Maybe you had a horrible, terrible, no good, awful day with your OCD and then you wake up the next morning feeling complete numbness and apathy towards God. You know you ought to pray or read your Bible to begin your day. But there’s nothing within you that desires a connection with God. You instantly feel guilty. You dig deep to summon up a sense of enthusiasm or desire for God, but there’s nothing to be found.
Nothing at all.
All you can feel is numbness and apathy towards God.
You think to yourself that it might be from the anxiety and stress of the previous day. But a niggling little worm of fear says: maybe there’s something fatally wrong with your spiritual life if you feel apathetic. This thought bothers you, so you turn it over in your mind in morbid contemplation. The more you fixate on your feeling of numbness and apathy, the stronger it becomes.
And just like that, a new OCD spiral has begun.
In today’s blog post, I would like to discuss this strange and unnerving phenomenon of numbness and apathy towards God.
Who Experiences Numbness and Apathy Toward God?
In my last blog post I discussed the unique symptom clusters that are present within scrupulosity. Not everybody has the exact same symptoms, and that is particularly the case with the topic we are discussing today. Not everyone experiences numbness and apathy towards God when they’re in the midst of an OCD spiral.
But some people do.
I can’t give an exact estimate on how many people with religious OCD experience this symptom. Is it one in five? One in seven? I’m not sure. But there are enough people emailing me about this to justify a blog post!
Most people who suffer from unwanted numbness and apathy towards God are deeply devoted believers who usually feel this way towards the end of an extreme or very protracted anxiety spiral. An outsider might look in on the situation and say, “Of course I understand what’s happening. There’s nothing wrong between you and God. It’s just that your brain is completely overheated.”
This is often very true.
Sometimes, our emotions just shut down, like a safety shutoff valve. This might happen when we’ve been ruminating and obsessing about our faith for too long. Numbness and apathy might actually be the brain’s way of protecting itself from too much anxiety.
However, for the person afflicted with obsessive compulsive disorder, this conclusion is not intuitive. We have several Bible verses that our minds gravitate towards in our distress, causing us to think that our numbness is actually a sign of something disastrous.
What Does the Bible Say About Numbness and Apathy Towards God?
One of the first passages we think about in terms of numbness and apathy is Revelation 3:15-16.
“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.Revelation 3:15-16
Ah, this is a terrible idea of being spewed out of God’s mouth! Such a verse brings up the scariest imagery of complete and abject rejection by God due to spiritual apathy. But can this verse really be applied to our situation?
We know from the broader OCD recovery community that seasons of extreme spiritual rumination are often interspersed with blocks of spiritual burnout. During these periods of burnout, it’s fairly common to feel numb, apathetic, or (gasp!) even resentful towards God. Is this really what Jesus meant when He talked about people being lukewarm?
Well, for the sake of discussion, let’s think of a hypothetical scenario.
Imagine a woman with six children. She lives at the poverty level. Her husband just died a few days ago, and now she has to figure out a way to raise her children alone.
According to the typical stages of grief, this woman is going to cycle through several emotions. First, she’ll be in shock and numbness, unable to process what is happening. Her brain will be so jarred by the trauma of losing her partner that it will temporarily shut down in self-protection. Then, after some time, she will go through the other stages of grieving: yearning, despair, and eventually, reorganization.
Notice that this normal stage of grieving involves numbness and a complete lack of engagement.
Does this count as being “lukewarm?”
Certainly, the newly widowed woman will not be in church the day after her husband’s death, overflowing with joy and exuberant worship. She might be doing well to just hold herself together and whisper a jagged, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Or she might have no words for God at all.
We would hardly call this woman “lukewarm” according to the definition of Revelation 3. There are clearly layers of nuance in life, and it would be well for us to recognize that Jesus is speaking of a consistent spiritual trend to de-prioritize Him in our lives. However, there will be many times in life when outside circumstances (loss, burnout, mental health disorders) cause us to feel an acute sense of emptiness in God’s presence.
God understands our struggles in this life. And he clearly knows how to differentiate between mental exhaustion and true spiritual apathy.
Elijah’s Struggle with Burnout
I would suggest that what most people with Religious OCD are dealing with is not true numbness and apathy towards God, but rather a sense of mental exhaustion and spiritual burnout.
I have often referenced the story of when Elijah was running away from Jezebel. You will remember this story very well. Any website dealing with spirituality and mental health has to reference this story.
Elijah was suicidal. He asked God to kill him and let him sleep with his ancestors.
But God didn’t do that. God understood that Elijah was experiencing burnout. He was mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted after his turmoil on Mount Carmel. God did not forsake him in that situation. He understood that the way he feels right now is not the way he really feels. And that’s a beautiful lesson for us.
When we’re in the midst of our OCD struggles, and we’re burned out and feeling numbness and apathy towards God, the way we’re feeling is not the way we really feel. And praise the Lord. He understands that.
A Biblical Definition of Complacency
There is, of course, a true Biblical sense of complacency and spiritual apathy that is to be avoided. We can read about this from the writings of Zephaniah.
