This blog is part of our Stories Across Faith Series and is one in a larger collection. This month the stories focus on Certainty vs. Faith.
Note: IOCDF is not affiliated with any religious groups and is not a faith-based organization.
Growing up in church, I always thought that doubt was the opposite of faith. It seemed to me that being a good believer meant always being certain of the right beliefs. But when the “doubting disease” attacked my faith, the sense of certainty that I thought was required became unattainable. It has only been in the hard work of ERP and learning to embrace uncertainty that I have realized that doubt is not the opposite of faith. Instead, it is the thing that makes room for faith in my heart and life. This month, four members of our faith and OCD SIG, each from different faith traditions, share their experiences of navigating faith, doubt, OCD and ERP. We hope these stories will be an encouragement to members of all faiths who face the challenges of OCD.
A Story from the Vedanta Faith:
My spiritual path is Vedanta. I have been involved with this spiritual path since 2004. Before I found Vedanta, I never thought that I would find a spiritual path where I fit in. I tend to doubt everything. Vedanta says that the goal of life is to realize God, which means to make God the ultimate meaning in our life. I reason and reason and reason, and find myself back at the beginning. The other day, my Guru said that reason indeed can be cyclical, and that we are driven more by our feelings than by our reasoning. He said that it is important to do spiritual practices to inculcate devotion to God. The spiritual practice that works best for me is what we call holy company, as prayer and meditation leave me frustrated. Vedanta believes that we can never be totally certain until we directly experience God, which is the goal. In the meantime, I will try not to deal with pretzel logic, and pay more attention to the feelings that I have. I have an urge to keep reasoning things out, but I know that does not work for me. Shanti, Shanti, Shantihi (Peace, Peace, Peace) – by Prana
A Story from the Catholic Faith:
I had an intrusive thought that I might harm someone I love, something I had no conscious intention of doing or plan to do so. I identified with the thought. I felt extremely anxious. What if I do it? I was panicked. I was uncertain of whether I would do it. I identified the thought as true and judged myself as a terrible person for having the thought. I couldn’t escape the thought. To relieve my anxiety and get certainty, I compulsively confessed the thought to the person about whom I had it. I was trying to make the thought go away. That made them uncomfortable around me going forward. I did the same with other thoughts, complicating my relationships.
As Catholics, we are learn how to be reconciled with God and ourselves and neighbors through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We are taught to examine our conscience in light of the 10 commandments and the Beatitudes and confess our sins in thoughts, words and what we have done and failed to do with the intention of amending our lives to be more in accord with the image of God in which we are made. I was able to confess the words and deeds, done and not done. But I compulsively confessed the intrusive thoughts having to do with harm, sex and blasphemy to relieve the intense anxiety and pain they were causing within me. I was seeking reassurance that I was an OK person whom God was not casting out because of my thoughts. My goal was to get certainty that I was still part of God’s family. I would sometimes get some relief, but it didn’t last. Sometimes I would go back to the same priest I had just confessed to because I felt I had left something out. My inner Pharisee, my OCDemon, was relentlessly reminding me of the eternal danger to my mortal soul that I was in, because I was the kind of horrible person whose brain could generate such thoughts and urges, even though they were not anything I intended or planned to do. Through my work with exposure and response prevention therapy, I am learning to face and accept the intrusive thoughts and to tolerate the pain, anxiety and stress that accompanies them. I am finding out I am tougher than I thought. I can sit with the thought and the anxiety until it passes without confessing and seeking reassurance. Doing the ERP is an act of faith in God whom I believe loves me and wants me to be free of the chains of OCD. It is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. God knows I have OCD and is loving me through my struggle. Perhaps He is even being glorified in my weakness. Now if I have a harm thought, I don’t confess it to the person. I allow it to be there along with the anxiety which eventually passes. I accept the uncertainty that maybe I will act on the thought, maybe I won’t, I am not fully in control. My goal is now to grow in trust that God will help me cope with whatever arises in the daily uncertainties of living. “Though you slay me, yet will I trust in Thee!” I try to maintain my focus on doing what I value despite my thoughts and feelings. My relationship to the Sacrament of Reconciliation is evolving, with both my therapist’s and priest’s help. I am less identified with the thoughts and what I think they say about me and more identified with my awareness of my free will to choose how I deal with their presence. Do I try to escape from the thought and make it go away (not helpful)? Do I do everything in my power to fight the thought and make it leave my brain (not helpful)? Or do I acknowledge the thought and recognize my choice to allow the thought to be there and still by faith to choose to live the life I value? Am I trusting in God’s grace to help me take next steps into an unknown future that He is empowering me to cope with, whatever uncertainties I may face and feelings that go with them. Am I dealing with my scrupulosity OCD and managing it well for the glory of God or am I allowing myself to be distracted by its threats? God knows I have scrupulosity OCD and that faith is altogether different from OCD. He loves me and wants me to reconcile with myself as well as God. He wants to love me through this and learn from it for my own good and for the good of other sufferers. Confession is still about owning my weakness and sin and restoring my relationship with God. I don’t believe I am an evil person because my brain generates these uninvited and intrusive thoughts. My brain is doing this to protect me from what it perceives as dangers in this life and next. “What if?” is its constant anxiety producing refrain! I am now more able to say “so what!” to those thoughts. I am now more about making the choice to with compassion own and accept my entire human experience, the whole catastrophe, and own whether I am making the choice to courageously go forward in my life towards my values of loving God and being of some service to others. I am an incomplete work in progress, but I am stumbling forward. It is about dying to my old self and rising to a new life in Jesus who died and rose for each of us. Or to quote my elder brother in the faith, Rabbi Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now when?”…Bruce
A story from the Baha’i Faith:
I’m in my mid-fifties and I’ve struggled with OCD since I was a child. However, I wasn’t diagnosed with it until I was 30 years old. My OCD has manifested itself both in a hypervigilant concern about contamination and extensive checking to prevent disasters or harm to loved ones (such as causing a fire from leaving the stove on and hit-and-run driving obsessions).
