July 5/6, 2014

OCD and the Death of the Christian

Johnathon Bowers | Colossians 2:20-23

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—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.Colossians 2:20–23


In our time together I would like us to consider what the Bible has to say about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, often abbreviated as OCD. But before we do that, I should probably explain why I’ve chosen this topic.

First, OCD may affect some of you listening to this message. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, about 2.2 million adults in America have the disorder.  If you do the math, that’s one percent, give or take, of the adult population. For children, the odds are reduced by half. So in a room this size, it’s safe to assume that a handful of you could identify with the symptoms I’ll describe in a few minutes.

Second, no one suffers or sins in a relational ghost town. Our dysfunction always affects other people. So in addition to those here who have OCD, we need to factor in the spouses, roommates, family members, friends, and co-workers who are regularly confronted with patterns of behavior that at times confuse, at times wound, and at times aggravate the stuffing out of them. What does a loving, firm, hopeful response look like in these circumstances?

Third reason: I have personally struggled with OCD, to one degree or another, since I was a teenager. So I have a keen interest in knowing whether Jesus offers me hope for change, whether the Bible can burn off some of the fog in my mental landscape. But I also approach this subject as an opportunity to boast in my weakness before you so that Christ’s power might shine more brilliantly and that you might rest in him more.

Reason number four: I think a subject like this gives us good reason to reflect on how we as believers should view mental health in general. For example, what is the relationship between the body and the soul? Is OCD or any other mental imbalance strictly a biological phenomenon, treatable with the right dosage of medication and behavioral therapy? Or are there spiritual issues lurking in the weeds? Can the fight for mental wholeness also be a matter of faith and repentance, of trusting the promises of God?

This question leads me into my final reason for taking up the subject of OCD. Whatever we conclude about the interplay between the gospel and neurochemistry, the desires and fears that drive a person with OCD are, at their core, common to us all: the desire for control; the longing to be acceptable to God, to be free of guilt; the fear of what other people think of us; fear of the future, of harm coming to us or our loved ones; a craving for perfection and order. To the degree that the Bible addresses these concerns, to that degree does the issue of OCD have something to say to all of us.

Now, a word about how this message is structured. I want to start by looking at OCD in greater detail. What is it? How does a person with OCD typically behave? Are there any physical causes of the disorder? Next, we’ll spend some time studying Colossians 2:20–23 and its surrounding context. What is Paul’s main concern? How does he apply the gospel message to the situation his audience is facing? Finally, we’ll conclude by bringing OCD under the scrutiny of Paul’s message to see how the death and resurrection of Christ changes the way we pursue sound minds. Would you pray with me?

OCD Explained

For better or worse, obsessive-compulsive disorder has made its way into popular culture as a label for someone who is uptight and fixated on detail. So a person could be OCD about his schedule or his budget or keeping his silverware neatly stacked. If that’s all it means to have OCD, then I suspect a lot more than one percent of adult Americans would qualify for the disorder. We all have our quirks, our eccentricities. For example, I have a strong aversion to throwing away tubes of toothpaste that are nearly empty. Seems wasteful to me. But the thing is, I’ll start using a new tube of toothpaste and leave the old one to gather dust in the drawer. It’s therapeutic. And it drives my wife nuts. Strange as this habit may be, it doesn’t certify me as obsessive-compulsive. It just certifies me as a doofus. So if that’s not OCD, what is?

A person with OCD typically has intrusive thoughts that cause a significant degree of anxiety and don’t seem to go away. They could be fears of contamination, of committing the unforgivable sin, of running someone over with your car or making a fool of yourself in public. These recurring thoughts are considered “obsessions” and make up half of the OCD equation. Mike Emlet of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation has called them “sticky thoughts.”  I think that’s a good description. Imagine you’re walking in the woods and your face passes through a spider web. You can’t just wish the stuff away. It has bonded with your skin and hair, and what’s more, it may have brought with it an unwelcome guest. So what do you do? You instantly morph into a hurricane of sanitation. That’s not unlike how someone with OCD feels. The obsessive thought appears, anxiety heightens, and you’ve got to do something about it or you feel like you’re going to crack. So you wash your hands, you circle around to where you think you may have run over someone, you count stair steps to exercise a semblance of control over your surroundings, and so on. This is the “compulsion” stage of OCD. Now, not all people with OCD demonstrate compulsive behavior like I just described. Some people have what’s called “pure O” or pure obsessive. But in many cases this is the pattern.

But here’s the catch: while the compulsion holds out the possibility of relief, it is a false refuge, a house built on the sand. Often, giving in to the compulsion only irritates the initial obsession. Think of it like a hornet in the kitchen. You’re threatened by its presence. You know it could really hurt you, maybe even kill you if you’re deathly allergic. So what do you do? You swat at it. But if you’re anything like me, your swat game is a D+ at best. You miss the hornet, and what’s worse, you’ve just made him mad. So you swat some more, and he starts insulting your mother, and on and on it goes until someone gets hurt. In the case of OCD, you never know if your hands are clean enough. Or if you missed a stair step when counting. So you do it again. And again and again and again.

