Do you get awful, cringe-worthy religious intrusive thoughts popping into your mind at random moments?
Do you spend inordinate amounts of time trying to brush these thoughts under the rug or cancel them out with elaborate spiritual rituals?
We’re going to talk about that today. Specifically, I’d like to talk about the relationship between the “body” and the “spirit” and how this relates to religious intrusive thoughts.
Are you ready? Let’s begin!
What Are Religious Intrusive Thoughts?
If you visit any standard OCD website that pops up when you google “intrusive thoughts,” you’ll find them defined as,
…unwanted and distressing ideas that feel contrary to a person’s nature.Made of Millions
Intrusive thoughts can have many themes. You might get a sudden, unwanted thought of grabbing a stranger’s hand, being sexually interested in a dog, shouting in public, stabbing a loved one, or denying Christ.
These thoughts seem to come from beyond your realm of conscious thought, and are always very bothersome. Having one of these thoughts typically leads to intense rumination and rituals to ensure you will not perform the content of the thought.
Most commonly, religious intrusive thoughts involve:
- Urges to blaspheme God or deny Christ
- Sexually explicit visualizations of Christ
- Images of performing immoral actions
- Urges to sacrifice or give something up because God may be testing you
- Repetitive and unfounded thoughts that your spiritual life is inadequate
- Vivid visualizations of hell or divine punishment
- Thoughts of religious identity confusion, such as fear of being the antichrist or a false prophet
These kinds of religious intrusive thoughts can be extremely distressing. But where do they come from? Why do we get them? That’s another question — one which we will attempt to explain.
Why Do I Get Religious Intrusive Thoughts?
To understand why we get religious intrusive thoughts, we first need to understand the Biblical relationship between the body and the spirit. If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, a lot of this will be review for you — but pay careful attention, because I want to show you key insights fo how the Christian worldview helps us understand WHY we get religious intrusive thoughts. What I’m about to share with you is something you won’t find on any purely medical OCD website because of the inherent limitations in the secular worldview.
Again, the key lies in understanding the relationship between the body and the spirit.
According to secular science, there is not such thing as a “spirit.” We are nothing more than chemical substances. Rearranged stardust. Our thoughts are simply snapping neurons and gushing hormones — the merry-go-round of a mechanical system and nothing more. Since a “spirit” is something unmeasurable and untestable by science, it must not exist.
The Christian worldview, however, makes a clear distinction. There is a body, and there is a spirit. Together, they make up what Scripture calls the “living being,” or in some translations, the “living soul.”
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.Genesis 2:7
There are two ingredients here, which combine to make something greater. We could write the equation as:
body (dust) + spirit (breath) = life
Without the spirit, the body is dead (James 2:26) — and when the body dies, the spirit “returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
We are not the automatons that naturalism says we are. According to Scripture, there is a physical body that serves as a “house” for the spirit (Luke 11:24). The spirit controls, animates, and interacts with the body.
The spirit actually needs a physical body. God did not create us as ghosts — without a body, how can we feel, taste, see, and hear? If our spirits had perceptive abilities that could transcend bodily limitations — that is, if my spirit could see what is happening in London when my body is in New York — then perhaps we would have something called “Christian Astral Projection,” but there is no such thing.
God created us as holistic beings. There is an undeniable connection between the body and the spirit.
But how does this distinction relate to intrusive thoughts?
When it comes to our thoughts, there are certain thinking process that take place in the biological “body” part of the brain, and certain thinking process that are done by the conscious mind, the “spirit.”
For example: your brain is responsible for sending signals to keep the heart beating, to regulate body temperature, and to generate adrenaline to help you run away from dangerous situations. This happens automatically. It is not something your spirit needs to oversee at every moment.
However, getting up off the couch to go for a walk (which is very much in the best interests of the body) will never happen unless your spirits chooses it.
Thus, it is possible for the spirit and the body to be at odds with each other. There can be tension and even disagreement between them. As Jesus Himself said,
Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”Matthew 26:41
Think for a moment about times when you have seen conflict between the body and the spirit.
- The body wins over the spirit: You have a high fever on exam day. Since you are an A student, your spirit is determined to get out of bed and go take the exam, but your body insists that recovery is more important, and overrides your spirit’s good intentions by making you too weak and dizzy to walk.
