Intrusive thoughts about taboo or blasphemous topics can plague OCD sufferers. For those who are religiously inclined, it raises a critical question — does God forgive OCD thoughts?
Defining OCD Thoughts
OCD is a condition that is marked by the presence of obsessions or compulsions. Obsessions are thoughts, images, or impulses that cause immediate anxiety. Often obsessions are about a taboo topic, such as sex, sexuality, violence, blasphemy, or increasingly in recent years, racism. These are often called “intrusive thoughts.” Compulsions are things we do in response to an obsession in order to reduce anxiety or discomfort.
Intrusive Thought Examples
Intrusive thoughts, or “OCD thoughts,” often have shocking and offensive content that the person with OCD wouldn’t be proud of, and typically wouldn’t even agree with. For example, “old ladies are ugly!” or “Asian people are stupid!” or “God is an idiot!” Typically, these thoughts run counter to the belief system of the person having them — that’s why they’re so upsetting.
OCD thoughts like these are typically followed by anxiety and distress, and then by efforts to convince oneself that one is not sexist, racist, blasphemous or otherwise reprehensible. These efforts often involve thinking about how one has had very positive feelings toward old ladies / Asian people / God, as in the examples above. These mental efforts are compulsions.
So Does God Forgive Intrusive and OCD Thoughts?
The answer to this will depend on your religious tradition and beliefs. For purposes of this article, we will focus on the Western religious traditions only because they overlap significantly in their conception of God. The three major western religious traditions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism all include the same old testament. Some say that one of the main messages of the old testament is the importance of living according to God’s commandments.
What Exactly Makes Up a Sin?
The old testament introduces us to the ten commandments, of course. The ten commandments are largely about our behavior. They have become fundamental to Western civilization’s norms and civil law. The old testament does not emphasize our thoughts so much as what we do. This is also largely true in Islam. Islamic sins are primarily about action more so than our thoughts. For example, gambling, slander, and adultery are all sins in Islam, and they are all actions.
However, the new testament and some Islamic texts do address the relationship between sin and thought. For example, the quote below is from the gospel in the new testament:
“For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come–sexual immorality, theft, murder, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.Mark 7:21-23
This seems to suggest that thoughts defile us, but it also says “out of a person’s heart.” Thoughts are usually associated with the head. The heart is a metaphor more often used for our intentions and values. This distinction is an important one for those with OCD (more on this below).
In Islam, it is considered a sin to lose hope in the mercy of Allah or to have no fear of Allah. These phrases are about our thoughts and what is in our hearts. For those with OCD, it raises the question – is having one thought about losing hope in Allah the same as “losing hope?” It is not.
There is a difference between having a thought, believing something, and intending something.
The Important Differences Between Thoughts, Beliefs, Intentions, and Actions
Having a Thought
Having a thought about something is not necessarily a reflection of who we are, what we intend, what we believe, or what we do. You could be reading this right now and have the thought, “Penguins are evil!” — but that doesn’t mean you believe it or plan to act on it. In this case, it is reasonable to assume the spiritual implications of having a specific or random thought would be minimal.
Having a Belief
Having a belief that, say, “penguins are evil” is a different matter. It suggests that everything you’ve experienced in your life up until now has led you to conclude that penguins are evil. This would seem to be more of a reflection of who you are than just having a thought.
Having an Intention
Intending to harm penguins because you think they’re evil is a qualitatively different from having a thought or belief about penguins. It is more of a reflection of you, your values, and how you conduct yourself. This would seem to be closer to what the bible and Quran mean when they speak about something being “in your heart.”
Performing an Action
Action seems to be the step with the most spiritual consequence, and the step that Judaism, Christianity and Islam have the most to say about. Each religious tradition is replete with writing and tradition concerning which actions God will forgive and which actions God will not forgive.
So does God forgive OCD thoughts? The answer can be found in looking at what comprises a sin.
Some Christian thinking holds that God is willing to forgive any sin. In Judaism, among God’s divine attributes are forgiving and pardoning sin and having compassion toward those who have sinned. The Quran tells us that Allah is merciful and forgives all sins (Surah Az-Zumar [39:53-63]).
In all three traditions, sins are usually considered actions. Occasionally sins are beliefs or intentions. It is hard to find any examples, however, in any of the three major Western religious traditions of a specific thought being a sin, let alone of being a sin that God would not forgive.