This leads us into the question of causation. What makes the difference between a person who can check the locks once before leaving the house and another person who stands in front of the door for ten minutes (or longer) trying to assure himself that he isn’t leaving his home wide open for crooks? From a material standpoint, it appears that brain chemistry, genetics, and environment can all play a contributing role. 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. OCD can run in the family. It can begin manifesting itself after a period of intense emotional distress. Some children can even show symptoms after coming down with strep throat or scarlet fever. But despite all of these leads, no one has been able to identify an indisputable physical cause or explanation. Even if this were possible, it would only take us so far, because we would still have to deal with the deeper issue of our worship. Mike Emlet, again, says this:

While altered neurochemicals (serotonin and others) may indeed be part of the “bodily pressure” in OCD, there is no current way to prove this as “the ultimate cause.” Why? Because of the unity of the heart and body there will always be at the very least, biological correlation: a visible, measurable (more or less) connection between the spirit and the body…. While altered neurochemicals and neuroanatomic circuitry might predate and pressure us to respond in certain ways, it is equally possible that the state of our hearts—our thoughts and beliefs about God, ourselves, and the world around us—may influence and change the levels of neurochemicals in our brains.

So we would do well, I think, to see what God has to say about our hearts (and our bodies!) and allow that to govern the way we approach OCD. Turn with me to Colossians 2:20–23.

Connecting Colossians 2:20–23

The Apostle Paul begins our passage by reminding his readers that they have died with Christ “to the elemental spirits of the world” (2:20). So we should start by asking two questions. First, what are the elemental spirits of the world? Second, what death does Paul have in mind?

Let’s start with the first question about the elemental spirits. The phrase in the ESV translates one Greek word: stoicheion. It can be used to refer to the fundamentals of something, as in Hebrews 5:12, where the Christians need someone to teach them the “basic principles of the oracles of God.” In Colossians, stoicheion becomes associated with the material world—made up of the elements (earth, air, water, fire)—as a gateway to the spiritual realm. Notice how in Colossians 1:16 Paul explains that Christ is supreme over all created things, “visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities.” The enemies of the gospel in Colossians 2:18 are those who “insist … on asceticism [abstaining from bodily pleasure] and worship of angels.” Again, we see this interplay between the physical and the spiritual realms. It’s possible that those who Paul is warning against were Jews of some stripe who had a flair for the mystical and saw the material world as the domain of varying ranks of evil powers. They were in bondage to the elemental spirits of the world.

But let me also address my second question. Paul’s point in Colossians 2:20 is that the Colossians have died to the tyranny of the elemental spirits of the world. When? At the cross. Paul describes the crucifixion of Christ and the believer earlier in chapter 2 using two pictures, one surgical and the other financial. Through these pictures we see that the cross brings about both death and life. Let’s start with the surgery. In the death of Christ, the Colossians had their flesh cut from them. Not their literal flesh, as it was under the Mosaic law. Instead, this was a “circumcision made without hands” (v. 11). The flesh Paul has in mind here is the seat of sinful desire, the wellspring of “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness” (Colossians 3:5). When Christ put off his flesh in death—the flesh that bore their sins—the Colossians who were once alive in the world put off their flesh in the truest kind of circumcision.

But that’s not all. Yes, the Colossians had passed from life to death in Christ. But they had also passed from death to life. This brings us to the financial picture I mentioned a moment ago. Look with me at verse 13:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him.—Colossians 2:13

How did God make this new life possible? Look at verse 14: “[By] canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.” The Colossians had maxed out their moral credit cards with their sin, and it was time to pay up. But God, being rich in mercy, canceled the bill and made the creditors go home.

Let’s keep reading in verse 14. “This [the record of debt] he set aside.” How did he do that? “Nailing it to the cross.” As a result, verse 15 says, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities [think ‘elemental spirits’] and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”

So the rulers and authorities at one time had power over the Colossians, a power that was sustained by unforgiven sin. Perhaps the Colossians felt a deep sense of guilt and were driven to appease whatever cosmic forces they had offended. Jesus neutralized this oppression, however, by showing himself through his resurrection to be supreme over all creation. The Colossians were raised with Christ as well, removing whatever threat the elemental spirits posed.

Think of it as a situation of spiritual blackmail. It’s as though the rulers and authorities knew all kinds of dirty secrets about the Colossians, secrets they could wield to their own advantage. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus vindicated the Colossians and took them under his protection so they no longer had anything to fear.

There’s a scene in the movie “The Dark Knight” where a man named Mr. Reese discovers that the wealthy Bruce Wayne, who is secretly Batman, has been using the Research and Development department of his own company to provide him with weapons and other technology for fighting criminals. Armed with this information, Mr. Reese goes to the department head, Lucius Fox, and tries to make himself rich. With a look of triumph on his face, he tells Lucius, “I want ten million dollars a year for the rest of my life.” Lucius stares at him blankly and then says, “Let me get this straight. You think that your client, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands, and your plan is to blackmail this person? Good luck.” Mr. Reese fumbles around for words and leaves the office in a cloud of embarrassment.

