Last updated on September 14, 2021  by 
Jaimie Eckert

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“His thoughts are completely irrational and bizarre. They are not from God, but he just doesn’t understand that.”

“She does these weird rituals and thinks she’s following God’s instructions by doing so. I’ve tried to explain the Biblical viewpoint to her, but it makes absolutely no difference.”

“I’ve tried to tell him that he’s got scrupulosity, but he doesn’t believe me. He thinks he’s just being a good believer and all the rest of us are lukewarm.”

If you’ve ever said something like this about one of your loved ones, it could be that he or she has poor insight into religious OCD.

Or maybe your own loved ones said this about you not too long ago.

Our level of insight in our obsessive-compulsive journey is a crucial component for many reasons. Let’s talk a bit about this concept of insight, discuss how to help a suffering family member with poor insight, and celebrate our victory at developing better insight (note: if you’re reading this blog post and even entertaining the idea that you have scrupulosity, yay! It means you have at least some insight!)

What Is Poor Insight into Religious OCD?

Back in the day, psychologists said that obsessive-compulsive disorder is a condition that we know is irrational.

Touching the doorknob ten times before exiting? Yep, we keep touching it whilst knowing it makes no sense to do so.

Washing our hands a dozen times? Certainly, we know it’s excessive–but we just can’t stop.

Praying without ceasing–like, literally without ceasing? Um, well, it’s kinda sorta irrational, but it’s also kinda Biblical, isn’t it?!

Ugh. Cue the 428 people who have told me, “I feel like my brain is on fire.”

At some point, psychologists realized that “rationality” or “irrationality” is a very fluid concept. Some people with obsessive-compulsive disorder are completely convinced that their actions are irrational. Others can recognize the irrationality of their compulsions only when they are sitting in their therapist’s office. Once they go home and face the real-life triggers, the compulsions suddenly seem to make more sense. Others have very little ability to see their behavior as inappropriate.

This led to the concept of “insight” in the field of OCD recovery. All of us can be classified somewhere on a continuum stretching from “absent insight” to “poor insight” to “moderate insight” to “good insight.” (Note: the following chart is not from any fancy DSM-5 manual, since I’m not a therapist–these are just my chaplain-style observations from working with lots of people.)

chart of religious OCD insight

As you can imagine, having good insight is…well, good. But what does it actually look like to have good or poor insight into religious OCD? Let’s find out.

Poor Insight into Religious OCD: Some Case Studies

Jane’s Scrupulous Hoarding

“Jane” had been given several pallets of Bible translations in an East Asian language. The donor believed that an influx of immigrants from this country would soon be coming to the United States and that American believers should be ready to evangelize them. He gave the pallets of Bibles to Jane and asked her to store them in her house. Dutifully, believing it to be “the Lord’s work,” Jane took thousands of Bibles into her home–filling up two spare bedrooms, the attic, and the hallways.

Jane’s family learned to cope with squeezing through narrow hallways stacked with boxes of Bibles.

Her children grew up and went away to college. Jane was still waiting for the wave of immigrants so she could give the Bibles away.

No one came.

Jane and her husband grew older. They had long ago lost touch with the donor, and the boxes of Bibles, now more than two decades old, were decaying. Silverfish crept in and out of the boxes as they ate the paper inside. Black mold grew on the wall behind boxes that hadn’t been moved in 20 years.

One day, Jane’s husband fell and broke his hip. He needed a wheelchair, but that wasn’t feasible because of the boxes of Bibles. Jane adamantly refused to get rid of them.

Storing the Bibles was her duty before God.

Except that by now, it had become a hoarding compulsion. If anyone dared touch her boxes of Bibles, Jane became severely anxious, but she couldn’t explain why.

The simplest explanation seemed to be that this was her duty before God.

Her husband, unable to take a wheelchair to the bathroom because of the boxes everywhere, stayed in bed and wore adult diapers. He developed a rash and bedsores, but Jane refused to change.