Like many African Americans I grew up in a community in which a belief in God (or Higher Power) was strongly nurtured. Specifically, I was raised Roman Catholic and attended Catholic schools from grades 6-12. During my high school years my faith and interest in religion increased. When I was in my mid-twenties, I first encountered the Baha’i Faith. I began to study it; fell in love with it; and soon became a convert. The Baha’i Faith is a world religion that was established in the 19th century. Its core principle is a belief in oneness – the oneness of God, religion, and humanity. It is a beautiful religion that seeks to unify humanity into one global family.
Intrusive thoughts have always been a part of my experience with OCD. This included periodically experiencing blasphemous ruminations. Throughout the vast body of Baha’i scripture and prayers there are numerous superlatives referring to the titles and attributes of God, such as The All-Glorious, The All-Knowing, The All-Loving, The All-Powerful, The All-Wise, The Compassionate, The Gracious, The Incomparable, and The Omniscient. Because religion is an aspect of my life that I absolutely cherish, of course OCD immediately latched on to it. So, shortly after embracing the Baha’i Faith, I began to suffer with serious bouts of religious OCD. As my heart began to focus on all these wonderful superlatives for God, I began to be obsessed with the notion that if God is so great, he has a complete awareness of all my awful thoughts. This realization magnified my struggle with blasphemous thoughts. For the next decade, I battled with periodic bouts of intense shame and fear related to these blasphemous thoughts. Although during this period, I actively pursued treatment and experienced some relief from my primary form of OCD (contamination and checking) through ERP, I continued to suffer greatly from religious OCD. At the time, I was too afraid to talk about it with a therapist and frankly I didn’t really realize that it was a component of OCD. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I learned that religious OCD had a name, scrupulosity, and that there are many people who suffer with this problem. Today, I’m happy to report that my religious OCD is under control, and I am able to let awful sacrilegious thoughts just wash over me without ruminating on them.
In terms of managing uncertainty and doubt when it comes to matters of faith, the Baha’i religion has a few gems that have enabled me to adopt a healthy response to OCD. First and foremost, one of its core principles is the belief in the Harmony of Science and Religion. In addition to prayer and supplication to God for healing, Baha’is are strongly encouraged to seek professional help for any serious medical or psychological problem. Therefore, within the Baha’i community, it would be unusual for those suffering with these maladies to hear phrases like “you need to have stronger faith” or “you need to just pray the problem away.”
There is another aspect of my religion that provides me with an extra measure of relief when it comes to uncertainty. Like some other world religions, the Baha’i Faith has its own calendar. Our calendar is divided into nineteen months of nineteen days, with four days left over toward the end of the year as a preparation for the final month of fasting. Each of the nineteen months has a name that is associated with a divine attribute. For example, the first four months are Baha (Splendor), Jalal (Glory), Jamal (Beauty), and Azamat (Grandeur). The fifteenth month of the Baha’i Calendar is named Masa’il (Questions). The notion that in my faith tradition there is an entire month dedicated to the theme of questions, provides me with a lot of solace. To me, the inference here is that it is quite normal and very human to experience doubt and uncertainty. God actually provides us room to question our reality. – Eric S.