And it shall come to pass at that timeZephaniah 1:12-13
That I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
And punish the men
Who are settled in complacency,
Who say in their heart,
‘The Lord will not do good,
Nor will He do evil.’
Therefore their goods shall become booty,
And their houses a desolation;
They shall build houses, but not inhabit them;
They shall plant vineyards, but not drink their wine.
Here we read about men whom the Bible calls complacent. In other words, they don’t care.
These complacent men say that God will do neither good nor ill. It’s almost like a complete rejection that God even exists at all. They don’t think that He will do anything–like a rusty, tarnished idol on a shelf.
This is a type of complacency that the Bible wants us to avoid. But it’s very different from what we are experiencing.
Typically, when we’re worrying about our numbness and apathy towards God, we’re very much worrying about ourselves. This is that old classic OCD trick to get us focusing on ourselves. We worry about our numbness and apathy because we think that it means something very scary and very dangerous about our relationship with God.
However, the true biblical description of spiritual complacency is more related to what we think about God, not what we think about ourselves.
Spiritual complacency is to believe that God is not present, that he will not act, and that none of His promises are true. And therefore, we relegate Him to the top shelf in the closet to gather dust with other ideas or things in life that are simply unimportant to us.
The fact that we feel a little bit worried about our numbness and apathy towards God is in itself, a signifier that we do care.
How to Love the Lord with All Our Heart When We Feel Apathetic
Here’s another passage that might be a bit bothersome to people who struggle with numbness and apathy towards God.
Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”Matthew 22:37-40
Jesus told the rich young ruler that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind. This sounds pretty all-inclusive! And so we begin to worry:
- Oh, boy, I don’t think I’m loving God as much as I ought to.
- I don’t feel anything towards Him–neither love nor hate, neither trust nor distrust.
- I just feel like my brain is a black hole and there’s just nothing there except complete numbness.
Again, I would point your mind to other descriptors of what the New Testament means when it talks about loving the Lord or serving Him faithfully. We can go to Christ’s parable of two sons to dig a little deeper.
“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
They said to Him, “The first.”Matthew 21:28-31
Notice that the first son told his father that he will not go. He sounds pretty rebellious! But in the end, he repented and went. He didn’t actually mean what he was saying. Deep down, he did love his father and wanted to obey Him. And therefore, at the end of the day, we see that he does what he was requested to do.
If you struggle with spiritual burnout, and you’re feeling a disconcerting lack of emotion towards God, I would encourage you not to get hung up on your emotions. Just do what God asked you to do. Just keep living like a Christian and trust that God is going to fix your emotions in his time and in his way. By doing this, we can avoid getting caught up in the OCD struggle, trying to tinker and fix and manipulate ourselves until we get tied into a knot.
Numbness and Apathy Towards God: A Word About Medications
At this point, I would like to make an interjection. Numbness and apathy are common side effects of antidepressant medications. And guess what? Many people in the OCD recovery community are on SSRI medications.
If you take medications, and you’re experiencing a sense of numbness and apathy towards God, have you considered that it might simply be side effects from your medications?
Your numbness probably doesn’t mean anything at all about your relationship with God. However, it could indicate that you need to talk to your psychiatrist about your meds.
Again, let’s remember that feeling numbness and apathy during life’s crazy moments is a normal thing.
The only place in Scripture where I could find the word “numb” is in Genesis chapter 45, and it’s only in the ESV translation. This is close to the end of Joseph’s story when Jacob is told that his son is alive and that he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.
And in this moment of extreme shock, it says that Jacob’s heart became numb.
I think that the Bible recognizes that it’s a pretty normal thing for people to grow numb when we go through extreme experiences. This is simply our body’s way of protecting ourselves, of shutting down the emotions so that we don’t become too overwhelmed for our own good. It really isn’t anything for us to be concerned about. And it certainly isn’t something for us to enter another rumination cycle over.
Sometimes, I Feel Apathetic, Too
You’re not the only one who gets those feelings of spiritual deadness and detachment. I, too, have experienced periods of numbness and apathy towards God.
This can be hard for me because I’ve been in ministry for more than a decade. There’s never been a time when I can just lay down my sword and not be engaged in my spiritual responsibilities. It’s difficult to continue teaching Bible classes, writing religious content, and even preaching sermons when I feel spiritually detached inside.
This makes me feel like a fake, a fraud. I get an urge to stand up and shout in front of everybody, “Hey! I’m struggling in my relationship with God! I’m a complete religious failure!”
But by now, I’ve learned that this isn’t the answer.
You see, I understand what spiritual anxiety is. I understand burnout and overwhelm. And I try to give myself grace and time and space to work through the overwhelm before making any final conclusions about my authenticity as a Christian.
I, along with many others in the scrupulosity recovery community, am a highly sensitive person. If you’ve never taken a self test to assess yourself for the HSP trait, I would really encourage you to do so because many of us with scrupulosity are also HSP. (You can take the test here.)