- The spirit wins over the body: Your body is perfectly healthy when you wake up the morning of a major business presentation. You don’t like public speaking and begin to catastrophize about possible outcomes. Your spirit’s negativity sends signals to the body to begin generating fight-or-flight chemicals. Soon you feel nauseous and get diarrhea. All these physical sensations are generated by the spirit’s bad thinking.
- Neither wins: You’re at a bonfire with your college buddies and are having a cheeseball-eating contest. At a certain point, your body sends a frantic signal to your spirit to say “stop eating,” but your spirit overrides the concern and keeps throwing back the cheeseballs. Pretty soon, the body rebels against the spirit’s wishes and you end up vomiting.
As you can see, the body and spirit have distinct abilities to influence your overall health and choices.
It’s easy to recognize the body’s behavior as distinct from the spirit when we are speaking of the sensations we get in our stomach, leg, or heart. But what about those biological functions of the brain that really don’t count as the conscious spirit? How can we begin to separate between the body and the spirit when we’re talking about what goes on between our ears?
More fundamentally, is it the body or the spirit that generates intrusive thoughts?
Three Possible Sources for Intrusive Thoughts
There are only three possible sources for religious intrusive thoughts.
- From your spirit (the conscious mind)
- From your body (the subconscious or automatic parts of the brain)
- From outside both spirit and body (demons, aliens, hypnosis, etc.)
Debunking the idea that intrusive thoughts are from demonization is a bit too broad for this article. (In another article I talk about why I don’t believe religious intrusive thoughts are a sign of demon possession — if you are stuck on that question, I’d encourage you to check it out.)
So we are left with two options — either our intrusive thoughts are from the body, or they are from the spirit.
We know a few key ideas from Scripture about the spirit and it’s function. Primarily, we know that the operation of the human spirit (as opposed to the body) is for analysis and choice. But since the spirit does not have a physical substance, it must rely on the body to feed it sensory information and store relevant memories so it can analyze properly.
The spirit of a man is the lamp of the Lord,Proverbs 20:27
Searching all the inner depths of his heart.
The spirit is our God-given faculty to analyze our thoughts, motives, and feelings — in short, all our inner experiences. This part of our conscious mind is also the part that interacts with the outer world via the sensory input of the body. It receives input from the eyes, ears, nose, skin, etc. and turns these sensations into meaningful information.
And the man said to me, “Son of man, look with your eyes and hear with your ears, and fix your mind on everything I show you; for you were brought here so that I might show them to you. Declare to the house of Israel everything you see.”Ezekiel 40:4
Thus, the spirit (conscious mind) performs constant analysis.
It has a second important function, as well — once it makes an evaluation, it chooses.
I also will answer my part,Job 32:17-18
I too will declare my opinion.
For I am full of words;
The spirit within me compels me.
It is not enough for the spirit to analyze and evaluate. It then chooses a course of action, and “compels” the body to actually carry out that decision.
If, then, the spirit is so keenly dependent on the body to feed it information in order to analyze and choose appropriately, we would expect to see information channels going from the body to the spirit.
Indeed, what we find is a loop between the biological brain and the conscious brain. The body (biological brain) sends specific information to the spirit (conscious brain) and produces a reaction in the spirit which leads to more bodily consequences.
Religious intrusive thoughts are not a full-system error.
They cause distress because there is a problem in ONE part of the system, which produces a cascade of effects.
The problem is in the spirit’s interpretation of the thoughts being generated in the subconscious.
The Role of the Storymaker in Intrusive Thoughts
Your body is constantly busy feeding information to your spirit for evaluation.
This happens through your eyesight, smell, hearing, sense of pressure and gravity and speed, and taste. The biological part of your brain subconsciously takes in all these stimuli and runs them through an emotional memory bank, looking for any significant matches. Whatever it deems “unimportant” is filtered out and is not sent to the spirit for conscious evaluation (for example, you are probably not thinking about the way your socks feel on your feet right now, or the sound of the car passing by outside).
However, there are certain things that get flagged as important. The biological part of the brain can’t handle big questions, so they get rerouted to the spirit, the system’s big Mr. Boss Man.