Keeping the boxes of donated Bibles soothed her own anxiety, but at what cost to her loved ones?

Unfortunately for Jane, she didn’t see anything wrong with her scrupulous hoarding compulsions. After all, wasn’t she doing her duty before God? Wasn’t she “having faith” that these Bibles would be used for His glory? Anyone who told her otherwise was certainly not following the Lord.

Ralph and the Demons

“Ralph” had been anxious most of his life. Now, in his middle-aged years, it seemed like everything came to a head. After a period of intense personal stress, he had a cataclysmic spiritual event. He encountered what he thought was a demon.

When it happened, he had a thought pass rapidly through his mind that he agreed to worship the devil.

In a flash, the thought was gone, and Ralph spent all night repenting from the thought. But he couldn’t get it out of his mind that he had just sold his soul to the devil.

poor insight into religious OCD

After this terrifying event, Ralph’s emotions seemed to disappear. He didn’t feel like himself at all. He didn’t have fear or excitement or love or hate. He felt completely separated from his body.

Ralph felt convinced that he had sold his soul.

His wife tried to take him to see a therapist. At first he wasn’t willing–after all, he had a spiritual problem, not a mental one. But finally, after much prodding, he agreed to go. His wife made an appointment, and soon he found himself sitting in front of a friendly therapist.

“Tell me what’s been going on,” she asked.

Ralph didn’t know what to say, but finally blurted out something to the effect of, “There’s demons…and I sold my soul…and now I have no emotions…”

The therapist listened carefully and took notes. Later, Ralph heard her speaking to his wife, something about “psychosis” and “long-term medication.”

Ralph felt a sense of despair. He didn’t realize it at the time, but he had poor insight into his religious OCD and had now been misdiagnosed. (Religious OCD can have up to a 37.5% misdiagnosis rate.) It would be a long time before he would come to see his obsessions in their true light.

Daniel Shows His Devotion

Daniel’s father contacted me from the hospital. The religious obsessions had become so bad that Daniel could neither eat nor function normally. He had been placed on a feeding tube and felt hopeless.

Still, he insisted that his concerns were valid.

Daniel believed that God was testing his devotion by micromanaging the tiniest aspects of life. “God” would tell him whether or not he could eat, whether or not he was allowed to look at screens, and whether or not he could blink. Anything that produced the vaguest sensation of enjoyment was off-limits, and Daniel would wake up spontaneously at night to pray compulsively.

When the hospital staff spoke to him about religious OCD, he reacted fiercely.

“They can’t tell me to disobey God,” he grumbled to father. “They all got their degrees from secular institutions, anyways. They aren’t even Christian. How can they tell me anything about my faith?”

Daniel’s father felt a deep sense of despair. His son clearly had poor insight into religious OCD. He was a strong Christian himself and knew that God would never torture a poor soul the way his son was being tortured. But how could he convince his son that his troubles were the result of a mental health disorder, not a ceaseless string of divine tests?

Poor Insight into Religious OCD: The Way Out

In order for spiritual recovery to take place, we need good insight. We need to know what’s happening.

So how can we go from bad insight to good insight?

Often this occurs through crisis.

You’ll remember the Apostle Paul, before he was Paul. He was Saul the Persecutor. He had all the right “information” in his mind, but it wasn’t arranged properly. He had all the verses memorized and all the devotional practices down pat. But it wasn’t enough. He needed all that data to be rearranged in a different pattern–a different paradigm–so that the gospel would make sense.

Saul’s crisis moment on the Road to Damascus left him blind and utterly astonished. But it gave him piercing insight into the Truth. This new insight helped him reorganize his knowledge bank and rethink his identity–as we must do.

On the Road to Damascus, Saul came face to face with the reality that his beliefs didn’t fit anymore. It was like trying to put a round peg into a square hole.

He had all these ideas about who and what the Messiah was supposed to be, but as the blinding light of heaven and the voice of Jesus threw him to the ground, it just couldn’t make sense anymore.

