I was amazed to discover from David Adam’s new book just how many of us are plagued by intrusive thoughts. The man who couldn’t stop is a study of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder written by someone who knows the subject from the inside. A large percentage of us apparently have thoughts of throwing ourselves off a high building, or grabbing cash from the open till at the supermarket check-out, or crashing the car into a concrete bridge on the motorway. Bewildered, we keep quiet about these unwelcome impulses.
To someone with obsessive tendencies, intrusive thoughts can be a hellish torture, and sometimes religious faith far from bringing comfort makes things worse.
The sermon at church on Sunday was on the words of the passionate St Paul who knew both religious ecstasy and deep soul-searching. Scrutinising his heart, he is aware of his sinful tendencies, and exclaims in despair ‘O what a miserable person I am!’
Now there is a time for a realistic acknowledgement of our frailties and moral failings, but the obsessive Christian tends to obsess about his shortcomings. Intrusive thoughts confirm his settled conviction that he is a thoroughly bad person. He fears what he may have done and dreads what he might do. Surely, he reasons in despair, he can never be good enough for God?
I have personal experience of intrusive thinking - in particular back in the 1980s. I’d see a knife in the kitchen and would be afraid I might stab someone. A piece of rope in the road whispered that I could use it to end my life.
But as David Adam reminds us the very fact that thoughts like these abhor and horrify us shows that they do not express our true longings, and that we are most unlikely to act upon them. But the knowledge of this doesn’t diminish the terror they create.
Many Christians have shared stories of their struggle with obsessive thoughts. John Bunyan, the 17th century writerr suffered much thought-inflicted anguish, and wrote ‘Sometimes when I have been preaching I have been violently assaulted with thoughts of blasphemy and strongly tempted to speak the words with my mouth before the congregation.’ I know from personal experience exactly what he is describing.
I am now in a much, much better place than I was in the 1980s. Medication has helped, and I think is crucial for me. I had no formal therapy but through reading and thinking and talking with caring friends I think I walked the path on which Cognitive Behavioural Therapists now accompany their clients. CBT helps us understand the negative thinking which we mistakenly believe tells us the truth about ourselves and the world, and helps us discover – and releases us into - new ways of thinking and of seeing reality.
I used to regard intrusive thoughts as foul invaders, keeping me from God and from peace, to be resisted at all costs. But I have come to realise that the way to healing involves acknowledging that these thoughts do come from me, though they are not the whole truth about me and do not define me. Accepting that I am as I am is difficult but once I realise God accepts me as I am, such self-acceptance brings freedom.
Step by painful step we learn not to let the old ways of thinking think us, but to allow the story God tells to transform our thinking, a story of love coming among us as the Father in Jesus’ story ran to embrace his conflicted returning son. Who will rescue me? mused St Paul before exclaiming ‘Thank God the answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.’
This is the answer John Bunyan found, the ‘grace abounding’ which reached him in his pain. The same grace reaches out to us in our brokenness. Grace comes to us in the love of friends, the skill of therapists, the chemistry of medication, the integrity of those who show us the love of God. And the insistent clamour of intrusive thoughts grows still, grace whispers within us.
We all need this grace. I loved former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan William’s article in last week’s New Statesman. This fine, wise, godly Christian described how he begins each day spending half an hour in silent meditation repeating the Jesus Prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy upon me, a sinner.’ Not a ritual seeking to control obsession this, but a repeated pattern of response to the God whom Rowan meets in the still centre of his being, a place where God delights to be present.
If you are a fellow traveller struggling with obsessive thoughts, I wish you well. The God of grace journeys with us.
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 17th July 2014)