A version of this post originally appeared on The Glorious Table
I was raised in the church. I asked Jesus to be my savior with childlike innocence when I was just five years old.
Well, for the first time, anyway.
I probably prayed the prayer of salvation over a thousand times in the following years (and I’m not exaggerating). I was always afraid that my efforts hadn’t quite “stuck.”
I used to wonder why I felt the need to pray that special prayer over and over again. Didn’t I have enough faith? You only need faith the size of a mustard seed, right?
But I’ve come to realize over the years that prayer can mean something very different for a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). When I was a child, I had not yet been diagnosed with OCD; I wasn’t diagnosed until I was sixteen. My childhood (and even adulthood) prayers often began as a loving exchange with God but then transitioned into an anxiety-producing, obsessive pattern. Prayer wasn’t so much a conversation for me as a magical talisman. If I could repeat something often enough, and with enough vigor, perhaps it would come true. Perhaps the bad things wouldn’t happen. Perhaps my loved ones would stay safe.
I have vivid memories of lying in my bunk bed when I was very young, praying the same prayers over and over again with great fear and desperation. I would pray that no harm would come to me, my family, or my friends. I feared that if I didn’t pray enough or pray the right way, then something terrible would happen. (I often visualized a sparkling red dome of protection over the people I loved.)
Prayer, for me, was often more frightening than comforting. Sometimes prayer is still more frightening than comforting.
The Bible says to pray without ceasing (see 1Thessalonians 5:17), and people with OCD are really good at that. So what do you do when the Bible seems to line up with your mental illness? Because I have to believe that when the Bible says to pray without ceasing, it doesn’t mean compulsively praying the same words over and over again in an effort to break free from an obsessive thought spiral. This is something I struggle with to this day.
If I believe in the sovereignty of God, and I believe in the omnipotence of God, and I believe in the goodness and love of God, is prayer and petition a valuable part of the Christian life? I’m not talking about a conversational relationship with Jesus. In my mind, that’s different. Those words are not about asking or pleading or requesting.
If God has our ultimate good in mind, then I wrestle with the fevered desperation of prayer. If a baby is born terribly ill and the parents ask for everyone to pray for the healing of that child, of course, I will do so. But what does it say about the character of God if he disregards that child unless a certain number of people answer the call to prayer? If someone had prayed harder or more often or with more focus and passion, would the child’s life become more valuable to God? My gut and what I know about the heart of God say no, absolutely not. God’s interest in the eternal well-being of a child he created does not change based on the prayers or opinions of pleading people.
Do we who identify as Christians need to wrestle obsessively in prayer? I don’t think so. I hope not. I am still trying to figure out the answer to that question. I hope that prayer as the Bible describes it is more about communication, relationship, and love than it is about requests and fear.
So how does a person with OCD, particularly Religious OCD, make peace with this?
For example, some of my strongest OCD triggers are germs (contamination.) An ordinary flu season is completely terrifying to me, so you can imagine what a full year of a global pandemic has done to my mental health. For my entire life, I’ve been that stereotypical OCD person with dry cracked hands from too much washing, a pump of hand sanitizer always within reach, and unreasonable fear of people who are coughing, sniffling, or, God forbid, barfing. There are few things that trigger my anxiety and panic attacks like my child being sick. I have prayed and pleaded with God until I was sick to my stomach with anxiety to keep my child healthy and well.
To be completely honest, prayer scares me. For a person with OCD, prayer often becomes about my need to control a scenario to bring about the desired result, and that scares me. This makes prayer inherently stressful. There have been times I have needed to literally set prayer aside, trusting that Jesus has my ultimate good in mind.
The active, pleading, wrestling aspect of prayer is simply too much of a panic trigger for someone with my mental illness. I don’t know what this looks like for the rest of my journey as a person who loves Jesus and who has OCD, but I feel like these words might be important to somebody else who is struggling. Religious OCD is real and it can be incredibly traumatizing. So if that’s you, you are not alone.
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Kimberly Poovey is the founder of The Exvangelical Parent. She is a liberal misfit Enneagram 9 INFP who likes long walks on the beach, honey-habanero lattes, and Zoloft. After spending over a decade in the ministry world, she now writes and creates full-time. She lives with her partner of 15 years and their 5-year-old son in the mountains of North Carolina.