Facing OCD and Prayer

Facing OCD and Prayer

I’ve often felt guilty over my prayer life, and I think a lot of that guilt stems from my OCD tendencies. To be frank, this saddens me more than I can express. My most precious moments have been spent talking to God and reading His Word. But for whatever reason, I find myself in these ruts where I’m saying the same prayers every night. Like…the exact same prayers…down to the word. I feel like a repair man.

1. Prayers for Jelly Bean - Check
2. Prayers for Marriage - Check
3. Prayers for Forgiveness - Check
4. Prayers for the Nation - Check
5. Prayers of Thanksgiving - Check
6. Prayers for the Salvation of Family Members - Check

And the list goes on…

Since I typically wait to go to bed until my I’m already half unconscious (I’ve been particularly bad about this since Jelly Bean still isn’t sleeping well.), I can never remember to say my prayers for the day, or I get about two topics into it before conking out. Sure, I pray on and off all day, (after all, we’re to “pray without ceasing,” according to 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.) but there is a need to really have a longer conversation with God than a quick,

“Lord, please don’t let Jelly Bean choke on her spit up while I go to the bathroom,” or

“Father, thank you so much for letting my baby play happily in her walker long enough for me to eat lunch.”

(There’s a recurring theme here if you can’t tell.)

Anywho, I know I need to spend time with God. I want to spend time with God. But checking off boxes that includes everything from confession to praise to requests is hardly what I consider an intimate time with God. Now, I’m not one to base my faith on feelings. My heart and mind (and hormones) are far too untrustworthy for that. But there comes a point where my heart suffers because the act that should draw me closer to God is simply causing me angst.

I’ve discussed before how individuals with OCD often struggle with issues of morality. When praying began to feel like a dreaded chore, I began to wonder to myself if my morality struggles could be related to my struggles with prayer.

When I was young, my mother taught me the Billy Graham acronym, ACTS:

A – Adoration

C – Confession

T – Thanksgiving

S – Supplication

Part of me grew up saying, “This is brilliant!” And yet, the other part of me wanted to run and hide in fear. The OCD part of my brain was always telling me I hadn’t given enough adoration or confessed all of my sins. I didn’t thank God for everything He’d blessed me with, so there were always things I’d forgotten in my thanksgiving. And of course, my supplication list was filled with people who had asked for prayer, so my S-list was always way longer than anything else. And I was pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to be that way.

OCD in my Prayer

When individuals with OCD refuse to do the odd compulsions their OCD assigns them, it feels as if something bad will happen. We may know it’s nonsensical, but that doesn’t take away the feeling. The milder version of this is what I have. I feel that if I don’t pray perfectly, my prayer won’t be good. I’ll be sinning. The people/issue I should have prayed for might not get what they need because of me. I might do eternal damage because of my negligence.

Is this biblical? Not at all. While I believe that God uses our prayer to accomplish His will, I believe He does this in spite of our sin and our mistakes. Nothing I do will be perfect, but after all, that’s why I need the Holy Spirit. And I know this.

Of course, that’s not what my OCD tells me. It’s a constant battle, and unless I’m cognizant of the OCD and can separate it from reality, I’m on the losing side. Despite what I know, it still feels like my prayers won’t be heard by God because I did them wrong.

Scrupulosity

The extreme version of this is called scrupulosity. Common compulsions and obsessions in people with OCD often revolve around cleanliness, locking doors, turning off irons, or having objects in a certain order or symmetry. Scrupulosity brings similarly intrusive thoughts that focus more on morality and prayers, and religious rituals that force the individuals to repeat them over and over again.

In the ABC News article, “When People Can’t Stop Praying,” Simon Rego, the associate director of psychology training at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, says that this disorder can be better hidden from loved ones because the rituals are silent and in the head. The article, written by Lauren Cox of the ABC Medical Unit, points out that these obsessions don’t actually have anything to do with real religion. It’s truly the OCD talking.

Psych Central’s article, “Scrupulosity: When OCD Targets Your Religious and Moral Values,” by Annabella Hagen, LCSW, RPT-S, says the difference between average people who are religious and people who struggle with scrupulosity is that while everyone feels doubt now and then, the average person can talk to a pastor or religious head and usually move on with life. Those with scrupulosity, however, cannot escape the obsessive intrusive thoughts about certain sins like cursing, thinking sinful thoughts, thinking sexually immoral thoughts, and preventing bad things from happening to others by obeying God.

Again, it’s important to remember that believing in God doesn’t bring this kind of OCD. If the OCD didn’t manifest itself in issues of belief, it would most likely manifest itself in some other way. The brain is wired for obsessions and/or compulsions. All it’s doing is waiting for something to latch onto.

I’m going to do another post on scrupulosity sometime that explores this kind of OCD more in  depth. Today, however, I’m more concerned with discussing what I’ve been doing lately to throw my OCD off-track and to bring my enjoyment of prayer back in.

Addressing the Problem

To begin with, I prayed about it. In John 14:13, Christ says, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” Now, I’m not going to go deeply into theology here, but the gist of this verse means that when I ask God for something in Christ’s name, it means I’m asking the way Christ did in Gethsemene, “Not my will, but Your will be done, oh Lord.” I asked God to help me find joy in prayer once again.

