “I really need to make a decision about _______. Green is the color indicating that we should go forward, and I saw a lot of green today. God must be telling me to go forward.”
The fallacy of magical thinking is particularly important to overcome in our journey with OCD. As long as we continue to consult our feelings and un-truthful mental connections, God’s Word cannot take root deeply in our minds. Thankfully, magical thinking is relatively easy to uproot.
What Is Behind Magical Thinking and Scrupulosity?
Magical thinking isn’t a very complex phenomenon. It’s mostly made up of three ingredients:
- OCD’s intense creativity
- Ritualistic reinforcement
- Too much self-trust
Our magical thinking fallacies begin with something quite good: our intense creativity. People with OCD are often VERY creative–not only from the artistic and innovative quality of our thoughts, but also from the sheer magnitude of how many thoughts we have on a given day! With our OCD brains on constant overdrive, we tend to analyze literally everything that happens in the world around us.
Let’s go back to the magical thinking fallacy that lighting a cigarette will cause the bus to come. Someone might have this fallacy because it did happen a time or two, and their minds were analytical enough to notice it! But while someone else might turn it into a good comedy line, our minds turn it into a real, bonafide causal link.
If I light a cigarette, the bus WILL come.
This is creative analysis + reinforcement. There must be some amount of “apparent” reinforcement to give muscle to the belief. It has turned out in some measure the way we expected often enough to reinforce the fallacy. Maybe you smoked ten cigarettes while waiting for the bus and it never came, but if you lit one cigarette one time and the bus came immediately, the brain will zero in on that one example, to the complete disregard of the others.
So we know there’s creative analysis and there’s a measure of reinforcement (though the reinforcement would never pass the statistical significance test!) and there’s one more ingredient: too much trust in self. The Bible says,
Thus says the Lord: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the Lord…The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?
Trusting in our own thoughts and feelings has never been a very good idea. Our hearts are prone to error, but oh how we trust in them! This is the foundational ingredient to magical thinking and scrupulosity: too much trust in self. Let’s dive in a little deeper.
Too Much Trust in Self
Before we discuss this phenomenon of having too much trust in ourselves, let’s briefly compare “worldly psychology” with “Biblical psychology.”
|Worldly Psychology||Biblical Psychology|
|Status of the Human Heart||Always right; follow your heart||Prone to error; guide your heart|
|Source of Solutions||Solutions are within: self-care, self-esteem, self-love||Solutions are outside of myself: look to God for healing; self takes a healthy place, not too high or too low|
|Method of Determining Truth||Feelings: whatever “feels” right is your truth||God’s Word: whatever He declared is truth|
As you can see, worldly psychology leads us to look inward for healing, love, truth, self-esteem, and fulfillment. What is within is “always right,” as we are told to follow our hearts and look within to find “our truth.” So when magical thinking comes along and starts to suggest weird connections, not letting us get in the car until we’ve rapped on the hood a certain number of times, we don’t question whether we ought to be listening to these inner thoughts and feelings.
Everything in the secular worldview tells us that whatever’s inside must be right.
This is why we need a complete and total shift towards a Biblically-informed worldview. We need to begin seeing psychology in terms of what Scripture tells us is true and healthy. It is in the Bible that we find a balanced view of the human self. We are simultaneously a mess and yet a treasure; we are helpless and yet beloved; we are blind and yet connected with the Guide of the universe.
In Biblical psychology, the human self is not placed so high that it becomes the arbiter of truth (for self is frequently wrong) yet it is not placed so low as to become masochistic and self-loathing. The self can finally take a balanced position as it relates to God’s Word as the ultimate authority.
Verses About Too Much Trust in Self
The Bible speaks about our human tendency to trust in self too much. Ultimately, this tendency leads us to take ourselves (and our magical thinking) too seriously. Here are a few verses that remind us to trust ourselves less and trust God more.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!
“Woe” is an old word that means, “something’s about to hit the fan.” When we trust our own instincts too much, we get into all kinds of literal–and psychological–trouble.
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.
Yes, our magical thinking seems right. It feels right. But it isn’t right at all!
In fact, obeying our magical thoughts leads us in “the way of death,” because it ultimately traps us in compulsive, ritualistic behavior. And that’s never a good thing.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.
What does it mean to “lean not on your own understanding?” It means that we’ll have our own private thoughts and interpretations of reality, but we ought not give too much weight to them. It’s not self-demeriting to remind yourself that you are prone to making mistakes; that’s just common sense. It looks like this:
“Whenever I see the number 666, I feel really nervous, like God is trying to send me a warning. Now I’m on my way to my sister’s wedding (where I’m supposed to be a bridesmaid), and I just saw the number 666 on someone’s license plate. My magical thoughts tell me that God is trying to send me a warning that something bad will happen if I continue driving to her wedding. I feel really horrible and anxious right now and I just want to turn around and go home. But I’m going to remind myself that my brain is wrong sometimes, and I know that particularly in the area of ‘magical thinking,’ I can always ignore these little signs and omens.”
Remember, after all, what Romans 3:4 tells us: “Let God be true but every man a liar.” At some level, we all lie to ourselves and should, in general, learn to take our own thoughts less seriously.
Allowing God’s Word to Reshape Our Magical Thinking and Scrupulosity
None of us enjoy the anxious rituals of magical thinking. They are time-consuming, they make us look weird, and they steal the joy from life.
At some level, the majority of us know that these magic rituals don’t make sense (although some people don’t; the technical psychological term is that these people have “poor insight” into their OCD–and don’t worry, it’s something that can be improved)!
At the end of the day, we all want to get rid of these magical thoughts, dependence on superstitious omens, and oppressive rituals.
Yesterday in our group coaching session, one of our members shared a beautiful testimony of how God has been giving her the courage to move beyond this magical thinking fallacy. She told us how, in the past, she had been involved in the occult. She had used tarot cards, read her horoscope, and engaged in other behaviors that she now rejects as a Christian. But in her struggle with OCD, she continued to obsessively look for “signs” from God to guide her decision-making process.
Then, one day, she became convicted of the sin of “divination.” Confused, she decided to look up the word to find out what it meant. To her surprise, “divination” meant “the use of signs to foretell future events.”
She was astonished! Could it be that she was committing the sin of divination by looking for signs–numbers, colors, and unrelated events–to guide her life? She repented of her magical thinking and is now on a path where she’s learning to trust God rather than random events.
Each one of us can have her experience. It all begins when we stop taking self (and our random observations) so seriously and begin taking God and His Word more seriously. It is further strengthened when we let go of our control addictions, trust our most valued life treasures in God’s hands, and stop trying to ritually protect ourselves.
Are you tired of magical thinking and scrupulosity?
Let’s kick this fallacious habit to the curb by determining to power through the magical associations that urge themselves so strongly upon our minds. Let’s face our fears by faith. Let’s stop trying so hard to “protect” that we end up putting ourselves in God’s position.
It all comes down to trusting God instead of trusting self. It’s a tough leap, but you can make it.
Here’s the baby step you can start with right now, today: the next time your brain throws you a really creative association and then hammers you with anxiety to follow it, step back. Remind yourself that God’s protection has never been contingent upon us fulfilling manmade little rituals like tapping the hood of the car a certain number of times or envisioning God in a specific way while praying. God’s protection is given freely when we choose to let go of our manmade solutions.
God’s got you in the palm of His hand. He’s taking care of you. You can trust Him.
And when we have that reality uppermost in our minds, we can let go of the magical rituals that we thought were protecting us.
Best wishes on the journey,