Praying Too Much: Is It Religious OCD?

Jesus spent entire nights in prayer. The Apostle Paul said we should pray without stopping. So how do we know when we’ve prayed the way we’re supposed to pray? How do we know if we’re praying too much? How much is enough for spiritual vitality? Let’s find out.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21wkFhUIAG0

Feeling Anxious About My Prayer Life

Let me summarize my main thought right away: if you always feel anxious, disturbed, and compulsive about your prayer life, there’s something wrong. It’s not a virtue to be anxious about prayer.

If you pray consistently and from your heart but you always feel like it’s not enough or it’s not the right quality, really there’s something wrong.

That “something” is probably one of two things:

  1. You have a faulty doctrinal understanding about salvation, or 
  2. You have scrupulosity, a religious manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which your brain locks you into cycles of doubt and rumination about your spirituality

I’m currently taking my PhD in religion and have spent the last ten years in various ministry roles, and let me tell you, I’ve encountered a lot of different views about prayer. But the biblical view of prayer is quite simple and straightforward. And yes, it IS possible to get stuck in a cycle of praying too much.

Did Jesus pray all night? Yes, sometimes (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16), but not every night.

And sometimes it’s necessary for us to spend several hours in prayer during critical life moments, but the everyday model for prayer that Jesus gave is heartfelt and brief.

Christ's everyday model for prayer is quite brief

The disciples asked, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” Jesus didn’t lead them out into the desert, show them how  to flay themselves with whips and spend all night on the cold ground.

Instead, He showed them how to open their hearts in a brief and unencumbered way. 

Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

https://youtu.be/hwC0CQy9vZg

Can Praying Too Much Become a “Work?”

For people with faulty doctrinal views about salvation, excessive prayer and other devotional rituals can be viewed as a “work” that earns points towards salvation.

There is no joy or depth to such prayer, only a feeling of self-preservation and self-responsibility. These people need to take care not to allow prayer to become a form of legalism.

On the other hand, for people who have scrupulosity (which is predominantly the kind of people I work with), excessively praying too much is not actually a form of legalism, but it’s an ineffective attempt at anxiety control.

praying too much can be an ineffective attempt at anxiety control

If you’ve never heard of scrupulosity before, feel free to take a scrupulosity quiz to see how serious your spiritual anxiety is, or see my ultimate guide to scrupulosity. If you already know you have scrupulosity, check out this popular post with free worksheets that will help you make better progress.

Why Does Religious OCD Make Me Unable to Stop Praying?

With scrupulosity and praying too much, we get these vague feelings that something is not right, feelings of doom that we can’t shake, and so we scan our brains for anything that might explain these negative feelings — and we end up constantly stuck in our heads.

If you are a spiritual person, that brain scan might get stuck on religion — aha! this must be where the problem is! — so then you get this compulsion to pray more or pray longer.

Praying too much is actually quite a common compulsive activity for people with scrupulosity. Compulsive witnessing and confession is also common. It’s rooted in the functional weaknesses of the OCD brain.

praying too much is a common compulsion for people with scrupulosity

There’s a part of the brain that is responsible for stopping repetitive behavior and this part of the brain appears to be impaired in people with OCD. This is why they continue repeating behaviors that they know doesn’t make sense, like checking the stove, washing their hands, or praying too much.

How Can I Stop Praying Too Much? I Don’t Want to Lose My Relationship with God.

This article is for people with scrupulosity — I would probably not tell a regular Joe Schmoe in the church pew that he needs to pray less. But for a scrupulous person who is praying for six hours per day and can’t stop, or for the person who takes 30 minutes to pray before eating or has to repeat prayers multiple times because of making a minor mistake, you need to know that God does not require that of you.

You do not need to repeat your prayers when you make a mistake.

After you have opened your heart to God and have earnestly asked for your requests, it’s ok to stop. 

Jesus actually told us not to pray repetitively like the heathen, who think they will be heard for their “many words” (Matthew 6:7). God is not interested in repetitive speech and “many words.” He is interested in hearing our heart. And he only needs to hear it once.

I like the words of the 7th century church theologian John Climacus when he wrote,

Let your prayer be completely simple. For both the publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase.

let your prayer be completely simple

The bottom line answer: when have you prayed enough?

You have prayed enough when you said what you need to say once, in a heartfelt and earnest manner. After that point, it becomes a matter of faith to get OFF your knees.

Do you believe that GOD will answer your prayer, or that your prayer will answer your prayer?

Obsessive compulsive disorder would like to keep you stuck in this loop of feeling that something’s wrong and doing compulsive activities to try to cancel out that feeling.

But believe me, you could pray nonstop without eating or drinking or sleeping until you die from exhaustion and it will not make those feelings go away. Because fundamentally, people who pray compulsively are not dealing with a spiritual issue, they’re dealing with a mental health concern that happens to be manifesting itself within the context of their spirituality.

Conclusion

Praying too much might be a sign of a doctrinal misunderstanding. It might be a sign of legalism in your spiritual experience. But for many, praying too much is a sign of Religious OCD.

Some people have to learn to have faith by praying less

If that describes you, know that indulging your obsession with prayer will not fix the problem. Facing your spiritual anxiety and learning to cast your care upon God will have the greatest positive impact.

And this will mean learning to pray less.

What has your prayer journey been like? Share your thoughts in the comments, I’d love to hear from you.

We all have our unique experiences in dealing with spiritual doubts and anxieties. But I wish you the best as you move forward in following the call of Christ!

Best wishes on the journey,

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