Note: This post is the second post in a two-part series on Religious OCD.
You can read part 1 here.
Review of Religious OCD Post 1
In a previous post, I labeled Scrupulosity or Religious OCD as being characterized by obsessions related to issues that are specifically moral or spiritual in nature. In contrast to obsessions centered around cleanliness and orderliness, the person struggling with Religious OCD battles obsessions centered around moral purity and a persistently-plagued conscience.
The definition and pattern of “morbid introspection”
In that post I covered the demand for certainty at the heart of the scrupulous person, but now we are going to move on to the tendency this person has with what has been called morbid introspection. This is self-examination at a spiritually unhealthy level. Certainly, Scripture is clear that all believers should examine themselves: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor 13:5). But for the person who is inclined to Religious OCD, this examination turns into a dark, hopeless hunt for sin and personal idols. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says it is “putting our soul on a plate and dissecting it.”1 The reason why this exercise is hopeless is because it is performed without a tight grip on the truth of the gospel.
The pattern will look something like this: The conscience of a man will accuse him regarding some thought, word, or action. Then, in fear, he begins to restlessly ask questions of himself: “Why did I do that? What does that say about me? Do Christians think things like that? What would others think if they knew that I said that? Am I really a believer?” For the scrupulous person, these questions can continue for a long time, often hindering him from God-given responsibilities. This introspection is where he gets stuck in a cycle of self-trust and self-focus, desperately seeking to find relief from feelings of guilt and condemnation. The problem with this kind of introspection is that it is all about the self.
All about self
How is morbid introspection all about self? First, the person struggling with Religious OCD trusts himself to assess himself in his introspection. This is troubling because we, as finite sinners, cannot be trusted. In 1 Corinthians 4:3, the Apostle Paul understood this when he said, “For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.” Paul could not detect anything false in his ministry, but he knew, ultimately, that didn’t matter, because God has the last word. Believers must trust God’s Word to tell us where we have sinned, but at the same time, we must trust God’s Word tell us what Christ has done to remedy our sin. Both truths are needed.
Second, the person struggling with Religious OCD focuses on self in his introspection. This is problematic because Christ saved us to focus on him: “… and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor 5:15). The scrupulous person, in focusing on self in his introspection, seeks relief and freedom in a place where he will never find it. As long as he seeks it in himself, this introspection will be morbid and hopeless, indeed. Why? Not only because Christ saved us to live for him, but also because it is in Christ where his sin’s debt has been obliterated. In Christ, God cancelled our certificate of debt against him and nailed it to the cross, emphasizing that there is no trace of it in the courtroom of God (Col 2:14).
A biblical remedy
These truths are needed tools in the belt of the person stuck in the patterns of Religious OCD. The key remedy to this kind of introspection is to turn from self to Christ. New patterns must be cultivated that are characterized by seeing sin for what it really is and seeing Christ for who he really is. John Piper crystallizes this need in introspection when he says, “The reason for the inward look is to know better what to look to Christ for.”2 In introspection Christians do not look within to gain a better understanding of what to look to self for, yet that’s often the way the scrupulous person operates. Turning to self in view of our sin will only ever lead to despair and more sin. In Christ, not only is there forgiving grace for all our sins, there is also empowering grace for all our sins. In other words, the gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that God will not hold our sins against us, and that we have all we need to turn from sin and experience Christ-conforming change from the inside-out.
In biblical introspection, the scrupulous person will often find that he is actually far worse than he realized. To him, reading those words may feel like a punch to the gut. However, if he embraces biblical introspection, which strikes the proper balance between the bad news and the good news of the gospel, he will not wallow in self-pity because no matter how much sin he discovers, he knows Christ has paid for all of it and will provide all the grace he needs to turn from it for the glory of God.
In closing, let me offer some practical help for those who struggle with the morbid introspection of Religious OCD. In the battle, remember that your sinful nature is deceitful (Eph 4:22, “corrupt through deceitful desires”) and Satan is deceitful (Jn 8:44, the father of lies). The flesh and Satan deceitfully use our prayers to perpetuate the self-focus of morbid introspection. The scrupulous person believes that God works through prayer (as he should), and so, as you would expect, he takes the guilt and anxiety related to his sin into the prayer closet with him. The danger that he must be aware of here is to turn this prayer time into another occasion of morbid introspection. He can easily convince himself that he has prayed about his sin issues for 30-40 minutes just because his soul-dissecting introspection was interspersed with the occasional, “God help me!” He must be careful that his self-focused introspection is not morbid introspection wearing a mask of prayer. Certainly, he needs to confess known sin and plead with God for empowering grace, but he must be wary of his prayer becoming just another occasion to tailspin into self-pity.
To combat this tendency, the scrupulous person would do well to turn from self in his prayers. He ought to cast his anxieties on the Lord (1 Pet 5:7) and then set himself to praising God for his character and works or praying for others and their needs. Similarly, he ought to get busy serving the Lord and serving others. This is all for the purpose of turning from self to the Lord who made us and saved us. Psalm 119:59-60 is a key verse for the person who has enslaved himself in sick cycles of introspection: “When I think on my ways, I turn my feet to your testimonies; I hasten and do not delay to keep your commandments.” The troubling pattern of the scrupulous person is that he thinks on his ways and then continues to think of his ways without turning to God’s Word and obedience. The psalmist, on the other hand, thinks on his ways and turns to God’s Word and obedience with urgency. Whether you struggle yourself or if you are counseling someone who does, may you see these verses become the new pattern that leads to a Christ-centered freedom and joy that can never be found in self.
1. Lloyd-Jones, David Martyn. Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cure. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1965). 17.
2. The Ask Pastor John Podcast – “Have I cast my anxieties or hoarded them?”
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