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.

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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  1. Hi Jamie, this article has really helped me because I never realised that some people were going through what I was with my ocd. I have always been a somewhat spiritual person and the past couple of years I've been praying daily, which I love doing but it became difficult because of a voice in my head telling me "nope, do it again, that wasn't enough" or "something horrible will happen" if I didnt pray enough. I started associating satisfying my ocd with feeling safe, and it started to take over my daily life. I'd never blame my faith for it, I love being religious. But today I'm gonna really try work on it, because I know deep down, even when I'm feeling ocd, that God knows I mean well and am being sincere. Thank you so much and God bless you.

    1. Good Morning, I have had some issues with praying for some time, especially with the concept of the 'perfect prayer' , often repeating them many times – this can be triggered if I hear a noise when praying or have any thoughts that are not of a spiritual nature. Although this is manageable and not as severe as some cases I have recently read about, it has lead to some anxiety, how will I be able to pray when I go on a big family holiday next month etc. So reading the above and these comments have proved really helpful enabling me to reset my relationship not only with God but with myself.

      Many Thanks

      Matt

  2. Hi Jamie, thank you for the article. I have suspected I am dealing with scrupulosity/OCD for a while now and it certainly affects my prayer life. A problem I have is the compulsion to pray a prayer of repentance and asking for forgiveness all the time if there’s even the slightest chance I have sinned. This happens multiple times a day, though since I have been able to speak with a mental health professional, it has gotten less difficult to deal with. In your article, you said it was enough to just say your prayer with true, heartfelt meaning. I agree with you! But the thing my brain gets stuck on is whether I truly meant it or I was just praying to relieve the anxiety and return to whatever I was currently doing. It is especially difficult when I’m doing something I enjoy, because I’ll get the urge to compulsively pray, but my brain goes, “You don’t actually mean that you’re sorry, you just want to get back to whatever you’re doing because you care more about that and your heart isn’t sincere.”
    As a result, I often get stuck praying not only for forgiveness for whatever I perceived I have done wrong, but also asking forgiveness for not being sincere and trying very hard to make my prayer have meaning. This causes me to repeat prayers, trying to be truly heartfelt. It’s exhausting. Is there any certain way I can address this? Thanks again for your article.
    -Opal

    1. Hi Opal,

      Yes, the “authenticity questions” are a major trip-up for people with religious OCD. One way to think about this problem is biologically, another way to think about it is spiritually. Let me address both.

      Biologically speaking, research tells us that the OCD brain is hyperactive in areas responsible for error detection and underactive in areas responsible for suppression of repetitive activities. It’s like you have a little butler in your brain, going around with a white glove to check for dust in random, hard-to-reach places that nobody cares about. And what’s worse, this butler is working 24/7–you can’t make him stop! All forms of OCD center around these “error detection” tasks, whether we are speaking of contamination, possible harm done to others, finding perfect symmetry, or being in God’s favor. OCD sees errors where there are none, and cannot stop trying to address them. “Sincerity” is one of the many supposed “errors” that pop up very frequently in religious OCD. So first, we must recognize that the OCD brain has a biological predisposition to see errors where there are none (and I would suggest that if you’re deeply concerned about being sincere, you are probably very sincere!)

      But understanding the brain is usually not enough reassurance. We need something more. So we must also look at this question from a spiritual angle. Sincerity is very important–but how does a believer obtain sincerity? How do we begin wanting the things we ought to want, and hating the things we ought to hate? Let us go back to the story of man’s fall in the Garden of Eden. After Adam and Eve were cast from the garden, God made them a promise. Theologians sometimes call this promise the “protoevangelium,” or the first declaration of the gospel. God told them He would send Someone through the woman’s seed who would crush the serpent’s head and “put enmity” between the serpent and the woman’s offspring. We know that the One who came to crush the serpent was Jesus. But how does Jesus “put enmity” or hatred between us and the serpent? This is the divine act that Christ works upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit. It is sometimes called “prevenient grace,” using the prefix “pre” because it is “the grace that goes before” saving grace. How do we even come to the point of experiencing true saving faith, or going on “from faith to faith” to experience transforming faith? There are three types of faith, and we often forget this first one, prevenient grace. This is where sincerity dawns upon our hearts and we desire the things of God. This is the John 12 experience where Jesus says He will draw us to Him. He puts enmity or hatred in our hearts for sin and love for the truth. Notice, it is not a human work. It is wholly of God. So if you are worried that you might not be sincere enough, you can pray a prayer like this: “Dear Lord, You know I want to be sincere, but I’m so confused about if I really am. I try to be more sincere but I just end up getting tied in a knot. I know that Jesus came to give us the sincerity we need. Will you please do that for me? Give me sincerity, because I can’t figure this out for myself.”