There had to be another explanation.

There had to be a better way to understand reality.

Thus, Saul embarked on the journey that would turn him into a powerful apostle. He laid aside his preconceived notions and allowed for the possibility that Jesus actually was the Messiah, and that the truth about about Yahweh might be stranger and more glorious than he’d expected.

With this spiritual openness came greater insight…and Truth.

But he had to go through crisis to experience it.

How Crisis Leads to Insight

One of the issues that I see in the scrupulosity world is that family members act as crutches so that their loved ones never have to go through crisis.

For example, in Jane’s case, her family went through considerable inconvenience so that she never had to face her scrupulous hoarding issue. Even though her husband needed better medical care, her family helped by donating adult diapers so he could stay in a crowded, unsafe house while recovering.

But what if her family insisted that the boxes needed to be removed and bulldozed?

Ouch! Crisis!

Jane would have gone into major panic mode.

(I’ve changed the details and names, but in principle these are all true stories. I’m sad to say that Jane’s scrupulous hoarding has not been challenged. She is still doing her “duty before God,” much to the suffering and inconvenience of others.)

In other cases, when family members step back and allow the natural consequences of scrupulosity to fall upon people with poor insight, it can lead to a very uncomfortable experience.

Did I say, “very uncomfortable?”

Those of you who are regular followers of this blog can probably remember your own moment of insight–when things got so bad that you began wondering if this is really the way God works (if you remember your dawning of OCD insight, please share in the comments below so that others can read more examples of how that works).

Somewhere deep in the underworld of anxiety-induced pseudo-spirituality, we come to our senses and wonder if this is how it’s meant to be.

Remember the Prodigal Son when he was yearning for the empty pods the swine were eating? I love how the Bible phrases it:

And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!’

Luke 15:16-17

Just like the Prodigal son “came to himself” in a moment of hungry crisis, we also must “come to ourselves.” It’s an antiquated phrase that means something along the lines of, “he suddenly had the dawning of reason about the true situation he was in.”

This is the birth of healthy insight.

developing greater insight into religious OCD

Common Pitfalls with Growing Insight

There are a few common pitfalls as we move from having poor insight into religious OCD to having more robust conviction about what’s going on.

First of all, we may vacillate about our diagnosis.

After you’ve gone to an OCD specialist and received a diagnosis of religious OCD, you may initially have a “light bulb moment” where everything seems to make sense. But some weeks or months later, you begin to question whether you actually have OCD or not.

This is incredibly common.

I’d say the majority of people with OCD have, at some point or another, doubted whether they really have OCD.

(Alternative interpretations for these anxious spiritual urges may include God, more severe mental health conditions, or just having a bad “season” of life.)

Chalk it up to the chronic doubt of OCD, but you’ll most likely doubt the diagnosis. Wait for it! 🙂

A second common pitfall is self-loathing and self-blame.

As we begin to understand our anxiety disorder, we wonder,

  • Why do I have this?
  • Why am I the only one in my church that struggles with this?
  • Why can’t I just read my Bible and pray normally?
  • What’s wrong with me?
  • Will God accept me like this?

And so on.

We exchange the rod of God (which wasn’t really from God anyways) for the rod of self-blame. It’s not pretty. People with scrupulosity are some of the most self-downers I’ve ever met, yet are some of the most kind, creative, and sensitive people in the world.

As you develop deeper insight into your religious OCD, try to be kind to yourself and recognize that God loves you even if you have an anxiety disorder. I like 1 Corinthians 12 because it reminds us that the weaker members of God’s church are not “bad” or “wrong” because we struggle–on the contrary, those with struggles and weaknesses require extra love and support.

But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

1 Corinthians 12:20-26

Don’t be hard on yourself! God loves strugglers like you and me!

A third important pitfall is the desire to fixate on causes.

