We often hear about OCD and intrusive thoughts, but is there such a thing as OCD and intrusive emotions?
Sherise had been battling anxiety and intrusive thoughts for years when she felt as though her brain had reached its melting point. She entered a period of emotional numbness towards herself, towards other people, and worst of all, towards God. She no longer felt guilty for her sins. She no longer could stir up a sense of desire or devotion. She looked at her Bible or sat through sermons feeling completely devoid of feelings.
Sherise panicked. Did her feelings of numbness indicate that she had finally gone too far for God? Was she lost?
Bill, too, experienced unwanted and very inappropriate emotions. When he looked at the cross, he felt an urge to laugh, which horrified him. When he read Bible stories that spoke about miracles, he felt a sense of disgust, which he quickly tried to argue away.
The more Bill struggled against these emotions, the more persistent they became. Deep down, he knew that he loved the Lord, and it pained him to have these inappropriate feelings popping up out of nowhere. Bill worried that these feelings were a signal of something very wrong in his relationship with God.
Did Sherise and Bill truly have a problem in their spiritual lives, or were they experiencing the strange intersect between OCD and intrusive emotions?
What Is the Relationship Between OCD and Intrusive Emotions?
Intrusive thoughts are the perpetual sidekick of obsessive-compulsive disorder. This unholy trinity–obsessions, compulsions, and intrusive thoughts–keep us stuck in a round of insanity day after day. Intrusive thoughts are the spark plugs to our obsessions, and obsessions are the engine to our compulsions.
Intrusive thoughts have lots of research behind them. They are defined as
Recurrent thoughts, urges, or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as unwanted, and that in most individuals cause marked distress.Hannah Brock, Manassa Hany, 2022
As we can see, intrusive disturbances can be thoughts, urges, or images. Can they also be emotions, or the lack thereof? Apparently, yes.
Intrusive emotions are feelings that are unwanted, cause distress, and seem to be uncontrollable.
Everyone has unwanted emotions at various times. Getting frustrated at a crazy driver on the freeway doesn’t feel good–we would much rather be the halo-wearing, perfectly calm Christian driver who never gets frustrated. But losing our patience, getting irritated, or feeling a bit blue are pretty “normal” emotional experiences. When these things occur, we work to build better emotional intelligence (EQ) so that we can handle unwanted emotions in a mature manner.
OCD and intrusive emotions are a bit different. They tend to be inappropriate to the situation and unrelated to normal triggers. This can make the person with obsessive-compulsive disorder extremely concerned, thus starting a fresh cycle of obsessing and compulsing.
Let me give a few examples.
|“Normal” Unwanted Emotion
|OCD Intrusive Emotion
|Getting annoyed and snapping at kids when they misbehave at church
|Sitting in church and feeling the urge to laugh or spit on the cross; then feeling horror with self
|Feeling emotionally drained and exhausted after a long day at work
|Feeling emotionally numb after a long bout of obsessing; then obsessing about what the numbness “means”
|Feeling angry at God when convicted of sin; working through emotions to do what is right and submit to God
|Feeling angry at God for no particular reason; having urges to deny or reject Him; horror and obsession to discover “why” these feelings arise
Intrusive emotions are not the typical bad feelings we try to manage as mature adults. They might be related to a particular trigger–like going to church or reading your Bible–but they also might be completely random. They seem to indicate something awful about you or your spiritual life. They can also be very long-lasting and hard to escape.
Thus, intrusive emotions are just as effective as intrusive thoughts at gaining and maintaining the attention of a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Does the Bible Say Anything about OCD and Intrusive Emotions?
The Bible doesn’t speak about OCD directly, but it does give us a wealth of concepts and principles that can help us move through the wily tricks of OCD. In this particular case, we want to search Scripture for topics relating to “the heart,” which is often how Bible authors spoke about the emotions and the inner intentions of the person.
We can discover at least three principles that help us here:
- Emotions are poor indicators of reality
- Changing our emotions is not something we can entirely do on our own
- God accepts us even when our emotions are not the best
Let’s break these topics down and look at them in more detail.
Emotions Are Poor Indicators of Reality
I think Jeremiah was a rather emotional prophet. His writings are full of tears, crying, lamentation, and discouragement. But he leaves behind some very important thoughts about our emotional lives.
The heart is deceitful above all things,Jeremiah 17:9-10
And desperately wicked;
Who can know it?
I, the Lord, search the heart,
I test the mind,
Even to give every man according to his ways,
According to the fruit of his doings.
Human beings are pretty poor analysts of our own emotions, even though OCD would like to get us obsessing all day about what each particular feeling “meant.” God is the one who searches and tests the mind and heart.
Can we truly, by obsession and rumination and analysis, figure out why we feel the way we feel?
Yes, sometimes we can get pretty close. That’s the idea behind CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). And this method seems to work pretty well for cases of “normal” unwanted emotions. But analysis doesn’t work so well for intrusive emotions. We end up fighting with ghosts, never really able to get our hands around them.
It’s better to admit that our hearts are deceitful and can create a lot of garbage. We can learn to pay no attention to our intrusive feelings and just move on.
Changing Our Emotions Isn’t Something We Can Do on Our Own
One of the most climactic moments in King Solomon’s life was when he finished the construction of the temple. The priests carried the ark of the covenant into the Most Holy Place, then Solomon offered 22,000 bulls and 120,000 sheep as peace offerings before the Lord. At that time, with all the people gathered, he offered one of the most inspiring dedication prayers in the entire Bible. God signaled His approval by filling the temple with a cloud of His glory.
