Did somebody say “obsessive prayer?”
Well, let me be the first one to share a confession: I don’t pray very well.
If we’re going to talk about twisted and convoluted prayer compulsions, I will offer myself as the case study of the day. Obsessive prayer? Yes, I can say a thing or two about that.
Certainly, there are some positive aspects to my prayer life. I talk to God all throughout my day. I tell Him about my thoughts and feelings. I present my troubles to Him. I seek His guidance when I’m making decisions. Prayer, for me, is the opening of my heart to God as to a friend. I also ask Him to forgive me when I make mistakes, which usually goes off without a hitch.
But here’s the problem: I don’t feel comfortable asking for things. Anytime I have something important to request, I get obsessive.
I’ve asked God for things in the past. Big things. Important things. I’ve wept on the floor, claimed Bible promises, and skipped sleep. I’ve wracked my brain to think of any unconfessed sin that might prevent God’s answer. I’ve hyped myself up to a high pitch of charismatic-type super-faith, haunted by the verse, “if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matthew 21:21-22).
But my prayers don’t move mountains. They don’t even move the little molehills that mean a lot to me.
So I double down and pray harder, working very hard to have faith (it sounds ironic, doesn’t it?) Then I read the words of Jesus in John 15:7, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” My mind clings to this verse in a terrifying sort of way. Answered prayer becomes a litmus test for whether I am really abiding in Christ or not. It seems as if the authenticity and validity of my entire spiritual life is on the line.
I pray harder. But still, heaven is silent.
The devastation of such unanswered prayers is difficult to describe, and they leave me feeling shameful and rejected, like a spiritual failure. Unanswered prayers make me feel as though my inadequacies have prevented God from acting.
For me, an unanswered prayer rapidly hatches into an obsessive prayer.
Understanding Obsessive Prayer
I bend my mind to try understanding the mechanics of prayer, but it’s difficult.
I think first of the cliché reminder that we must pray for God’s will to be done. But this brings me little comfort. If God’s will is so settled that my prayer changes nothing, why should I torture myself? If God will implement His own sovereign designs, it makes no sense to weep in prayer, to roll in the thornbushes, or to cover myself in sackcloth and ashes.
While this line of thinking excuses me from trying to force God’s will, it still fails to resolve the tension I find in Scripture. Yes, God has a will—but He still asks us to pray. Therefore there must be some kind of meaningful function behind prayer, otherwise prayer would be nothing more than a cosmic joke in a fatalistic universe. So I must pray, but my prayer has to be in line with God’s will, but how will I always know what God’s will is?
But, but, but…
God, why did you make this so hard?
At some point in my inner dialogue, I stop and take a deep breath. I realize that my thoughts are spiraling rapidly, my breath is coming faster, my heartbeat is fluttering–all biological signs of a stress response. There is no peace or joy, only an urgent, anxious sense of foreboding about what if I don’t get this right.
The only way I can get myself out of an obsessive prayer spiral is to stop trying to understand it and just realize that God never intended it to be so complicated.
The Non-Complicated Prayer
I want to pray well. I want to stop feeling guilty and confused when my prayers are unanswered. But how can I find the way forward?
My default path to relief for many years has been to pray once for the things I desire, then leave the outcome in God’s hands. These days, I don’t have the energy to rally my emotions for weeping and wailing. I present my request before God, once, in a simple manner. Then I get off my knees and trust Him to do what is best.
I don’t know if this is the right approach, but I get the idea from the ancient showdown on Mount Carmel. The priests of Baal leapt and danced and shouted all day long. They cut themselves until the blood gushed out. Elijah’s prayer contrasted sharply because of its brevity. His entire prayer was only a few sentences long. There was no begging, no manipulation. Yet God answered by fire.
Perhaps Jesus was thinking of Mount Carmel when He said, “when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). It seems that God is not interested in hearing us babble and screech all night long. He is not interested in obsessive prayer. After all, “your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8).
A Terribly Made But Answered Prayer
Five years ago, I passed through one of the darkest seasons of my life. After a series of painful difficulties in the mission field, I experienced a breakdown in my mental health. I became severely depressed and anxious. I spent my days weeping, convinced that I was shut out from God’s favor and that I would be lost for all eternity. I felt no comfort from God. No matter what I did, I couldn’t establish a feeling of connection with Him. The logical conclusion, to me, was that life without God’s favor wasn’t worth living. I began having suicidal ideations.
In this season of deep despair, I could not pray. But oh, how I yearned for some promise that God accepted me! How I longed to reach up a trembling hand to my Father in heaven!