As Dr. Monnica Williams notes, there can be a tendency for treatment providers and patients to focus on supposed “causes” of the OCD (trauma, childhood experiences, etc.). This can lead us to obsess over the reason why we ended up this way (which is not helpful).

We are already predisposed to overthinking things, so why would we want to feed ourselves a bigger diet of overthinking?

When we talk about healthy insight into religious OCD, what matters is that you know what you’ve got. It doesn’t matter too much how you got it (in most cases we can’t be sure, anyways). Healthy insight just means the ability to look in the mirror and say, “I have religious OCD, and I’m committed to working on it.”

Period.

No need to obsess about whether Aunt Eleanor’s Christmas fruitcake back in 1992 might have had O. C. Deelobacter bacteria in it.

Conclusion

Having poor insight into religious OCD can create one of the biggest blockages to effective treatment. However, it’s entirely possible to grow into a deeper level of self-understanding.

If you can look back on your scrupulosity journey and see a crisis moment when you suddenly realized, “aha, this is not God making these demands on me! I think it’s an anxiety disorder!” You can actually celebrate that moment. It was probably the most significant turning point in your recovery. Maybe you look back and think your crisis was horrible-terrible-good-for-nothing. Maybe you regret that your crisis cost you your job or a year of schooling.

Don’t think glass-half-empty.

“Insight” into religious OCD is something that you can’t buy. It’s something your family can’t force down your throat. And yet you desperately need insight in order to get better.

So if you had a crisis, rejoice. Hold it like a trophy.

greater self-awareness for religious OCD

Maybe you never had an actual crisis period but you’ve just known about OCD since childhood. That’s also a trophy. Having parents who diagnosed you early and tried to help you get treatment means insight is much easier to come by.

And maybe you’re still in the investigative stage where you’re wondering if you actually have religious OCD. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you whether you have OCD or not. On this website you’ll be able to find lots of articles and even some quizzes to give you some clues and support, but ultimately you’ll have to be the one to meet with your therapist and figure out the details.

And if you’re the family member of someone with poor insight into religious OCD, I’d encourage you to take three steps:

  1. Don’t force or pressure them into admitting they have OCD. It won’t work.
  2. Don’t let yourself be a spiritual crutch. Do not come short nor go beyond the requirements of the Bible. If this causes distress and anxiety to your loved one (that is, if you do not support their spiritual extremism), keep right on going forward with your own balanced spiritual lifestyle. Do not bail them out of spiritual crisis, but be there for them when it happens so you can lovingly suggest a different explanation (i.e. “maybe this is religious OCD”).
  3. Educate yourself on religious OCD so that you can be the best support partner possible.

Wherever you are on the scrupulosity recovery journey, please remember that God is there to cheer you on. I wish you greater insight every day and a consistently closer relationship with our Lord and Savior.

Best wishes on the journey,

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  1. I think I might be in the post realisation doubting period. I realised I might have OCD approx in October 2019 by reading a post, God bless her for sharing it, on a Christian forum, which compiled a quick list of "you might have religious OCD if you x,y,z". And it suddenly clicked! So my suffering and what may as well be called a depressive episode I'd barely recovered from wasn't because i was the biggest sinner but because I interpreted any bad feeling as if conviction.

    But now I more or less relapsed since about April 2020, finding "new" obsessions (in truth, they are related to the first triggers and obsessios I had in childhood). And I'm finding myself doubting not only because I haven't talked to a therapist just yet, but also because, although I've convinced myself that intrusive thoughts are no longer a threat, now my new obsessions seem like more genuine threats.

    But maybe I'm also going through a bit of a spiritual / existential crisis, because being a new adult, for the 1st time I start to disagree with my parents on theology and life in general. So I'm very confused whether I'm "being too liberal" in my new understanding or it's just OCD again. And there's a chance that my other family members also have OCD, I recognise more and more symptoms in them. Genetics is funny like that. If they have ocd they're on the pre awareness scale that's for sure. I find that people with OCD can be just as dismissive of other people with OCD as neurotypical people.

