A Christian Cure for OCD?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a puzzling, well-known mental disorder. Most people are familiar with its common outward symptoms, such as hand washing and stove checking. It bewilders and fascinates us because the beliefs and behaviors of its sufferers don't seem to make sense but nonetheless have a powerful grip on them. As its name implies, the condition manifests in repetitive, unpleasant thoughts that one cannot stop, and a compulsive behavior (e.g., washing, cutting, praying) meant to halt or subdue the thoughts. Then the cycle repeats itself.
There are plenty of books on how to treat OCD's symptoms, but few offer a distinctively Christian framework. So Can Christianity Cure Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?: A Psychiatrist Explores the Role of Faith in Treatment (Brazos) is special. Authored by Ian Osborn, who himself struggled with and overcame OCD, this book is unique for its three "case studies" of notable Christians. By examining the autobiographical accounts of Martin Luther, John Bunyan, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a popular 19th-century Carmelite nun, Osborn presents convincing cases that each struggled with OCD and overcame it through a deepening trust in God. This last point makes the book noteworthy, if not notorious, since the author is suggesting that Christian doctrine held the key to their cures.
Of greatest relevance to the author's argument is a newly developed cognitive treatment for OCD called "responsibility transfer therapy" (RTT). In this model, the OCD sufferer is encouraged to hand responsibility for the problematic behavior over to another person. So, for example, a sufferer may allow someone else to monitor whether the oven is turned off, so they don't have to obsess over whether it is. For reasons unclear, researchers have found RTT to be a successful form of treatment. Osborn conjectures that OCD sufferers may be helped by "transferring responsibility to God," so to speak — a significant, untested shift in the application of RRT, it must be said — and he suggests the three Christian giants found their cure by doing that.
Luther, Bunyan, and St. Thérèse were each deeply troubled at early stages in their lives by dark thoughts and a deepening awareness of their sinfulness, and performed frenzied actions to remedy those thoughts. Luther, for example, dragged his priest into hours-long confession marathons. When he felt he had confessed everything, he would start again from the top. In his slim autobiography, Grace Abounding, Bunyan chronicled his years-long battle with "floods of blasphemies" that would race through his mind and lead him to doubt his salvation. And, as a form of mortification, Thérèse went as far as to wear a scapular that cut into her chest with every movement. All of these actions, it could be said, were vain attempts by the sufferers to "cleanse" or "fix" their undesirable thoughts. But all three experienced profound shifts in their experience by trusting God. They realized they could not themselves address their sins before a holy God, but could "transfer responsibility" to Christ for their salvation and security, which provided rest and relief.