At that time, my husband and I lived in a Catholic enclave in the Middle East, and I had often seen my neighbors burning candles in front of icons of the saints. The foyer of our apartment building held a statue of Mary, and on any given day, one or more tall red votive candles would burn in front of her image—a ritualized way of offering prayers to the saint.
Despite being a lifelong Protestant, and knowing that any number of my Protestant family members would raise eyebrows if they knew what I was doing, I purchased a red prayer candle and placed it on a shelf in front of my Bible and a picture of Jesus. I remembered how, in the Old Testament, the priest would burn incense before the Lord, which represented the prayers of God’s people (Psalm 141:2, Revelation 5:8).
In my extremity, when I could not pray, I lit that candle beside my Bible. I would sit and stare at that candle through itchy, tear-dried eyes. I could not formulate the words of a prayer. I could not think clearly. But that candle was a wordless plea; lighting it every day was a physical act of saying, please, do not forsake me.
That candle was my prayer.
Because conservative Protestantism in general tends to frown upon anything perceived as “ritualism,” I know my prayer candle might raise some eyebrows. But I don’t really mind. I believe that God answered me, because I was able to get help and heal completely from my depression. I was able to reconnect with God and begin understanding the ways my anxiety could trick me into feeling rejected by God when this simply wasn’t the case.
So many times, I had wept and spiritually self-flagellated to get God to hear my prayers. I would pour myself into obsessive prayer that left me feeling empty and drained, and afterwards I would be devastated by heaven’s silence. But in my time of greatest need, when I couldn’t offer the sacrifice of a “good enough prayer,” God heard and answered me.
Avoiding Obsessive Prayer When God Says No
I don’t know with scientific accuracy why God answers some prayers with “yes” and other prayers with “no.” But I do believe that He knows what’s best for me and will never give me anything except that which is for my best good. This mindset helps me trust Him as a loving Father and not ask too many questions when I don’t get what I want. I’ll admit that I’ve heard many explanations for why God still asks us to pray when He already has a “yes” or a “no” prepared, and none of them make 100% sense in my mind. And that’s okay.
I’m learning that God cannot be boxed in and pinned down by tightly-woven theological explanations.
The essence of the Christian life is experiential religion–a great, existential reaching out to grasp God and appropriate Him to my inmost self. God is not a concept, He is a divine Person who reveals Himself intimately and yet remains an incomprehensible mystery. Encountering the paradoxes of faith is not a bad thing, for it propels me forward in my experiential relationship with God.
Perhaps, then, it is in the blurry area between my own feeble sight and the unexplained mysteries of God’s purposes where I will learn the most about how to avoid obsessive prayer and how to gracefully accept God’s noes.
In the majority of cases, I will not immediately understand God’s answers to prayer. This side of heaven, I may never understand. But a no does not necessarily indicate that I have prayed a faulty prayer.
A no does not mean I am faithless, or sinful, or presumptuous.
It just means that God said no, and I don’t have to neurotically analyze what might be wrong with my prayer life. No is no. Don’t analyze. Just trust.
Even the Apostle Paul had an unanswered prayer for no known reason. Remember when he asked God, three times, to remove the thorn from his flesh? God said no, but promised to strengthen him to bear the affliction.
I must trust my Father’s heart. Trust that He has my best good in mind. Trust that He has a purpose and a meaning for everything, and that “no good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11).
So how can we avoid obsessive prayer? By resisting the urge to analyze the no.
I don’t know what part of prayer you struggle with as an obsessive-compulsive sufferer. Maybe you get caught up with confessing just right, or having the correct imagery in mind when you pray. Maybe you have a long list of prayer points to check off every day, or the need to feel sincere and sorry enough.
I sympathize. I really do. It isn’t easy to regain a sense of peace about prayer when prayer itself is supposed to be the tool that helps us access God’s peace.
But we can do this. By God’s grace, we can learn how to move forward and develop non-obsessive prayers.
My friends, it must begin with a commitment to trust. When we trust ourselves fully in God’s hands, we can let go of the need to hyper-fixate and analyze the aspects of prayer that are tripping us up. When Scripture invites us to “pray without ceasing,” I highly doubt that God was inviting us into an obsessive experience. I believe it is simply an invitation to live in a consistent, open connection with our Father, who loves us and pours out His grace continually.
Counterfeit prayer lookalikes, which bring inner harassment, pain, and confusion, are not required. We can leave these by the roadside and ask God to help us genuinely enter His rest.
Today, may you recognize elements of your own prayer life that have become obsessive and need to be left behind. May you daily experience a deeper commitment to trusting God with your unknowns so that you can experience peace.
“In returning and rest you shall be saved;Isaiah 30:15
In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.”
How is God teaching you to move beyond obsessive prayer? Leave a comment below and share with us.
Best wishes on the journey,
Jamie, I sometimes think to myself, "God will sacrifice one to save many." I'm sure your dark season was hard to faithfully get through but I'm so grateful you had it. It seems as if God sacrificed you for many years so you can help the hundreds of people suffering. Your blogs touch home for many of us. You wouldn't be able to help us the way you do if you didn't have certain experiences. Thanks so much for encouraging us as you tackle your own battles.
Thank you, Krys, that is kind of you to say. I have often thought of my pain as the inspiration for writing. I tell my group coaching members that I am not one of the lucky 20% who get a “full remission” from OCD–I am stable and doing well, but I have to constantly manage my OCD the way a diabetic has to manage his blood sugar for the rest of his life. But over and over again, I see that when anxiety does pop up, it provides inspiration for something else to write about. God has His ways of working that we don’t always understand until we are looking backwards.
Nowadays my struggle with prayer has been that I kind of assume God will be against me from the get go. I'm almost 22 and still living w my parents which causes a lot of conflict. I genuinely believe that I'm in the right many times. But when it comes to my nightly prayer, I cannot just ask God "please comfort me in this trial and make my parents understand me etc", instead I beat myself up mentally until I understand why I'm in the wrong and subsequently repent. I think this is a result of my seeing prayer primarily in terms of apologising. But also, since my parents are also Christian, I assume God is on their side and this against me etc. The only time I felt 100% sure I was comforted by God was in regard to my (emotionally, psychologically) abusive teacher in high-school. Other than that, I feel like I have to prove my suffering "worthy enough" before I can dare ask for comfort from God, which is very unfortunate.
My struggle with Obsessive prayer recently has been about Obsessive thanking and praising. I thank God for various things at least 15-20 times a day. And these are not simple thank you's. These are lengthy thanking and praising words. At one point i used to even thank God that I suddenly didn't smash my leg to a rock while walking on the road. While closing the door i used to thank God that my hand didn't come in the way of the door. After taking a turn on my bike, i used to thank God that the bike didn't slip and fall on the road. I even used to try to feel grateful that while walking somehow my ankle didn't twist and get fractured. I know it sounds weird, but it's true.
Not only the reason for giving thanks , but even the method of giving thanks was something. It had to be a structured prayer including all the words which are used in praising.
Somehow I think, i came to believe that if i don't thank, then the opposite will happen next time, or that I am not a grateful person and if i don't thank God, He will stop doing what he did for me.
In these times, i came across this one line in an article which helped me a lot, 'God cherishes a short prayer.' Also Jesus' words 'Dont use many words while praying' stuck with me.
I think we must look at God as our friend. If one of our friend does something for us, we say thank you and express gratitude. But if we were to go on monotonously and mechanically saying thank you, they'd probably think we're crazy. I think we must look at this situation in a similar way.
I want to also thank you Jaime for this content, it literally has healed so many parts of my scrupulosity.
Isaiah 30:15 has been my theme for the year. I wrote it on either side of a flat rock that sits on my desk at work. My story is slightly different but the conclusions are the same: trust in him and his covenant faithfulness. Connect with him in a filial posture I’d love and adoration rather than slavish fear. Don’t trust my own thoughts and feelings too much. This is so well written too!
“Connect with him in a filial posture of love and adoration rather than slavish fear.” I love that!!
Every time I read one of your articles, it’s like a warm hug from God. It brings me peace :).
I struggle with being afraid to ask God for help like what is going to do that may be scary to me. I struggle to pray first in all things? I was so obsessed with prayer st one time now I go the opposite way. And enter guilt and shame. I get anxious in His presence. Thank you!
Thank you so much for this post Jaimie. I’m so grateful to God for your work.
I have definitely struggled in the area of prayer with ocd. A couple of my issues have been going through compulsive confession in my mind when I feel angry with a person (and bad thoughts have flashed into my mind) then I feel I need to ask forgiveness for the thoughts, feelings.. sometimes I may feel I need to ask the person for forgiveness but lately I’ve been seeking to “leave it on God’s shelf” as someone once told me. I’ve been doing this by visualizing a shelf and literally leaving the issue there. This has helped so much! The thing is I’ve made it into part of mr ritual in a way imposed with some other words I recite in my mind. I’d really like to leave the issues on God’s shelf and not go through any of the rituals if they aren’t necessary.