And as always, God answers prayers. Just when I had started wanting to avoid long prayers, simply because my OCD was requiring my prayers to sound the same way every night, God gave me a gift. In frustration, I turned to the Puritan prayers from the book, “The Valley of Vision.”

Now, this might seem counterintuitive, as many see the Puritans as staunch fun-killers from “The Scarlet Letter.” But when you read these prayers, they truly speak from the heart. I was struck by how sincere these prayers were, how similar they were to the words I wanted to speak from my own heart…but was kept from saying by my OCD. Take a piece of the prayer, “The Valley of Vision” (which the book was named after):

Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,

and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;

Let me find thy light in my darkness,

thy life in my death,

thy joy in my sorrow,

they grace in my sin,”

I’ve begun praying a prayer from the book every day. I know the words will be sincere, and Valley of Vision Prayertherefore, I can pray them without feeling guilty. In discovering new, beautiful words to God, I can pray them sincerely without feeling like I’m praying from rote. Heck, I’m even mixing up the order in which I pray my other additional prayers, and instead of doing it all while I rock my baby to sleep, I pray while I’m doing chores.

Take that, OCD. I’m mixing things up! What are you going to do about it? Nothing. That’s right. Go sulk.

Praise God, He answered my prayers, and I feel like I have the upper hand in this battle with OCD. I’ve found a way to pray joyfully again. Such beautiful words are mine to use and my OCD can’t do a thing about it.

Do you struggle with praying or another aspect of your faith because of OCD? Please share you comments and questions in the Comment Box below, or email me. I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you haven’t subscribed yet to my monthly newsletter, you can do so and receive free extra resources in your inbox. Also, (hint, hint), there may or may not be a free ebook on life with Tourettes being released soon and available for free download to my subscribers sometime in the future. Just a heads up! As always, thanks for reading!

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6 comments

  • Matt on February 22, 2017 at 1:17 pm said:

    Thank you for this article. The description of your struggles is very familiar to me. It feels good to know I’m not the only one with this issue, and now I have a new way to deal with it. Thank you very much for sharing.

  • Nick on April 23, 2017 at 3:32 pm said:

    Hi Brittany,
    I have OCD about my prayers and thoughts. I feel I have to say prayers to counter my bad thoughts and also to protect my loved ones. I am not sure I even believe in God which probably makes it more difficult. But my prayers have got very long and I get stressed in the lead up to them because of the effort of doing them and of doing them correctly.

    • brittanyfichterwrites@gmail.com on April 24, 2017 at 2:25 am said:

      Hey, Nick. You are definitely not alone in this. Scrupulosity is a very, very common struggle. I know you’re not sure about your faith right now, but if you don’t mind, I have a suggestion. When my prayers get repetitive, I have to step back and ask myself why I’m praying in the first place and who I’m praying to. And then I look at the Psalms.

      God understands our struggles. And thankfully, He isn’t like the gods in Greek mythology where He has checkboxes that He must tick off before He loves us. No, Romans 8 says that, “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This means our prayers aren’t going to make or break our relationship with God. Christ won that right to be called children of God for us. All we have to do is repent and believe. (John 1:12).

      Fast forward to why we pray. I don’t know if you have children, but I know that I find it a joy when my toddler comes to talk to me. Now, she’s just learning to talk, so we’re limited to the same phrases on repeat at the moment, but with every day, her ability to express herself grows. And with it grows my joy in hearing what she’s thinking and feeling. We talk to God because He’s our Father who loves us, not because we’re responsible for hitting all the marks. We have the privilege of taking to Him our joys, fears, adoration, angst, anger, and confusion. We come to Him for everything because He’s our Abba Father. (Abbe is the equivalent of the word Daddy in the Hebrew language.) Galatians 4:6-7 says, “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

      The hard part is convincing our stubborn OCD of these things. It’s one thing to say, “Don’t worry about the repetition,” but it’s another to deal with it. I know the feeling of guilt about prayer and the agony the constant “prayers” in our heads can bring. But I can also attest to the goodness of God. Through lots of prayer and constantly reminding myself through Scripture of who I am praying to and why, the truth my OCD believes is slowly beginning to change. Do I still struggle? Absolutely. But there is progress, and I am beginning to find peace.

      One more thing, I mention it in some of my other blogs, but OCD feeds off of attention. Our first reaction to unwanted OCD thoughts is often to “rebuke” them or to try to take them back. Experts and my own personal experience, however, have taught me that accepting the thoughts and simply moving on can be even more effective than trying to fight them off. I am learning to accept them as a part of the disorder rather than products of my own mind.

      I hope this is encouraging. Remember, it’s never a bad thing to talk to your doctor if you feel overwhelmed by these kinds of thoughts. God gave us medicine and doctors for a reason, and it’s never shameful to talk to a professional about your struggles, just like it’s not shameful to see a doctor about a broken leg that we can’t heal on our own.

  • Nick on April 24, 2017 at 9:21 pm said:

    Thanks Brittany for your detailed response.
    The prayers are not so much in my head but I actually get down on my knees by my bed to say them and the in say them in my head. Well I internally vocalise them and then find it hard to pronounce the words in my head sometimes.
    Younsy it is OK if you repent and believe. Does that mean you have to believe and have to repent I.e say the prayers?. Because it is saying the prayers that gets me into trouble.

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