As an HSP, I recognize that I’m very vulnerable to overwhelm. My brain and my nervous system can only handle so much stimulation before they want to shut down.
I’m so sensitive about sensory input that I don’t even like to hear fans in my house. It’s crazy! It really bothers me to hear the humming noise of the dishwasher or to hear the exhaust fan in the bathroom. Multiple times per day, I have to get up go to turn off things in the house that are making noise. Sensory input ruffles me. I startle easily if somebody sneezes, I get headaches if I’m in bright sunlight for too long, I go nutty if I have scratchy clothing tags…you get the picture.
That’s called sensory sensitivity.
But I also have emotional sensitivity. My husband regularly tells me to cover my eyes when we’re watching the news or a documentary (and I NEVER watch violent movies). Last night we watched a health documentary that showed a real-life clip of a woman fainting and falling under a train. I nearly lost it. Couldn’t handle that at all. My brain has to process the depth of the “oh my goodness I just watched a real clip of a woman’s dying moment!)
HSP’s have a vulnerability to sensory, emotional, and mental stimulation. We can only handle so much. I know that when I overthink and ruminate too much, I can and will experience burnout.
Maybe you resonate?
What to Do When Mental Overwhelm Causes a Shutdown
When I experienced overwhelm, I know that it is a temporary way my brain is shutting itself down to get the rest that it needs–and I let that happen. I ride along with the wave of overwhelm, and I let my brain shut down without worrying a single little bit.
When my brain shuts down and goes into numbness mode after a season of spiritual hype and rumination, I choose not to feed myself more spiritual content that might prolong the cycle. Sometimes this means that I’ll go for two or three days without having “formal” devotions. Sometimes, the only prayers that I’ll pray for a few days are wordless–the emotional lifting up of my heart to the Lord that comes without formal kneeling or elegantly-strung sentences. I don’t pressure myself to produce “typical” prayers and devotional readings because my brain is exhausted.
In this state of overwhelm recovery, though, I don’t worry. I know the Lord understands. And I’m at the point in my life where I also understand what’s going on when I feel numbness and apathy towards God and spiritual things.
How I feel is not really how I feel.
It’s just a way that my brain is coping with overwhelm and burnout. And the more that I cooperate with the way my brain is trying to heal, the easier and the quicker these uncomfortable feelings are going to pass.
An Overwhelm Recovery Program
Dear reader, if you feel like I’m describing you in this blog post, let me share some advice.
You are tired. You are overwhelmed. But there’s nothing wrong between you and the Lord. You just need some rest, and God is merciful enough to give that to you.
So here’s what I would suggest.
If you’re feeling spiritually numb or apathetic towards God, I would recommend a special overwhelm recovery program. Here’s what you’re going to do for the next few days:
- You’re not going to worry a single bit about your relationship with God.
- You’re not going to try to hype yourself up to a high pitch of faith-filled prayers.
- You’re not going to confess, fast, study, pass out gospel tracts, or lead a worship program.
- You’re just going to rest.
As you rest, here’s how I would like you to rest. I would like you to keep in your mind that God is the one who performs all things for us and that He’s the author and finisher of our faith. You’re going to remember that if there’s anything wrong with your spiritual experience, He loves you enough to come and speak gently with you about it and fix it.
God loves you. He wants you to have healing and wholeness. And right now, if you’re feeling completely overwhelmed in your spiritual life, it’s not the time for you to be digging for answers or creating the next systematic theology of your belief system.
Go for nature walks. Dig around in your garden. Eat a slice of lemon pie. Take a nap.
Try to engage in the most low-stimulation things possible. In a few days, you should be fine again (caveat: if your numbness and apathy is related to medications, you might need more than a few days, plus a visit to your psychiatrist.) Either way, you’ll pull out of your numbness. Don’t worry.
Once you’ve taken some rest for a few days, we can assume it will be safe for you to reengage again with your typical spiritual practices. Start out slow. Pray a little bit. Read a little bit. Worship a little bit. But don’t go overboard, because your OCD would love for you to get sucked right back into a compulsive cycle!
Unwanted numbness and apathy towards God is a fairly typical symptom of scrupulosity. We don’t like it, but we can learn to deal with it in a way that isn’t so upsetting.
I hope that this article has given you some suggestions on moving forward. Please comment below and let me know how your overwhelm recovery days go! I think you’ll find that taking a bit of downtime helps you recover faster than worrying and ruminating about your numbness. Try it out!
At the end of the day, whether you feel numb and apathetic or not, remember that we are saved by grace, not by having all the right emotions. There will be plenty of times in life when feelings don’t add up. What a comfort it is to know that my depraved heart and feelings are not what saves me!
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me!
For my soul trusts in You;
And in the shadow of Your wings I will make my refuge,
Until these calamities have passed by.
I will cry out to God Most High,Psalm 57:1-2
To God who performs all things for me.
Whatever you’re feeling today, be encouraged! God will perform for you all that is needed.
Best wishes on the journey,