This really spoke to me in your post.
“Today, may you recognize elements of your own prayer life that have become obsessive and need to be left behind. May you daily experience a deeper commitment to trusting God with your unknowns so that you can experience peace.
“In returning and rest you shall be saved;
In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.”
I want to trust God with my unknowns (for example sometimes I don’t really know if I need to go through a confession for angry feelings, or if I entertained then a moment too long or if I hurt someone by a look)… I’d love to “return and rest” and exercise “quietness and confidence” in these moments of anxiety and uncertainty as to what needs to be confessed etc.
I love the thought and verse you shared above because I feel it could help propel me to the next level of being free from ocd prayer.
Thank you for sharing, Deborah! I like the concept of having a “God shelf” where we can leave our confusing things. Have confidence in His willingness to carry our burdens!
I struggle very much with scrupulosity but I just don’t know how to discern if certain things are sins or not because sometimes I feel like I kind of know and could let it go more easily but others times I’m really not sure and I didn’t use to have this problem before I had ocd it’s just I don’t know how to let go of things that I think actually genuinely could be sin or not because then I feel like how could I just let a potential sin that just hurt God go like how could I just live my life like that with that knowledge of a potential unforeseen sin that could actually truly be sin and then I feel like now that is creating a genuine barrier with me and God or something like that or a bad mark on our relationship so I always have to ask for forgiveness to make sure or something like that. I just don’t know how to fix this issue of discerning if something sin or not anymore Bc I didn’t use to trip up like this before ocd happened in my life.
So I reread this today and sent it to my daddy who struggles as well. This is even more comforting the second time. There are so many things I don't understand right now. But the part about trusting in the goodness of God in the midst of our blind spots and insufficiencies is what I'm holding on to. Just thinking about the thief on the cross.
He just asked Jesus. Remember me when you enter into your kingdom.
The content of our heart must matter to Him.
<3 Thanks Jaimie
Hi Jaimie, obsessive prayer is definitely my dominant OCD! Mine is the 'just right' prayer. It needs to be perfect so it becomes repetitive and then time-consuming. 😢The pain and struggle is real.
To heal from this I'm learning to see God as my loving Father when I talk to Him in prayer and that I'm in a relationship with Him so I don't have to worry obsessively that I forget or miss something in my prayer time. He knows my heart and I still keep fighting to rest with that truth.
Thanks for sharing your story. It makes me feel less alone. I still struggle but I know God is faithful to heal me always. ✨ Love to you Jaimie❤️
Great thoughts! I’m glad you feel less alone…you’re not alone! Keep looking upward to the true biblical Father, not the one our scary emotions construct. He loves you!
Hi. Sometimes I wonder if God is saying no to some of things I want because I don’t feel that I have enough faith, or if it’s just my OCD bullying and limiting me. I think for many of us out there, this is a prominent concern. I’m worried about hurting others by doing something I hope for, and am concerned that this fear is just OCD. I ask God not to let that happen, but am concerned that’s not how he operates. It’s a fear of being sinfully selfish vs. not trusting God and/or letting my OCD rule me.
I can so relate! I feel I have to pray certain phrases and say things just right for God to hear. It's like I have to pray through a list of Bible promises, without skipping any, for God to see that I am sincere and really desire an answer. This is especially true when praying for my loved ones to find Jesus. I feel I must pray for their salvation in multiple ways, every time I pray. I want to experience joy in conversing with Christ, not a checklist prayer! Thank you for this post. It helps to know I'm not alone!
I struggle with exactly the same thing! It’s helpful to hear your your experience. It makes me aware of how OCD is affecting my prayers and I didn’t know it. Thank you!
Thank you so much for this post. I identify myself with it by praying certain requests for my family all over again and don't see the exact answers that I am wishing for.. (my brother accepting a Bible study with me for example…) and think that it it is not answered I need to change or do something in my prayers or actions so that it gets answered.
Today after reading this blog post I decided to just mark these prayers off as answered and move on; to let God guide me through my prayers and in a trusting relationship just give Him access to do what is the next step.
God bless you in your ministry!
This sounds like very solid rationale moving forward. God hears and is answering in His way and His time; there is nothing about yourself to analyze further. Thank you for sharing!