A Story from the Jewish Faith:
I know I am not my OCD, but it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the voice of my OCD as opposed to my own. I have practiced my Jewish faith in ways that are similar to my friends and family and in ways that are different, and I also have OCD. Considering I have practiced stricter and more traditional observances of Jewish law than some loved ones, creating a benchmark has been difficult. Sometimes they think I am practicing differently because of my OCD, when I am doing so because of my personal beliefs. Sometimes the opposite is true. Sometimes I don’t even know.
I cannot say the road to finding my identity has been straightforward; I think it rarely is for anyone. I do feel, though, that I have developed a framework as well as strategies and a support system to navigate a meaningful life while navigating OCD. A huge piece has been communication. In order to help my friends and family understand my ideological perspectives while understanding when I want their help in combating OCD, I have needed to talk and not shut myself off or assume mutual understanding is impossible. I have also needed to explain aspects of my faith to my therapist and aspects of my therapy to my Rabbi. I have actually been able to find far more cohesion between all these aspects of myself than I thought was possible. Through self-advocacy and listening, I have found it possible to be understood by my friends and family, to work with my Rabbi and find a way to practice faith while focusing on my health, and to work with my therapist to maintain my health while not compromising my faith. Through treatment I have been better able to practice my faith, and through faith I have been motivated to persevere in treatment.
A great motivator that has existed in my practice of Judaism has been an approach of self-honesty and self-appreciation. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik said at the Symposium on Religion and Mental Health at the Hotel Biltmore in 1961, “what seemed apodictic and simple to our ancestors, inspired by indomitable faith and a passionate transcendental experience, might prove to be an extremely complicated matter for contemporary egotis-tic man, who is spiritually uprooted, homeless, and perplexed.” It can be very difficult to find all the answers when one is really struggling. And that’s ok. Although one may not understand exactly how to respond to these difficult situations at all times, there are many things we can do to begin our approach toward finding answers and meaning. We need not always have all the answers in order to be true to our faith and true to our values. This, I would say, is true both in terms of having challenges in responding to confusions between OCD and faith identity as well as in terms of feelings that OCD will try to tell us, saying we are not good or faithful enough if we do not engage in certain compulsions. Additionally, as Moses Maimonides expressed in his work Eight Chapters, it is crucial to seek out professional help. Regarding someone who has what he refers to as a “sick soul,” which he generally seems to categorize as someone acting abnormally because of a certain mental predisposition, Maimonides says that one must seek out a physician. Maimonides does not seem to view having a mental illness necessarily as an inadequacy of one’s moral character, but as a challenge that one should seek out help for. However, it does make sense to me why he explains this as a sickness of the “soul.” I believe that these challenges are an opportunity to better who I am as a person through perseverance and seeking help, and that combatting my symptoms through resilience as well as using my experience to help others helps me be a better person, morally.
Through seeking treatment for my OCD and responding in a constructive way to these challenges, I enable myself to be the best person I can be and make a positive difference in the world. It is not about whether I have these challenges, even if I can feel very lost at times. I believe it is rather how I respond when such challenges come up that is reflective of my moral character. Over time, I often experience new and different challenges. I sometimes feel lost yet again. But the key is that I know how to then begin to try and find myself again—and when I need help, I have many people who can advise or support me. I have been told and inspired by faith leaders and clinicians alike that all I must give is my best genuine effort. No more, no less- By Alex R.
A Story from the Christian Faith:
Growing up in a fundamentalist household, certainty, seemed to be the only option for my “faith” tradition. I was always a fearful child, but as I grew into an adult, my fears began to be preoccupied by my religion, and was I going to be saved, and go to heaven, or was I going to have to be in hell for eternity. My mind plagued me, wanting nothing less than 100% certainty around this topic.
When I was finally diagnosed with OCD in my late 20’s, I began to realize that faith is not certainty, but in fact, we need faith because we can’t have certainty on this earth. Faith, in my opinion, is essentially trust. Trust in a God, whom we cannot see, and cannot be certain about, and yet choose to believe in, in the midst of it all. I once read a book that helped me live out my faith with OCD called “The Sin of Certainty” by Pete Enns. The author states, “Trust in God casts out fear and cultivates a life of trust that flourishes regardless of how certain that we may feel.”
Doing ERP has taught me that if my God is real, then we can handle it all; all the exposures, all the doubts, all the questions, all the intrusive thoughts, and what he really wants, is not our certainty, but our trust: our hearts.
It is an encouragement that so many people have learned to live out their faith in meaningful ways, despite OCD’s demand for certainty. There are so many beautiful faith traditions that can help us all find value in our lives in the midst of navigating life with OCD. It is our hope as a group that you never let OCD steal what is most important in your life, and if that is your faith, then use that to help you trust yourself on the journey to recovery.