  3. Thanks Jamie. I’m lying in bed here in fear as I know I have to pray before sleep and I fear the anxiety that brings and I have no idea how long my prayers will take or how many times I will have to repeat. I just can’t shake this. My whole days are now just a barrage of butterflies in my stomach and constant prayers and praise. I just have to take that leap of faith and resist. Thank you for your blog posts. They are refreshing.

    1. Hi, I feel a lot of the same ways you do!! I usually feel I have to pray before bedtime too and the thought of confession and all I need to pray for is so daunting and overwhelmingly stressful, even though I wish it weren’t. I really hate confessing sin even though it’s necessary because I guess I never really feel forgiven and I always feel I’m forgetting or neglecting something. Prayer is such a difficult and stressful thing for me but I’m hoping and praying it will get better!

  4. Hi Jaimie, thanks for relieving a load of pressure from my life. I'm so grateful I found this site.
    Really praying for you that this site may reach out to many people who need to see it. I guess I have a Thanking or Praising OCD. I was so glad when I read your blogs because I felt that it was so much in common with what happens with me. Thanks a ton again!!! Wishing you success in all your endeavours

    1. Hi, Antony,
      I’ve never heard it described as “Praise OCD” but I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about! As do many others. I was just speaking with a client recently who can’t leave his house unless he goes through a complex prayer ritual of thanking God in precise ways and praying for an intricately detailed prayer list (that keeps getting bigger and bigger, much to the detriment of his sleep habits at night and ability to be on time in the morning!) I think one way we can tell the difference between genuine thanksgiving and obsessive-compulsive thanksgiving is whether there is a feeling of guilt and doom when we push the “pause” button. If I simply tell God my needs for today without going through elaborate praises first, do I get a sense that something bad is going to happen? This is the OCD smokescreen. True praise comes from the heart, not the nervous system’s waves of anxiety. And, I might add, it is ok to not be praising God every single moment. When Jesus hung on the cross, he cried out with raw human emotions, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” I could speak at length on the emotional life of Jesus, but for brevity I will resist…but certainly, He experienced the full gamut of human emotions. He had righteous anger when He cleansed the temple…sorrow as He looked over lost Jerusalem…pity as He wept at the grave of Lazarus…Jesus was not constantly frolicking through a field of daffodils with his hands waving in the air. He was real. Likewise, there is no reason why we have to guilt-trip ourselves into gushing forth Pollyanna-ish praises every moment of every day to prevent the hammer of doom from descending on us.

  5. Hi Jaimie, firstly thanks for your blog. I have read a few articles now as a sufferer since childhood of religious OCD. I have been in an emotional place recently dealing with anxiety flaring up again due to me slacking off from my good habits which I tend to do when things are going well.
    This article bought me to tears as I identified with it and it helped me realise I'm not crazy but quite normal in my weird and obsessive prayers and I am on the right path to stopping being so compulsive, even when there is a feeling things are not right and the feelings of doom.
    I have been re-reading your article of 'does God hate me' as this has also come up again. This really does help me when I'm in a bad place, so thank you for being there and sharing your experiences.x

    1. Hi Nicki,
      I’m glad you’ve found it helpful. Compulsive praying is one of the more common issues with religious OCD. Remember that prayer is for entering a relationship, it is not a transactional experience where we “give” something (our time, our devotion, our words) and “get” something back (typically the person with OCD is seeking to “get” a feeling of safety and that everything is ok). Our job is to rest in what Christ has done for us, even if we don’t get the feelings and emotions that make us feel right.
      Wishing you the very best,
      Jaimie

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