Thanks for sharing this, Jamie. This has been a challenge for me with my scrupulously for years… try to think, say, imagine, and feel the exact right thing in my prayers. I’m still learning, but I’ve been making some progress recently after an experience Sunday morning about a month or so ago where I had run out of words to pray and decided to just let my heart do the praying, trusting God could here the pain in my heart. After the service ended, I went to talk to my pastor, specifically about my struggle with prayer, and, as he spoke and said things I know I had probably heard many times before, suddenly it was like heaven opened a little bit and I caught a glimpse of God’s immeasurable love for and delight in me. I was overwhelmed and began to just weep for joy as I just let God’s love wash over me. As I wept, my pastor said, “These tears are more precious to God than all the words you could say.” In that moment, I sensed clearly that God was telling me that I would still have ups and downs in my anxiety, but that it didn’t matter, because he loved me. Since then, I have had ups and downs, but they’ve been less dramatic because I’ve been realizing that his love is all the answer I need. I’ve been starting to recognize my obsessive prayer patterns more and find ways to pray for simply, or just learn to acknowledge that God can hear even the prayers I only think, and that that is enough. So thanks for this post, which is timely and speaks into things that God has been doing in my life recently.
What a beautiful testimony of God’s goodness and faithfulness! Praise God for the moments when we can begin to see more clearly and understand God’s love for us, which has NOTHING to do with our obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
Keep looking up!
Oh this is such a precious reminder and encouragement. I'm so thankful for the Holy Spirit (wanting to cry right now). He is good. He gave me a dream in 2018 and showed me a place of darkness I would walk through but that when I trusted Him in the uncertainty; He would pick me up and get me to the other side. I know He was showing me this season of life. I hold onto that.
Jaimie, I find it extremely difficult to not be obsessive when it comes to praying for my loved ones.I feel like I have to render the same prayer everyday in the same manner for my brother,nephew, god children and their family or I’m letting them down. I use my personal relationship with God, which I love, to provide for them support and protect them. I know in my heart that my prayers reflect an obsessive compulsion behavior on my part, but I fear deviating from my prayer format will not protect to them. I really do want simplify my prayers and just” talk with God” but I admit I’m afraid. I agree with you that this process can be overwhelming and cause much anxiety and that this is NOT what God wants. Please, words of advice.
Hi Robert, thanks for sharing about your struggle. I think there are many other readers who could “second” your experience. Unfortunately, these kinds of obsessive prayers, at their core, are a works-based way of trying to achieve safety for our family members. I don’t think God enjoys your obsessive prayers, the anxiety that it causes is not reflective of His character. He protects your family DESPITE your obsessive prayers, not BECAUSE of them. Our very inability to let go of these kinds of high-blood-pressure-inducing prayers is evidence that we are depending on our prayers as a “work” to achieve something that God promised to do through His grace.
I know it’s scary, but start letting go, little by little, and I think you’ll see God come through for you as you trust.
Robert, I can really relate to this. I almost feel like my family's salvation is solely related to my prayers, how I pray, what I say, what my feelings are while praying. I feel that if I didn't claim a certain Bible promise over them, then they won't be saved or healed or safe or whatever! I hear others talk of their amazing prayer life and I'm jealous for that. I pray we learn the joy of communing with Jesus.
Kelli, believe me I understand. You feel as though you have to cover all the bases every prayer with no mistakes and not out of order. I get it! I will say, I’m taking Jaimie’s advice and I am simplifying my prayer process. I honestly regret my obsession because it doesn’t show much trust in God. This really bothers me since God repeatedly urges us to just trust. Try simplifying and trust, Jaimie is right, God will come through. Good luck!
I really struggle with praying about my unknowns because I haven't really experienced God in those places. I've always felt alone in my struggle with OCD. So my brain says, "why am I praying about this? I'm going to have to figure this out myself". Or sometimes feeling the urge to pray again about something I've already prayed about a hundred times…because to let go of it even for the moment feels irresponsible.
The uncertainty and feeling of being lost (in a non eternal sense) causes me great grief. I feel so sad and scared a lot of the time but I am trying to make room for Jesus to be my healer, counselor and deliverer.
Jesus please help.
Thanks from Pakistan
Truth, have felt similarly. Wondering if I’m utterly forsake or in the end He’ll say “I never knew you depart from me.” That verse has been a torment for years and an accusation. Thought he remembers our frame, He answered my pleas because if I didn’t know what was wrong with me I wouldn’t lost my mind, simply heal me or kill me. Grace abounds brethren you aren’t alone in this fight with mental illness when we’re weak we’re strong!
The passage you reference is a common hang-up passage for people with scrupulosity. So glad you’ve been able to figure out what’s going on!
Yep, this verse and many others are scary. As we share our experiences with others it does dawn on us that OCD-Scrupe is playing a role in tormenting us. There is a common thread that we all share with these similar thoughts. That helps give validity to not obsess over those verses.