For example, Joe is working with his church’s outreach team to help the homeless. As he approaches a homeless man to offer assistance, he smells an overpowering mixture of urine and alcohol. This input — the smell of urine and alcohol — finds a match in his brain’s emotional memory bank, and is flagged as important. Joe’s heart beats faster and his palms begin to sweat with anxiety, but he isn’t sure why.
His physical reactions make him stop and think. His spirit activates in response. Why am I feeling anxious? He asks himself. Then he realizes the smell of urine and alcohol reminds him of the times his abusive father would come home drunk as a skunk, beat up anyone who was in his way, and pass out until he peed himself.
Joe’s spirit can analyze the cause for his anxiety and recognize that there is no real danger in the present situation. Despite the body’s hesitation, his spirit compels him to go forward in ministering to the needs of the homeless man. For Joe, it is a successful day.
Memories Vs. Possibilities
In Joe’s situation, bodily anxiety started because of the intersection between deep memories and immediate stimuli.
But sometimes, instead of sending a memory-based message to the spirit, the brain sends a possibility-based message. I have chosen to name this phenomenon “The Storymaker.”
The Storymaker is the imaginative, “construal” function of the brain that takes in information from the senses, from your emotional memory bank, and from all other possible input sources, and uses these resources to spin “possibility narratives.” It then feeds these micro stories to your spirit.
Often, these “possibility narratives” are very helpful.
Jane’s 5-year-old daughter is running at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Inside her brain, The Storymaker draws on Jane’s knowledge of physics, air speed, child mobility, and distance, and pops a micro story into her conscious mind. Jane gets a 5-nanosecond storyline of her daughter falling over the edge of the cliff.
Based on this construal, she tells her child to get back and stop running by the edge of the canyon.
Was it a terrifying image? Yes. Was it ultimately helpful? Yes.
The Storymaker’s function is to ask helpful “what if” questions. They are questions about possibility. And it asks these questions in the form of little micro narratives. The spirit’s role is to decide whether these stories have any validity or not.
The Storymaker Proposes Possible Evaluations
The spirit is simply too busy to perform all the lower-level tasks necessary for normal functioning. That’s why a lot of our daily choices get automated.
Imagine if you had to make a conscious evaluation every single day about every single thing in your daily routine.
Is this shirt “good?”
Is this tea “worthy?”
Is this route to work “safe?”
Is this spot on the sofa “appropriate?”
Eventually, these kinds of evaluations would become overwhelming, so the spirit outsources much of these continual evaluations to the other parts of the brain.
But we do still have evaluative functions to perform, so every so often the body feeds us an information package and asks us to respond with an evaluation. Often, this “information package” comes from The Storymaker in the form of a little micro narrative.
Lucy is walking towards the shopping center when she sees a man exit a store and walk briskly towards the parking lot. This man is a different ethnicity than Lucy, and she immediately gets a “possibility narrative” popping into her mind: maybe he just robbed the store and is running away with shoplifted goods.
Suddenly, Lucy realizes that she has just judged (evaluated) the man without knowing any real details. She is filled with remorse because she feels not only racist but also judgmental — two qualities she believes God would condemn. The next thought that enters her mind hits even harder: you just judged that man, and now God will judge you without mercy.
Subconsciously, Lucy feels uncomfortable with people from that ethnic background. Subconsciously, she feels vulnerable and scared of God.
The “trigger” for her religious intrusive thought was the possibility narrative of her brain suggesting an interpretation for events. That, in itself, was neither bad nor dangerous. But because of her subconscious beliefs and relationships, her spirit interpreted the situation badly. Again, remember that the spirit plays an important role in interpretation.
Seeing the man walk briskly out of the store, and getting a “possibility narrative” to explain it, was the information sent to the spirit by the body. The spirit’s interpretation could have gone in two directions:
- Dismissal: “that’s an interesting possibility. Maybe he’s a shoplifter, maybe he isn’t. I have no way of knowing.”
- Engagement: “oh no — I just judged him. God is going to judge me!”
This is why, fundamentally, religious intrusive thoughts are not necessarily bad. They are nothing more than possibility stories. But our spirit’s reaction to these possibilities is what gets us stuck in a cycle of rumination.
The Storymaker Simulates Possible Scenarios
Not only does The Storymaker request evaluations, it also simulates possible scenarios.