    Sorry for the essay.
    I've been reading you for more than a year now and you always encourage or inform me. Thank you and God bless you!

    1. Sounds like you have some good insight into your own case! Yes, having family members with OCD (who don’t recognize it) can be tough. But I have seen how one person’s awareness can stop them from following in the same footsteps…you don’t need to spend a lifetime in anxious rumination. Allow your own self-awareness and insight to guide you back to the Bible for a truly balanced picture of Christ. If others misunderstand you, know that you are in good company (see Hebrews 11!)

      Keep pushing through the doubt. God’s got you.

      Jaimie

  2. My moment of insight wasn't anything super-dramatic. A year ago, I was in the living room, when I heard words "Some days I prayed hours and hours" from tv. It was a short document about mental health problems. It hit like a lightning. I wasn't the only one who wasn't comfortable with their religious situation? I didn't watch the tv program since my dad switched the channel and started watching something else.

    Later that day, I googled "compulsions". I had heard the word before, but I thought it only meant things like washing hands all the time or checking if the door is locked again and again. Then I found some official web sites about OCD. And some stories about people who had struggled with OCD. Sitting in the chair, I started crying. I had known something was not right. I had known that for a long time. I just hadn't been able to name my problem. Even the fact that I was now able to identify my own weird behaving helped a lot, even if it meant that it was just the beginning. After a year, I have visited a psychiatrist and got a lot support. I feel like there is still a long way to go on, but the fact that nowadays I can enter my room withouth complicated rituals or to eat food withouth praying 15 minutes before it.

  3. I know what exactly what this means. I will have other day to day stresses in life and blame the scruplosity on them or have a A-ha moment and think I never suffered scruplosity but then the thoughts come back worse when I deal the other stresses in my life or I can not solve them.

  4. I posted a comment but it didn't show in this feed.
    Should I post again or does it take time to list?
    Said it was being reviewed and then disappeared.

    1. Oh! Thanks for your patience…I think a lot of people wonder the same thing. I moderate the comments because sometimes I get spam, like people who want to share links for medications and dating sites, haha. But thanks for asking, I’m going to leave your question up because you’re not the only one who wonders where their comment disappears to! 🙂

  5. At one time or other I have struggled with all of these
    symptoms of poor insight about my OCD. Through this study and other reading I have done, I really believe I may have scrupulosity.

    I am trying to put into practice what I am learning. I don't know if you could call it an "A-ha" moment but I do have hope now that I know I'm not alone and I'm not crazy.

    I first came to the Lord the best I knew how when I was 8 but received no help or counseling in the decision When I was in my early teens I begin to question that experience. I would pray over snd over asking the Lord to save me if I wasn't. I repeatedly went forward during the invitation services or I would talk to another Christian or preacher trying to find answers as to why I couldn't settle this in my mind. The crazy thing was I wanted to live for Jesus but felt like a hypocrite. The Lord brought my husband into my life and then called him into pastoral ministry!
    Then the doubts came fast and hard! I talked to him and he understood and tried to help me see it's not logical. But I have struggled off and on…will be ok for awhile and then Boom! Especially if I hear a message where someone was mistaken about their salvation and found out they weren't and settled it. I'd begin to think "what if that's me?" and it would start all over. Or when a pastor asks are you 100% sure? I'd start again. I'm very tired if it all. I can remember several years ago where I couldn't function bc of . I'd want to sleep so I wouldn't have to think about it; couldn't eat, enjoy my kids and husband…nothing. Constantly asking for a sign if I wasn't really saved so I could be. Then entertaining thoughts that I wasn't chosen. On and on and on!
    But I have hope now through your insight and help.