Afterwards, Solomon addressed the throng of worshippers. One of the things he told them echoes down to our day, relevant for those of us who struggle to contain and manage our emotions. He said,
May the Lord our God be with us, as He was with our fathers. May He not leave us nor forsake us, that He may incline our hearts to Himself, to walk in all His ways, and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, which He commanded our fathers.1 Kings 8:57-58
Contemplate the phrase, “that He may incline our hearts to Himself.”
Solomon understood that we are unable to turn our emotions in the right direction. We need divine aid to feel the right feelings.
Love for holy things, desire for God, and hatred for sin are unnatural to the sinful human nature. Without God’s empowering grace poured out into our lives, we are unable to have the right emotions. In fact, Hebrews 1, which offers a breathtaking exposition on the divinity of Jesus, reminds us that “loving righteousness and hating lawlessness” is a divine attribute.
If we have bad or wrong feelings, that’s evidence that we are messy, sinful humans. But it shouldn’t lead us to give up or feel that something is irreparably wrong with us. Like Solomon, we can pray to God to incline our hearts to Himself.
Scripture speaks of the heart and emotions in a twofold sense. On the one hand, it is deceitful, unruly, unreliable, and broken. We must ask God to incline our hearts in the right direction. At the same time, we know that there are positive steps we can take to welcome His grace into our hearts. Of evil King Rehoboam it is written,
And he did evil, because he did not prepare his heart to seek the Lord.2 Chronicles 12:14
We may prepare our hearts, and God responds by inclining them towards Himself. What does it mean to prepare our hearts? We may begin by
- Putting away known sin in our lives
- Engaging in spiritual disciplines that keep us in regular contact with God
- Being determined to keep pressing forward with God, even when it’s hard
Growth in grace is an interaction between us preparing our hearts and God inclining them. We should not feel that we are responsible for fixing our OCD and intrusive emotions. God promised to work in our lives, and we can trust Him to do that.
God Accepts Us Even When We Aren’t Perfect
Israel and Judah had been apostate for many years. The people were worshipping idols instead of keeping the holy feasts in Jerusalem. But then, wise King Hezekiah began a spiritual reform. He sent letters throughout the land, commanding the people to come up to Jerusalem to keep the Passover feast. Runners went everywhere to deliver these letters, but most of the people mocked and laughed them to scorn.
However, some were responsive to the message. The Bible says,
Nevertheless some from Asher, Manasseh, and Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem. Also the hand of God was on Judah to give them singleness of heart to obey the command of the king and the leaders, at the word of the Lord.2 Chronicles 30:11-12
Spiritual revival swept over those who had chosen to humble themselves and come.
But there was a problem.
Jerusalem had been in apostasy for so long that the temple was in complete disarray. There were no temple services being conducted, and in fact, there weren’t even enough priests and Levites consecrated to conduct the feast properly.
In those days, the priests and Levites had special ceremonies that they had to go through to be holy and sanctified to serve before the Lord. They hadn’t done that, and the time was passing quickly. Passover was supposed to be held in the first month, but it was already the second month.
King Hezekiah seemed a bit stumped. He really wanted to serve the Lord as prescribed. But should they really wait an entire year before they took the opportunity to approach God? Hezekiah threw the rule book out the window and just brought his good intentions to the Lord.
It was supposed to be the first month, but he told the people they’d hold it in the second month.
The priests and Levites were supposed to be sanctified, and so were the people. But Hezekiah told them, “come as you are.”
And guess what? God accepted them.
For a multitude of the people, many from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the good Lord provide atonement for everyone who prepares his heart to seek God, the Lord God of his fathers, though he is not cleansed according to the purification of the sanctuary.” And the Lord listened to Hezekiah and healed the people.2 Chronicles 30:18-20
Hezekiah brought the people before God with his best intentions, even though they hadn’t checked off all the prescribed boxes. And God embraced them.
Sometimes, we have unruly emotions and might feel like God rejects us when we are like this. But deep down, we know we love Him. We would give our lives for Him. Even as the feelings of rejection and denial wash over us, our deepest self knows we would never do that.
God sees through our messes and our struggles with mental health. He sees our true intention. And He invites us to come, just as we are, in all our messiness, so that He can heal us.
OCD and intrusive emotions can strike at the core of who we think we are in Christ. Feelings of numbness, resistance, angst, carelessness, disgust, anger, or doubt can make us think we’re falling away.
But God understands. He knows our emotions don’t always line up.
As John reminds us, “For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things” (1 John 3:20).
This is why we don’t need to be afraid of intrusive emotions. Feelings are unreliable, and often they don’t come from the “real me.”
What should we do?
Keep choosing Jesus. This is the only thing we can control. We can choose to cast our will–our decision-making power–on the side of truth and righteousness. He will then work in us “to will and to do of His good pleasure.” Don’t worry about your unruly feelings. He will fix them.
Perhaps the most soothing thought is that these emotions don’t indicate anything at all. Many great theological thinkers–John Bunyan, Martin Luther, Søren Kierkegaard–experienced antagonistic feelings towards God. Even Bible writers like Job, Habakkuk, and David had their moments of shouting or moaning at God.
There’s really no reason to think something is wrong with us if we have unwanted emotions during our spiritual journey.
If you have a clinical diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder, this might be one of the very things your OCD will try to get you obsessing about. Don’t fall for the trick. Don’t obsess about your emotions and what they “mean.”
They probably don’t “mean” anything except to demonstrate that you’ve got a lot of nervous energy in your brain.
Keep looking up. Keep choosing Jesus. Your emotions will sort themselves out without you spending hundreds of hours in painful tinkering.
Best wishes on the journey,