That’s the neat thing with narratives. Stories allow us to experience something that isn’t real so we can “test drive” possible outcomes. A story is a bit like a flight simulator. You can figure out the best way to kill a giant, discover the consequences of committing adultery, and feel the challenges of being a virtuous hero — all from the comfort of your couch.
That’s the thing with narratives — their construal function allows you to actually simulate scenarios that aren’t real, but might be. But while you go through the storyline, you can reap the benefits of taste-testing various roles and choices without any real-life consequences.
(I wrote my MA thesis about the missiological use of Biblical narratives, so I’m a bit nerdy on this point. But did you know that 70% of the Bible is actually written in narrative form? Apparently, God thinks stories are awesome, too!)
Creating hypothetical simulations is another function of The Storymaker which can easily get labeled as religious intrusive thoughts. However, this does not need to be the case. Once we recognize that The Storymaker is just narrating a possible simulation, we no longer need to treat the thought as “dangerous.”
Let me give an example.
The Blasphemous Thoughts Simulation
I believe in many cases, The Storymaker’s normal functioning is what lies behind the most common of all religious intrusive thoughts — blasphemy. The subconscious mind naturally desires to test the boundaries of any relationship, including our relationship with God.
Testing boundaries is a very normal and healthy part of being socialized human beings. (Anyone who is a parent or teacher knows that pushing the boundaries in a healthy setting helps children develop good people skills). I like how Jordan Peterson makes a plea to bring back the time-honored tradition of roughhousing with children. In his view, roughhousing is a complex psychosocial activity that allows children to push right up to the edge of what is and isn’t acceptable (if you do this it’s fun, but if you do that it hurts someone). This kind of play helps them develop higher level socialization skills.
Does The Storymaker propose boundary pushing, too? I believe so. I believe it’s possible that sudden blasphemous thoughts (“I reject you, God”) are a simulation of the subconscious mind to test the boundaries.
If I push back at God, what will happen? Will I still be safe with Him?
If I do something God doesn’t appreciate, will He still love me?
Am I lovable or unlovable? How can I find out?
Fairly often, when I talk with my clients about their religious intrusive thoughts, they admit significant difficulty in actually talking to God about their thoughts and emotions. They can tell me about them, but talking directly to God is tougher.
Could this indicate a real subconscious need that The Storymaker is surfacing? Maybe you need to test your boundaries with God. Maybe you need to take a hike into the mountains, find a secluded spot, get on your knees, and shout at God.
Be like Job and complain loud and long. Be like Habakkuk and demand God answer your tough questions. Be like Asaph and tell Him you’re so disillusioned with faith that your feet have almost slipped.
But don’t just complain about God to someone else. Complain to Him. Stop bottling up your emotions and trying to be perfect and holy before His throne.
Unleash everything you’ve been holding back and test His love for you.
Push the boundary and ask Him to show you that it’s ok to be broken and angry and confused and still be a person of faith.
Once you can do this in your conscious spirit, The Storymaker may stop flagging this relationship as insecure. Once you view God as fully safe, it may stop creating simulations to push the boundary and figure out possible outcomes.
Try it and see if it works for you.
How the Christian Can Respond
Because intrusive thoughts are essentially a healthy construal function of the subconscious mind, our response to them ought to be calm and even grateful.
“Why, thank you, Storymaker — that’s an interesting and imaginative possibility you’ve come up with. How cute.”
*Goes on with day*
Other times, these possibility narratives may be more helpful.
“My passport might be stolen if I leave it sitting on top of my suitcase. I better put it away.”
Have you ever wished that you could completely burn out the part of your brain that generates intrusive thoughts? Don’t think that way! These creative, imaginative “remixes” are what help us innovate, protect, and create. But like Thomas Edison made hundreds of wonky lightbulbs before he made a truly successful one, our brain also generates a lot of nonsense along the way.
Our only problem — and let me repeat, our ONLY problem — is when we interpret these innocent possibility narratives to actually MEAN something.
In reality, they don’t mean something unless your spirit decides they mean something.
That’s where we get stuck.
Zoey grew up in a fundamentalist offshoot where she was judged harshly for minor religious infractions. As an adult, she has transitioned to healthier and more balanced beliefs — but the memories of being judged have a significant impact on the way she subconsciously processes her relationship with God.