    1. Absolutely, Marilyn, it’s a journey. We don’t always have those instant “aha” moments, but we can certainly see growth. You can do this through God’s strength! Keep looking up!
      Jaimie

  6. i always thought that something was wrong with me growing up.i always fought with my family because of my cleaning habits ,i knew there were extra and out of control and i didnt understand why i was like that.people did'nt seem to understand me .i would get disgusted with weird things and get very emotional and later ask my self why .thanks with help of technology i found out that i had OCD all my life and it helped to understand why i acted and thought that way.i grew up in a christian home but i just knew God but never really had relationship with God.Had my first and second child out of marriage .When i had my second child i was leaving with my boyfriend who was seperated from his wife.When i moved in him i knew it wrong but it did not stop me from doing .I rededicated my life to GOD and the OCD came violently ,it started by questioning myself if GOD will forgive me because im living this man and i have family with him now.i asked God over and over to forgive me remove this man in my life if its wrong .Every time a preacher would preach about adultery i would think thats me . One day i was reading an article about the world ending and instead of feeling peace and being sure of my relationship with God i got so scared because of the relationship i was in .Never in my life had i ever felt so scared .I would always hear of panic attacks ,but i experienced .i stopped bathing ,eating ,enjoying relationships,or playing with my son and i was scared to explain what was going on to anyone.Blasphemous thoughts about the Holy spirit and GOD were so violent and i had never heard of this in my life.I repented over and over ,i cried ,the feeling of doom was strong.i researched about it understood and felt better and it went away for some time.then it came again ,now it was questions like what if those articles are to make you feel better about the unpardonable sin you committed , or what if those article are written by people who are misleading you from God or they are used by the spirit of antichrist.i have prayed to GOD that if he can take this away and be completely healed.Some days i'm fine and the other day i'm anxious again.help me

  7. My own experience was a raft of excessive behaviours. Giving out tracts on a bus because I felt I had to – not out of love for the recipients and their eternal welfare. Standing up in class as a Hign school pupil to announce that I was christian, because I felt I owed it to God to be a witness. Greater and greater challenges to test my devotion to God. The worst was the verse in James – Confess your sins to one another. I started doing this with a fellow believer at University. But the OCD drove me to confessions of the most embarrassing and humiliating sins. The constant driver was the thought that refusal to do was an indication that I was not a devoted follower of Jesus. Finally, after another thought of an embarrassing sin that "needed" to be confessed, I dug my heels in and said "NO" I spent a week in misery until another thought came into mind that also should be confessed. Like a lightbulb moment, I realised that these thoughts were not coming from God at all. They were the devil using Scripture to condemn me (like the devil using Scripture to tempt Jesus). In that revelation, something lifted off my spirit and I was filled with joy. Within seconds the thought came to share this victory with a respected Minister. And I realised quickly that this was the backdoor to another slavery like the first. I saw everything in spiritual terms – the work of the devil. I do not doubt that he was behind all this, but I see the wider picture of an OCD weakness being used to bring me into the bondage I was in. Reading your material has helped me see that I have not really lost this OCD, but have learned to manage it. My early christian experience was that I had to find the solution before I could continue my christian walk. I am now able to have doubts, questions, unresolved issues and still preach teach and serve God even as a missionary for 14 years. Recognising the hidden OCD tendencies at work is key for me to downgrade the "importance" of settling whatever the issue is as though it were an immediate crisis to be resolved right now.

    1. What a powerful testimony, David! Thank you so much for sharing. I love the parallel of how the devil used Scripture to tempt Jesus and he will also use ‘spiritual’ thoughts and urges to tempt us to excessiveness. Praise God for your ability to move forward in sharing the gospel in a healthy, balanced way!
      Jaimie

    2. David, thank you for telling your story! I, too, can relate to the obsessive sharing of the Gospel. Passing out tracts was my ‘lightbulb’ moment. Through I had been doing it (and, honestly, I still struggle) for a while, it got to the point where I was so frustrated and thought, ‘This can’t be right.’ Although I had known about scrupulosity before, it wasn’t until then that I could admit I had a problem. Thank you, Jaimie, for your work and resources for the OCD/scrupulosity community.

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