That’s exactly what has happened to the elemental spirits of the world. They have no authority over Jesus or his followers. But the Colossians, it seems, had forgotten that. Look at Colossians 2:20 again. Paul writes, “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.”

Imagine if, the next day at the office, Lucius brought Mr. Reese a check for the amount he had demanded and did his best to avoid eye contact whenever they crossed paths. He would be acting contrary to reality, giving Mr. Reese obedience that he didn’t deserve.

That’s what the Colossians were doing by submitting to regulations. Does Paul mean any kind of regulation? No, he gives an example of what he means in verse 21: “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.” These regulations were probably similar to what we read about in 1 Timothy 4:3, where Paul describes people who “forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving.” What makes these kinds of regulations pointless is that they concern things that are powerless in themselves either to sanctify or to defile. Milk can’t keep itself fresh; how could it possibly protect you from spoiling? Paul makes this point in verse 22 of our passage: “referring to things that all perish as they are used.” These kinds of regulations do not come from God, but are instead “according to human precepts and teachings” (v. 22).

In verse 23, Paul continues his attack on this man-made system. He grants that these prohibitions look attractive on the surface: “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body.” People have a certain respect for those who devote their lives to denying themselves the comforts that most of us enjoy.

One of my favorite stories in this regard is Simeon Stylites. He was a man who lived in Syria in the 4th and 5th century AD. To get away from people and devote himself more completely to God, he determined to live on top of a pillar. According to accounts of his life, he stayed up there for 37 years. While this kind of behavior is certainly impressive, it is remarkably ineffective in the fight against sin. Yes, there is a place for self-denial in the Christian life. But Paul’s burden in Colossians 2 is that the kind of misdirected zeal the Colossians were attracted to can actually distract from the pursuit of holiness. The regulations, he writes, “have indeed an appearance of wisdom … but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (v. 23). Why?

In Mark 7, the Pharisees noticed that Jesus’ disciples ate their food without washing their hands. This impiety scandalized them, and they asked Jesus why he allowed it: “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders [remember the “human precepts and teachings from Colossians 2:22], but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:5). Jesus called them out on their concern, not because they were worried about uncleanness, but because they were looking for it in all the wrong places. He says in 7:15, “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.” He continues in verse 21: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery” and so on. “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:23).

So what does all of this have to do with OCD?

OCD and the Death of the Christian

I’ve titled this message “OCD and the Death of the Christian” because I think there is a profound connection between the cycle of obsessions and compulsions on the one hand and the self-made religion of Colossians 2. Moreover, I think that recognizing this connection allows believers with OCD to look to their death and resurrection in Christ for the power to create change at the heart level.

Now please hear me: I am not saying that things like medication or certain kinds of cognitive-behavioral therapy have no place in the believer’s struggle against OCD. I just want to make sure that we keep these strategies in their proper place. They manage symptoms. This is important and may be a necessary first step for people. But these strategies in themselves are unable to address the deeper issue of an anxious or fearful or guilt-ridden heart.

Another clarification: I am not arguing that the mere presence of obsessive thoughts and the temptation toward compulsive behavior necessarily involves sin. It may, but that’s a subject for another sermon. What I am saying is that Colossians 2 addresses how a person responds to those thoughts and those temptations. That response can be either sinful or righteous. The power of the gospel often meets us in our temptations, providing a way to endure faithfully. In other words, it is not inevitable that a Christian who struggles with OCD live his life in bondage to repetitive behavior, though he may fight it till the day he dies. There is hope in our Savior.

Having laid that groundwork, let’s try to connect the dots between OCD and Colossians 2. I think Paul gives us vocabulary here for understanding why the cycle of obsessions and compulsions is so ensnaring. Let’s say you’re plagued by the thought that you might misrepresent the truth about something and ruin your reputation. I’ve encountered this fear when it comes to reading an assigned text for a class I was taking. I had to report how much of the reading I had completed and so I wanted to make sure that I really read all of the chapter. So I’d be reading a sentence and my eyes might skip a word or I might not remember what the last sentence said. So I’d read it over again. In some ways, it felt noble to take the extra time to ensure I was giving an accurate report. But then I’d question myself again. Did I really read the sentence that time? And I’d start into a slow spiral leaving me re-reading the same section over and over again, driving me to tears in frustration.

What was going on? What was driving me? Well, on one level I wanted to be an honest student. That’s a good thing. God tells us in Ephesians 4:25 to speak the truth to our neighbor. But 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. (Did Jesus feed five thousand, or did he feed 4,902?)

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 had an appearance of wisdom to me. Who doesn’t want to be thorough? 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.

What was my true hope in that instance? 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 later in 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). 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-rounded 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 all your 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”—yes, even its illogical and repetitive ones—”and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”

Would you pray with me that God would be pleased to bring about some of that renewal even now?

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