Sometimes, Zoey gets religious intrusive thoughts that feature her doing something she believes is sinful. Sometimes she gets religious intrusive thoughts that urge her to curse God and push Him away.
In her spirit, she does not want to do these things, and she is distressed and confused that they keep coming up. When these thoughts pop into her mind, she reacts harshly, judging herself and trying to push them away.
What Zoey doesn’t realize is that the religious intrusive thoughts are merely a narrative of possibilities.
Because of the spiritual trauma in Zoey’s past, she does not have a model for processing the idea of making religious mistakes. She also believes it is unpardonable to offend God in any way, so she is limited in her ability to recognize the redemptive features of God. She sees only His judgmental nature.
Every time Zoey has an intrusive thought about doing something sinful, it’s possible that it is the brain’s healthy attempt to process this deep-seated assumption that there is “something wrong” with her and that she must never make mistakes. In order to deal with these subconscious beliefs, the brain must surface something that brings Zoey face-to-face with her vulnerability to making mistakes — even committing sin — in order to create an innovative response.
This is where The Storymaker comes in. Its role is to surface the questions that Zoey needs to ask by presenting shocking narratives — horror stories, if you will…
If she’s really capable of committing such-and-such sin, will there be mercy for her?
If she loses control and does something so bad, will she still have worth?
If she turns into “that kind” of person, will there be any redemptive hope that keeps her worldview from imploding in on itself?
The brain has an innate need to answer these kinds of questions, but must first surface tough material to stimulate the discussion. When it comes to the obsessive response that happens in OCD-type intrusive thoughts, however, we fail to allow these questions to become useful to us. We get so stuck resisting the thoughts that they never have any useful impact.
Rather than resisting the religious intrusive thoughts, the better course of action is to allow them to surface our deepest questions. Because fundamentally, our intrusive thoughts are not about the actual subject matter of the thoughts, which are basically never true. The subject matter of the thoughts are merely avatars to talk about our worth as a person, about our models for how we experience grace, and about our beliefs in how God really sees us.
Religious intrusive thoughts may seem awful, but at their core they can serve a very useful function. They help us surface our subconscious beliefs and ask the spiritual questions that need to be asked.
As we face these questions head-on, we can then begin to slowly but surely develop new neural pathways that favor a healthier response.
As Zoey faces her urges to blaspheme God, she begins to recognize that she harbors a deep sense of resentment towards Him. After years of being judged by others, she has come to believe that God views her in the same light. Her fear of Him makes her only express bright and worshipful sentiments, but deep down, she resents the pressure and judgment.
What if these ugly, blasphemous thoughts are a way that her brain (and perhaps God Himself) are encouraging Zoey to open up her most vulnerable beliefs? What if they are a way for her subconscious to deal with those burning questions about her worth, her real level of trust in God, and the overblown and dangerous view she has of herself?
Her brain wants her to push back against God because it’s the only way she can find out the answer to these questions.
And it is only when we can begin responding to these “possibility narratives” with that level of vulnerability that we begin to resolve the stress.
God wants our spirit to grow and develop new understandings. The Bible says,
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.Ezekiel 36:26
We are not to remain the same forever. It is His will that we receive a new spirit — that is, new spiritual understandings — that can grasp the worth we have as children of God and the infinite grace that is available to us.
It is little wonder, then, that the body sometimes acts against our spirit in “tough love.” It forces these narratives upon us in order to crack open the things we really need to talk with God about.
Friends, be encouraged.
You’ve been thinking there’s something horribly wrong with you because you get these religious intrusive thoughts. What I want to say to you is no, there’s nothing wrong with you. Your brain is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing. The Storymaker is functioning well and is leading you to think of innovative, creative answers to deeper questions you’ve been unaware of.
And let me repeat — these “deeper questions” have NOTHING to do with the actual subject matter of your intrusive thought! Most likely, your brain is bringing up issues of how you view your own worth and how you view your relationship to a loving, Fatherly God.
So the next time you get a religious intrusive thought, don’t resist it. Don’t fight back against it.
Instead, stop and thank your Storyteller for bringing up an interesting possibility. And ask yourself what this micro-narrative brings up. What does it really bring up that your brain feels a need to resolve?
And as you deal with the deeper issues, I pray that you will sense the Lord beside you every step of the way.
Brethren, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.Galatians 6:18