For better or worse, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) has tumbled into popular culture as a label for our uptight and detail-minded acquaintances. Many of us know someone who is OCD about his schedule or his budget or keeping his silverware neatly stacked. But clinically speaking, OCD extends beyond mere personality quirks to include mental and behavioral patterns that can lock arms in a vortex of bondage.
A person with OCD typically finds himself the host of intrusive thoughts — fears of contamination, of committing the unpardonable sin, of embarrassing himself in public — that kick up intense anxiety and refuse to leave. These “sticky thoughts,” as Mike Emlet calls them, are considered obsessions and make up half of the OCD equation. The other half, compulsions, involves the behaviors we usually associate with the disorder: repeated hand washing, counting stair steps, checking locks, and so on. Compulsions offer the prospect of relief from obsessive thoughts. But they almost never deliver. In fact, more often than not, they only make things worse. (Are you sure your hands are clean? Better scrub again.)
Body and Soul
So what causes OCD? Researchers have offered a variety of explanations. Some, for example, have suggested a link between OCD and abnormal levels of serotonin, a chemical that relays messages from one neuron in the brain to another. Others have pointed to genetics and certain environmental factors. But despite these leads, no one has been able to identify an airtight physical explanation. And should such a discovery one day appear, our collective understanding would only shuffle up to the edge of a black and yawning chasm: the human heart.
We are embodied spirits, complex tangles of clay and ether. Our worship, rightly ordered or no, stretches like a spinal cord through our existence, never seen but always felt, always directing, always present. So when dealing with a mental disorder such as OCD, we would do well to consider the whole person in our diagnosis, soul as well as body. And I think Colossians 2:20–23 offers a promising way forward.
The Elemental Spirits
Paul begins this passage by reminding the Colossians that they have died with Christ “to the elemental spirits of the world” (Colossians 2:20). What are the elemental spirits? Though theories abound, it appears that in Colossians the elemental spirits are varying ranks of evil powers that exercise dominion over the material world. At one time, the Colossian believers were enslaved to these spirits, bound by a “record of debt” (Colossians 2:14) because of their trespasses. But God canceled this debt at the cross. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities,” Paul writes, “and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him [Christ]” (Colossians 2:15).
“In our diagnosis of OCD, we would do well to consider the whole person, soul as well as body.”
But the Colossians, it seems, had forgotten that. Paul continues in Colossians 2:20, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations . . .?” Paul isn’t encouraging the abandonment of all moral restraint here. He has specific regulations in mind: “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (Colossians 2:21). These regulations concern “things that all perish as they are used” (Colossians 2:22), things like food and drink that lack any intrinsic power to sanctify or defile the consumer. As Jesus warned the Pharisees, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15).
Although these prohibitions find their source, not in God, but in “human precepts and teachings” (Colossians 2:22), Paul admits they are attractive: “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body . . .” (Colossians 2:23). A spartan lifestyle holds a certain allure, but it can actually distract from the pursuit of holiness. In Paul’s words, severity to the body is “of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:23).
OCD and Self-Made Religion
What does all of this have to do with OCD? Quite a lot, actually. I think that in Colossians 2:20–23, Paul gives us vocabulary for understanding why the cycle of obsessions and compulsions is so ensnaring. Now, please understand that I am not discounting the important role that medication can play in managing OCD symptoms. Nor am I claiming that the mere presence of obsessive thoughts and the temptation toward compulsive behavior necessarily involves sin. I merely want us to see how the gospel addresses the fear, anxiety, and guilt that often underlie the surface behaviors.
Let’s try an example. I have personally struggled with OCD to one degree or another since high school. One of my regular fixations has been truth-telling: in my worst moments, I’m scared to death that I might somehow tell a lie and lose the respect of those I care about. So, for instance, when I would take a class that required a reading report, I would spend long stretches of time on my assigned readings, scanning and re-scanning lines I worried I had missed the first time through. It was torture.
“God never expects us to be omniscient. He knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust.”
What was driving me in those moments? On one level, I wanted to be an honest student. That was a good thing. God tells us in Ephesians 4:25 to speak the truth to our neighbor. But I suspect that wasn’t really what I was after. I wanted omniscience. I was afraid of the deceitfulness of my heart and felt the only way I could achieve rest was to know infallibly that my eyes had processed every scratch of ink on the page in front of me.
But God never expects us to be omniscient. He knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust (Psalm 103:14). He’s actually very happy with reasonable approximations when the situation calls for it. So in my repetitive reading, I was choosing to submit to someone else’s definition of truthfulness. In Paul’s language, I was submitting to regulations: “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not read the next sentence.” I was bowing before human precepts and teachings: my own, not God’s.
These precepts had an appearance of wisdom to me. Who doesn’t want to be thorough, after all? The extra time it cost me seemed a worthy sacrifice in the quest for integrity. (Never mind that it was frightfully unloving to my wife who wanted us to have more time to spend together.) I was treating my body severely by whipping myself up into a froth of exasperation. But I never found the rest I was after. My regulations were of no value in stopping the indulgence of my fearful flesh.
OCD and the Death of the Christian
What, then, was my true hope? What is your hope, believer, in moments of mental anguish? It is, quite simply, that you have died and been raised with Christ. You have died to the elemental spirits of the world with their blackmail and their bullying. Your deepest fears have no hold on you, even if you feel like they do. “You have died,” as Paul goes on to say in chapter 3 of Colossians, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3–4).
“Your deepest fears have no hold on you, even if you feel like they do.”
So look to Jesus. Look at him in his triumph over the rulers and authorities (Colossians 2:15). Look at him as the hiding place of all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3). Jesus has the soundest, most well-adjusted mind there is. Look at him as the place where the fullness of deity dwells bodily (Colossians 2:9). Look at him as the head of the church (Colossians 2:19), the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15), the one in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:17), the forgiver of our trespasses (Colossians 2:13).
That’s where your life is. That’s where you are.
OCD doesn’t define you. It doesn’t define your friend or your husband or your daughter or your mom. As Paul says in Colossians 3:9–10, “You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”
You have put off the old self with its practices. Even its illogical and repetitive ones.
An expanded version of this article was delivered as a sermon at Bethlehem Baptist Church. For more on addressing OCD from a biblical counseling perspective, see Mike Emlet, “Obsessions and Compulsions: Breaking Free of the Tyranny,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 22 (2004): 15–26.