As a therapist who treats OCD, I often share with the people I work with about the convergence of my Christian faith and my own OCD symptoms. I’ve talked about how my fears of going to hell tormented me as a child. I believed that I would say or do something that would make me “fall out of God’s grace.” To counteract my obsessive worry that I would forget to pray and ask for God’s forgiveness, I prayed constantly!
Any time I had an intrusive thought, I prayed. As time went on, my life became riddled with intrusive thoughts—some of which disturbed me greatly—and as a result I prayed compulsively and sought out reassurance constantly, looking for people to tell me I was okay and would not go to hell on account of the random, unwanted thoughts that filled my brain.
What I didn’t know as a young girl was that I was suffering from a very common subtype of OCD that preyed on my religious faith, a theme called Scrupulosity. It took me a long time to realize that I am not my thoughts. I am not evil because of inadvertent, unwanted thoughts. And my thoughts are not a reason that I would be banished to hell. I struggle with a common disorder that unites many of us, but that far too many people simply don’t understand.
If you are reading this article because you struggle with a fear of going to hell or being punished for your intrusive thoughts, you’re not alone.
Do OCD thoughts mean you’re evil or a bad person?
Because intrusive thoughts are often about unusual or distressing topics, such as harming others on purpose or accidentally, it’s normal to wonder what they mean about you.
Contrary to what you might believe, these thoughts don’t mean you actually have immoral desires or ill intentions. In fact, one thing we know about intrusive thoughts in OCD is that they’re what we call ego-dystonic. This is a fancy way of saying that one’s intrusive thoughts go directly against the things they tend to believe and care about the most.
Why do we fear we will harm our loved ones? Because that’s the last thing we can imagine actually doing. Why do we engage in compulsions—such as seeking reassurance, constantly praying, or avoiding uncomfortable feelings—to get rid of the horrible thoughts? Because we know that the intrusive thoughts are not in line with what we value.
But OCD still tricks us, convincing us that our thoughts mean something about our character, and this is when the fear of being punished or going to hell for our intrusive thoughts can become a real stressor in a highly religious person’s life.
While OCD thoughts are not evidence that you are bad, there’s a phenomenon called thought-action fusion that can make you believe you are. This refers to the belief that thinking about doing something is morally equivalent to actually doing it. But since intrusive thoughts are not equivalent to actions, they say nothing negative about your moral character. If anything, they often point out the things that mean the most to you, such as your faith.
Can you go to hell if you have intrusive thoughts?
Whether you are Christian or Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, OCD can wiggle into your belief system and wreak havoc. OCD is often called the “doubting disorder,” as it can make you question everything. This is tricky business for faithful people who struggle with feelings of doubt. For me, as a Christian, when doubt presents itself in the form of an intrusive thought, I could easily latch on to the idea that my thoughts mean I don’t truly believe in or love God. But this is just one of the many lies that OCD tries to tell me.
There is a big difference between intent and intrusion. We have zero control over our intrusive thoughts, but we do have control over our intentions and actions—including how we respond to distressing thoughts. As an OCD sufferer and OCD therapist myself, I know that what I choose to do about my intrusive thoughts is what matters, not the thoughts themselves!
An argument that I have heard over the years is the one that many faiths hold. It says, essentially, that “sinning in our minds is just as bad as doing the act.” When such a belief is central to your faith, it’s more important than ever to discern between intention and intrusion.
Let’s take for example a married man who finds his neighbor attractive. He starts engaging in fantasizing about this neighbor on a regular basis. Maybe he derives pleasure from this fantasy. Maybe he starts looking at his wife differently. He might start to compare the two women, or pay less attention to his wife as he would rather engage in his sexual fantasies about his neighbor. He even starts to consider striking up a conversation with his neighbor the next time he sees her. He sometimes feels guilty about his intentional thoughts, or worries about what might happen if his wife somehow learned about them, but he continues to engage willingly in his thoughts, desires, and fantasies.
Consider another example. A different man sees his neighbor and notices she looks tan and fit as she is walking into her house. He has an intrusive thought about being attracted to her, or having an affair with her. This thought is not wanted—perhaps it only flashes in his mind for a brief moment. It fills him with distress and anxiety, and he becomes intensely worried about what it might mean. He tells his wife about it because he feels guilty. He engages in compulsive behaviors like avoiding his neighbor if they are out in their yards at the same time, and he makes sure to give his wife multiple compliments each day about her attractiveness.
You can see that these two examples are very different. The difference is intent. The two men might have some similar thoughts and images in their minds, but the second man doesn’t want anything to do with those thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts in OCD are not a punishable offense. As a Christian therapist, it is my belief that God is compassionate and understanding of our mental health struggles. He meets us where we are. With the right guidance and practice, we can learn to let go of the idea that we are being judged and will be punished for unintentional and intrusive thoughts.
Ways to cope
If you are struggling with OCD and, in particular, a fear of going to hell or being punished for your intrusive thoughts, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy can be very helpful.
ERP isn’t your typical therapy, like talk therapy or psychoanalysis. It’s a very active and collaborative type of therapy that was developed specifically to treat OCD.
ERP breaks OCD’s vicious cycle, teaching you that you are able to tolerate distress and accept uncertainty without trying to get rid of it through compulsions, which only serve to reinforce those feelings and cause obsessions to return again and again.
Let’s take for example the man we described earlier who is having unwanted intrusive thoughts about his neighbor and compulsively avoiding her. An ERP therapist will work with him to gradually expose him to the fear. He might gradually work toward saying hello to his neighbor, or even inviting that neighbor over for dinner with him and his wife, eventually learning to trust that he can live confidently and faithfully in his own intentions and beliefs, even if intrusive thoughts occasionally pop up. And in time, he can realize: no, he is not going to hell because of his OCD.
Where to get help
If you’re struggling with OCD—or think you might be—you can schedule a free 15-minute call today with the NOCD Care team to learn how a licensed therapist can help. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP.