Sunday, May 28, 2006

Roman Catholicism and Classical Protestantism

I have been thinking about the differences between Roman Catholicism (RC) and Classical Protestantism (CP) quite a bit lately. I have had a few encounters with some friends and family that have prompted me to evaluate the differences and boil them down for communication to others. Most of the folks I have spoken to (or potentially may speak to) are Roman Catholic, though they are not theologians, they are not students of the Word of God, they are not familiar with what the Council of Trent was or what the main issues were during the Protestant Reformation. They are just regular folks who grew up Catholic and go to church every week like they were always taught.

The differences between RC and CP are completely unknown to them. They may notice some things, like that CP's don't really talk much about Mary and the pastors can marry and are not called "priests", but any of the real meat that divides us is really unknown to them. Thus, opportunities do arise every now and then when we as Protestants are afforded the opportunity to explain to them what the main differences are.

In that regard, we must be careful. First, we must be gentle and humble, because everybody knows that "religion" can be a touchy subject. While presenting these differences we have a grand opportunity to present the Gospel itself, so let us tell them the truth in love and humility. Second, we must be able to discuss the differences briefly and using simple language -we must be able to "boil it down" and give it to them in simple terms. This is absolutely essential. Most folks are under the impression that if lengthy explanation is needed, chock full of technical terms and other jargon that need to be defined, then the difference a) has little practical importance, and b) is more for "theologians" or some super-class of religious folks to argue over. I can tell the person about justification, but if I must then spend time defining all of these technical issues, it may be too much for our hearer to gather in one sitting. However, if we are able to get right to the heart of the matter and outline the main differences and their practical importance in a few brief statements (followed by explanation if needed) then we may have an audience who will come away informed and perhaps with something to chew on.

So, our preparation work is almost the reverse of how we would present it to another individual in conversation. We must collect all of the information for RC and CP, narrow down to the one or two most essential differences, and then boil those down to simple points and simple language: simple principles that can be expressed clearly. Then, when the opportunity arises, we can work in reverse -beginning at the simple statements and expanding out where necessary. The key, however, is to not deviate from those simple principals. Rabbit trails will abound and the conversation will end up far from where we started if we do not keep it focused upon those key issues.

Another thing to consider is that if we are trying to outline the differences then this is not exactly the same thing as mounting a defense. The last thing you want to do is make the person you are talking to, who is probably ignorant of these issues, feel attacked. Present the differences first and then proceed to give details if the conversation leads that way. In my honest opinion, the first step should be simply to articulate that there are differences, that the differences are large, and that the differences impact real life.

All of this said, below is my attempt and explaining the major differences that divide RC and CP:

First, RC and CP differ over their understanding of authority. This means that they differ over who or what is the God-given authority over Christians -to tell us what to believe, to tell us how to live, etc. RC teaches that the Roman Catholic magisterium (the pope and bishops, etc.) is directly linked to the apostles and has the authority to define what it is we are to believe, what the Bible says, and what other things we are to do and believe that are perhaps not explicitly found in the Bible. CP teaches that the Bible alone has the ultimate authority to bind the conscience, tell us what to believe, and tell us how to live, and that it is sufficient to do so.

Both RC and CP believe that the Bible is the Word of God. However, they differ significantly over who or what serves as the ultimate authority over faith and practice. If we don't know who or what is our binding authority, how will we know what to believe or how we are to live? Indeed, this major difference shows itself in some of the differences in beliefs, such as the most significant one which follows.

Secondly, and more pointedly, RC and CP differ over their understanding of how a person is forgiven and found acceptable before God. A short way to phrase the issue is: "Upon what grounds is a person assured of heaven?" Can people, being sinners, be accepted into God's holy presence? Obviously there is nothing more practical than this. If we are living our lives in some kind of religion that leads us astray, and we are not, in the end, found acceptable in God's sight, then all of our religious activity was completely in vain. We were the worst of fools!

RC teaches that a person is acceptable to God partly based upon God's mercy or "grace" in Jesus and partly based on the person being good, being "righteous". This happens through the person receiving the sacraments of the RC Church and thereby cooperating with God's help in becoming good and staying good. On the other hand, CP teaches that if our acceptance before God was ever based, even in part, on something in us, no person would ever be accepted by God because even our best is tained with sin. CP teaches that our acceptance before God is through embracing, by faith alone, the death of Christ as being sufficient to pay for our sins, cover them, and count us "right" in God's sight. The basis for our standing of acceptance is what Jesus did, only, which we merely stand upon as a gift of God.

When you boil it all down, RC teaches that acceptance before God is ultimately deserved (ie. If you cooperate enough, you go to heaven; if you don't, then you don't), and CP teaches that acceptance before God is a free gift based upon what Jesus did or not at all. As you can see, these two systems are mutually exclusive. If one is right, then the other is woefully wrong and is misleading many down a horrible path.

Now, I have left out a lot. I have left out the teachings about Mary, prayer to deceased "saints", the priesthood, celibacy in the priesthood, Papal infallibility, the details of the RC baptism/penance sacramental system of justification, etc. I have highlighted the two most critical issues and stuck to the most critical and basic principles for each of them. What is interesting to note, however, is that these smaller issues such as the Marian dogmas, for example, and the Penance system, serve to underscore these two main differences. They both bring out the differences in authority and beliefs regarding acceptance before God.

Before I finish, it might be good to point out some of the similarities. Both RC and CP teach that Jesus is God the Son, that God is a Trinity, that the Bible is infallible and inspired by God, that there is a hell, that sin is real, that people are born sinners, and that there will be a final judgment. Though these similiarities are very real, the differences are too significant to ignore. We must note in passing that RC teaches that CP teaches heresy, and CP teaches that RC teaches heresy. The differences I have outlined form the major basis of these charges. This means, unfortunately, that there is no reconciling the two. The teaching of one excludes the teaching of the other on these very important issues.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

OCD: Part 2

I just wanted to take a few moments to write down a few things regarding my OCD. Hopefully it might be of some benefit to someone -even myself if I ever come back to read it. The backdrop for this post is a previous post I did on my suffering with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It can be found here.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, like other anxiety disorders, makes life very difficult at times. One of the ways we sufferers cope with it is to start cutting things out of our lives that provoke the most anxiety. This is because our biggest desire is to be free from the enslaving terror, adrenaline surges, constant inner tension and stress. So, a very natural (though not terribly good) way is to just avoid those things that give way to obsessing and anxiety.

With people who suffer from scrupulosity (OCD latching onto our spiritual lives), this can be extremely common. In fact, I just realized I have been doing it with a number of things -certain doctrines, certain phrases, certain "areas" where I won't let my thinking go to. I have even thought of avoiding going to church a number of times, especially on a day when we are to celebrate the Lord's Supper.

At first it seems like the wisest choice. We want this to go away so badly that we will do almost anything to keep the symptoms under control. And truly, completely avoiding those things does usually curb the symptoms quite a bit. However, I have noticed that I end up feeling almost numb. I couldn't figure out why for the longest time, but I think I finally get it -and to the outside observer it probably seems obvious.

When you follow this route, your world becomes smaller and smaller. Your "Christianity" becomes smaller and smaller. It becomes reduced to a manageable set of ideas with manageable communion with God, but it ends up cuttingn out often the best parts of our faith -the best doctrines, the best fellowship (which we all desperately need), the best and deepest communion and joy with Christ -all because when we venture into those things we become overwhelmed with the obsessions. It takes away the things that make life hard and obsessional, but it also takes away the things that make our life joyful and deep.

I don't necessarily think that it is terrible to do this short-term. I should point that out! So, if you are doing that because you need to take a break and get your bearings then please don't read this and feel guilty. It might be the only way to gain some perspective so that understanding and treatment can take root (cognitive treatment), but in the long-term it is not a way to live. Once we begin gaining that perspective on our OCD and seeing how to combat it (which is not the way we would instinctively combat it), we must slowly go back and "re-claim" those things -attacking each obsession, one-by-one.

There are a variety of opinions regarding how we treat these things, especially within the Body of Christ. As I have noted previously, some people say "it is the devil doing it", so we must resist the thoughts, (reminds me of the "momma" in that movie, The Water Boy, with Adam Sandler), and some say that we just need to stop the obsessing because the Bible says we aren't to worry. Both of these groups may truly mean well, but I believe they are sorely mischaracterizing things. The whole thing that keeps these obsessions going is our constant attempts to stop and suppress them! In that regard, the thing that keeps the obsession going is a natural reaction to perceived danger. I'm not saying there are absolutely no spiritual issues involved. I'm saying it is not binary, not one or the other. For example, some of my OCD is fueled by perfectionism. When it get right down to it, I have come to see my perfectionistic tendencies as idolatrous, involving pride, and involving fear of man. There are often pretexts to our obsessions, for sure.

I think it is important to recognize any spiritual pre-texts and also to adopt a new method of handling the obsessive cycle. The first step in adopting the new method involves cutting yourself a little bit of slack and stepping up to reality: acknowledge that you are obsessing. I don't mean you need to like it, I don't mean that you need to accept the content of the obsessions. I mean accept the fact that you are obsessing, you are stuck in an obsession over something. Accept the anxious thought, the worry itself. "I am worrying about whether or not I have faith, again." This can be extremely hard to do because we don't want to worry, so we perceive acceptance as "giving in", but it isn't. We see it as unacceptable, admitting defeat, admitting that we "don't have faith", using the example just cited. So, our instinct is to push it out so as to try to maintain the "peace" we have. However, acceptance is actually the first step in short-circuiting the obsessive cycle.

This might be the point where some will hold up their Bibles and say, "Accepting the obsession? But that isn't in Scripture!" Let me note in passing that you would be hard-pressed to find a more forceful proponent of Sola Scriptura, but that does not mean Tota Scriptura. "Scripture Alone" doesn't mean that Scripture tells us everything about everything. It means Scripture is sufficient to be our God-given authority. I will say two things about this.

First, these cognitive treatments recognize how the obsessive cycle works and use logic to diffuse it. Is logic opposed to God's truth? Isn't God the source of all logic? Yes, He is. Logic is a tool give to us by God, and it is consistent with God. Anyone who has sought to defend the faith against unbelievers knows this.

Second, I will be honest and say that I have not done exhaustive study in the Scriptures to see if there is a conflict between these treatments for OCD and God's Word. However, I have also not studied to see if the Scriptures teach that exercise helps promote a healthy heart or if antibiotics are ok to take in order to kill an infection. I am not saying they are the same thing. I am saying that we take these things for granted without so much as crying foul.

I do believe, however, that these treatments do not conflict with (and are often in line with) the elements of the Gospel, especially in regards to scrupulosity. For example, the whole idea of accepting the worry, as believers, leads us to be honest with and depend upon God. Rather than hold it within and try to beat it ourselves by suppression (which promotes obsessing), it fosters relationship with God through openness, acknowledging that we are but dust, confused, worrisome, and dependent upon Him. The whole idea that we need to hold it in and deal with it because it is "forbidden" is what keeps the obsessing going. Acceptance is perhaps better stated as "being honest about ourselves", and that leads us to come before God in dependence -something which is our right through Jesus Christ.

For example, if someone is having constant intrusive thoughts that curse God, they feel, "I must not think these thoughts! I don't want to curse God!" and in trying to suppress them the thoughts are only stronger, as is the anxiety. The suppression only reinforces the cycle. Why not, instead, accept that you are worrying about those thoughts, why they are there, what they mean, and tell God this? "My God, these thoughts are horrible. I don't want to think them, but they are there. I don't know what they mean or why they are here, and I am worried that they mean I want to curse you. I am worrying, my God." The Gospel says we have access to the Father through Christ, like this. Compare that to what would normally happen. We would become terrified, thinking that God will hate us or we will kill our relationship with God if we let these unwanted thoughts survive one more second, so we try to suppress them. We try to get more "serious" about them, thinking we must be stronger, and then only seeing that we fail all the more. We would start believing that our relationship with God must be non-existent, otherwise we would not be like this. We would start closing in on ourselves more and more, thinking that we must do something, begging God to take the thoughts away, pleading, obsessing over them for hours and spending hours on our prayer rituals -not realizing that the more we try to suppress them the stronger they become. We become ruled by them, and our lives become a living hell. No peace with God exists in the conscience, and our emotions are completely spent. Do you see the difference? The latter only reinforces this false fear that the "impurity" will cut us off from God. It fosters a kind of works-righteousness, and it reinforces our practice of concealing and suppressing and self-reliance rather than going to God as little children. In a sense, we are trying to "prove ourselves" to be something we think we should be. It is antithetical to the Gospel, which is, by its very nature, for sinners -those who cannot help themselves.

I know that for us "scrupers", the Gospel is needed desperately because our obsessions revolve around our relation to God. The Gospel answers that "pre-text" I mentioned above. It answers "why" we can dismiss the thoughts that normally provoke obsession -because of the grace of God in Christ, because of the safety that is in Christ.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Why We Don't Do Altar Calls and Give Invitations in Worship

In order to answer this question, I feel we must first ask a few other questions. In answering these, I hope it will become evident, even if you disagree, as to why we do not embrace any type of altar call or invitational system in our worship services.

What is the worship service meant for?

Perhaps another way to ask the question is, "Who is the worship service meant for?" In the New Testament we see the "worship services", which include things such as assembling together, fellowship, the breaking of bread (Lord's supper), the preaching and teaching of the Word, and the singing of hymns and spiritual songs, as being a gathering of believers. The Greek word for Church, ekklesia, actually means "the ones called out". Our modern-day "worship services" are meant to be an assembly of "the ones called out" in the worship of our Lord. We are the ones who have access to God, through Christ, and we are the ones who are a "kingdom of priests".

In the Old Testament it was not really any different, in principle. The people of God would gather together to worship. The "worship services" were not used as evangelistic tools to invite outsiders in. Of course, this is not meant to neglect the fact that in every congregation there are likely unbelievers present -be it because they are false professors of the faith or simply "guests". In either case, we are not to tailor the worship of God by His people to those who do not know Him. It is, after all, a "service" of "worship" from God's people to God. It is the people of God serving, lifting up God, being humbled before Him, extolling His greatness, and rejoicing in Him. It is to be about God far more than it is to be about us.

Certainly unbelievers are welcome. We would absolutely never discourage unbelievers to come, and we should pray that the Holy Spirit would use the Word of God in their hearts just as we pray it does in ours -though for their conversion, first.


Does this mean the Gospel is not to be preached in the congregation?

By no means! The Gospel is to be proclaimed regularly, for the Gospel is for Christians as well. The Gospel is not just a doorway for the unbeliever. It is the foundation of the Christian life, and we need to hear it over and over. In Paul's epistle to the Romans, for example, Paul talked about how he wanted to visit the Romans to preach the Gospel to them -to believers! All of this said, it is important that we qualify what we mean by "the Gospel".

In the age we live in, it is very typical to think of the Gospel as a formula. Many of the evangelistic tracts we hand out cater to this idea. We have the "Four Spiritual Laws", for example, and most of the tracts we read, most of the websites we visit, and most of the "invitations" we hear follow that same motif. The Gospel is seen as a bullet-by-bullet list of things you must assent to followed by some activity we perform: either saying a prayer of commitment, coming forward, raising our hand, etc. Let me be the first to say that God draws straight lines through crooked paths and has used those means to expand His kingdom, but we must realize that this is not the way the apostles proclaimed the Gospel, and we must admit that just because God can mercifully use something doesn't mean it is good or right. Some of these formulae are so scant that one seriously wonders if the hearer has any concept of their sin before a holy God, their need for Jesus, and that salvation is by Him alone. A cursory reading of the book of Acts shows us that, while there are common and specific elements among the content of the apostles' preaching, it is not constrained to a disjunct, formulaic checklist to be followed. It was proclaimed and unfolded as news, not a quick pill to be handed out to pagans and swallowed. Likewise, we see in the Scriptures that the only "response" spoken of is the abandonment of our self-salvation and embracing of Christ crucified as our hope, according to God's sure promise. We would do well to be wary of anything that would, even with good intentions, possibly confuse that or add to it.

To illustrate, we are familiar with the fact that some teach the Gospel in terms of "making a commitment to Christ". While it is true that it would be difficult (and un-Biblical) to imagine someone as being a believer and not being committed to Christ, it must also be stated that no man is saved by his commitment. What level of commitment is good enough? Have we committed ourselves enough? Are we sincere enough? This obscures our need for a Savior who has done it all. These invitational systems that call us to perform some activity can truly mislead and result in disillusionment.

Certainly there are many who have believed they are saved just because, in an emotional expression, they made a religious commitment, walked an aisle, prayed a prayer, or cried profusely during a beautiful song about Jesus. To be mislead about the state of our soul is a horrible thing! We have also all heard of people who "tried Christianity". They "got saved" when they were 12 years old, by coming forward at an altar call and making a "decision for Christ", but later rejected Christ after seeing no change and many unmet expectations. Were they really saved? The Bible says "no"; they were mislead about what the Gospel is and how a man is saved. They were lured to something, but it wasn't Christ, and they were lured by something, but it wasn't the Word of God pointing out their need for salvation from sin.

Such ideas, again being well intentioned, confuse the fact that we are saved purely by Christ through embracing His saving work. We need to hear about our real need, Jesus Christ, and God's free promise, not about what we can do. The whole point of the Gospel is that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. The basic principle is that if we wish to point to something we did, we are not pointing to a solid foundation at all. It is as the great hymn goes,



My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus' blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
but wholly lean on Jesus' name.


Now, if a man wishes to express outwardly what has taken place in his heart then that is fine and well -let him be baptized instead!

It is also important to point out that whole practice of "altar calls" is less than 200 years old. The altar call and similar invitational systems became popularized through the revivalist ideas of men like Charles Finney, who believed you could create revival and bring people to faith through the right combination of human ingredients -such as emotional music, sentimentalism, and messages that are meant to produce emotional responses. The idea was that if you can produce what appears to be the proper response through these methods, then they are saved. This is because men like Finney believed that conversion is a natural matter, not a supernatural one. The spiritual fallout from that "revival" was horrible.

Sadly, that belief is still prevalent today. This is seen in such abuses as churches planting people in the crowd who are previously directed to come forward and "prime the pump" during the invitation, making it easier for others coming forward when they see the movement toward the front. Here we again see the idea that if we can humanly produce what seems to be the right response, if we get a count of the number of decisions made, we are saving souls. Are some saved? Certainly. Do the churches mean well? Yes, but neither of these make it right.

We, on the contrary, believe that God uses the preaching of His Word to bring people to Christ by the agency of the Holy Spirit applying it to the heart. We believe that it is not by the eloquence of the preacher or anything we produce (1 Cor 1), but it is purely by God's Word going out and being applied by the Holy Spirit. Conversion is supernatural, and the means God uses in performing it is the proclamation of His truth. There is comfort in that. We can preach the Gospel as clearly as we know how and trust Him for the results rather than create all kinds of human mechanisms and foolishly rely upon them to build Christ's Church. We can send missionaries and trust in God's providence to use their faithfulness, knowing that God ordains the means as well as the ends.

In short, we do not give altar calls and such because not only are they not found in Scripture, but we believe them to be based on un-Biblical premises. A man once asked the great 19th century preacher Charlies Spurgeon why he did not use altar calls and the like. They said that Mr. Spurgeon must "strike while the iron is hot." To this he replied, "If God heats the iron, then it will stay hot." Spurgeon is a profound testimony to the faithfulness of God in using the simple preaching of men to save without the use of human additions.


Then how is it that we preach the Gospel to the congregation if not in this way?

We believe that we do preach the Gospel every week, and we should. How? The Gospel is present through the ministration of God's Word, which, by the use of God's Law, humbles us and reminds us of our need for His mercy, and by the news of Jesus, His Person, and God's grace to us in Him which is found throughout the Bible. Truly, the Bible is all about Christ and our need for Him, so when it is faithfully preached, the Gospel is present. Hence, it is through ordinary preaching that the principles of the Gospel are proclaimed, provided we are rightly dividing the Word of God (for we can all attest that some can preach a sermon on a text of Scripture and leave the hearer in a moralistic stupor rather than humbled before God by being instructed in His beautiful ways and gratefully resting in Christ). Second, the Gospel is present in our corporate prayer and singing of songs. In such things the same elements of being humbled before God, seeing our need for His mercy, the good news of His grace in Christ, and our gratitude toward Him should be expressed if the right attitude is in place and the worship songs are selected carefully. Lastly, the Gospel is present in the sacraments -specifically, the Lord's Supper. The breaking of bread and sharing of the cup is a symbolic restatement of the Gospel, and that is for the enjoyment of believers.


What is the place of evangelism?

The evangelism of unbelievers is certainly to take place within the context of the Church (all believers) through our Lord's commission to us as believers, but not primarily in the worship service. The Body (the Church) can help organize such efforts through local congregations by means of sending missionaries and providing a forum and framework for discipleship, but these things are not to be confused with the people of God assembling to worship God. Likewise, parents are to teach and evangelize their children, and all believers are to go out and teach others about Christ. Keeping evangelism outside of the worship service does not hinder evangelism. It puts it back into its proper place. This is not to say that one cannot be evangelized within the context of a worship service. There is nothing wrong with the preacher addressing the unconverted in the congregation and warning them of their danger outside of Christ, but this does not mean we need to reserve the last 5-10 minutes of the service for the performance of emotion-inducing music and an invitation for people to come forward out of their seats and receive Jesus. If they hear the Word of God, are crushed by their sin, and see Christ as the only Solution, then can they not embrace Him by faith right where they are?


Conclusion

We can restate our reasons for avoiding invitational systems for the following reasons:

1. They are not found in Scripture.
2. They are based upon un-Scriptural beliefs about the purpose of communal worship.
3. They are based upon un-Scriptural beliefs about the nature of conversion.
4. The are based upon the idea that the Gospel is something of a formula or "pill" to be given to pagans.
5. They can obscure and confuse the Gospel, resulting in sinners potentially being misled or disillusioned about what it is to be a Christian and believe in Christ.
6. They are not needed because our God is faithful to use the plain proclamation of His message from His Word to convert sinners.

You are right in insisting that the Gospel should be present during every worship service, but I just hope to gently point you to the fact that the way in which this has been done historically does not include altar calls and the like. Due to the prevalence of thinking today which holds that worship services should be geared toward the unsaved and that a type of invitation/altar call system is necessary for the Gospel to truly be preached, we recognize that we are a minority. However, we believe that our approach is more consistent with what the Scriptures teach in those areas, even if it means that we are unconventional in that regard.

I hope this is sufficient to answer your question, and I hope that you are persuaded according to God's truth. If, according to the Scriptures, you find us in error in this then by all means show us. It is truly welcome, as are questions such as these. It is good that we have a common aim toward His truth, praise God.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

10 Desires of My Soul

Here is just a quickie of some things weighing on my heart. It was first going to be a list of about five things, but as I typed it quickly grew. This is somewhat revealing, but my guess is that I'm not alone in these desires.

Anyway, here they are:

1. That my goal would be to love the Lord Jesus rather than to be made to feel loved and special by others.

2. That I would rejoice in Him, treasure Him more, adore Him more, and worship Him more every day.

3. That I would be on fire for His glory and not my own.

4. That I would absolutely cherish humility and being "nobody".

5. That things I write or say would be seasoned with grace and for the building up of others in Christ and not the building up of my self-esteem.

6. To have greater faith in Him and His Word and to know that I am His with sweet assurance.

7. To be content with little, and to be content with where I am at every moment -even when I struggle, spiritually; not that I would be content in darkness, but that I would be content in His sovereign care... waiting, trusting, giving thanks in the midst of it.

8. To know the beauty of the cross more and to know, deep in my heart, that His blood was shed specifically for me.

9. To be drenched in the Holy Spirit so much so that the love of Christ would constrain me and overflow to all of those around me.

10. That I would be more of a firm, gracious, generous, self-sacrificing yet willling and grateful servant, husband, father, and priest for my wife and children.


May the God of all grace shine His grace upon us in the face of His Son and into our hearts. May we know the riches of His grace toward us in Christ Jesus. May we know patience and wait for Him, for He is good and hears us -all for the sake of that blood.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

My Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

For the vast, enormous, immense audience of readers who frequent this blog, you may or may not know that I suffer and struggle every day with something that is called Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Some people believe these types of "disorders" to be a clinical cover-up for sinful behavior. Some, to the other extreme, consign them completely to the realm of "chemical imbalances" and dismiss any type of related emotional, moral, or spiritual issue. Still others, though a minority, insist upon demonic or satanic influence. As for OCD, I do not know what the cause is, to be honest. After reading about it and personally suffering with it for years, I do not believe it to be sinful in itself (ie. the content of the unwanted obsessions are not sins, themselves, particularly because they are so unwanted!), but I do believe there is often a spiritual component and cannot neglect the emotional or possibly physical components, as well. There is no blood test for it -it is diagnosed purely by its horrible symptoms. The one thing I know for sure is that OCD is very real and very invasive.

Most OCD sufferers live in silent despair. I have met a number of Christians, ones I am blessed to be convinced are true believers, who live every day in turmoil, silently, because they are ashamed and not wanting to explain this to their family member and members of the Body of Christ. The fear is that they will be misunderstood, judged, or relegated to a group of people who are just really "weak in their faith". And many of these fears are probably justified -particularly because most people, not only Christians, don't have a grasp of what OCD is and, sadly, many Christian counselors don't either. I recall one individual I know who revealed their horrible obsessions to their Christian counselor only to be met with blank stares and unease.

OCD is characterized by repetitive, intrusive, unwanted thoughts, feelings, images, or impulses that trigger a high amount of anxiety and are usually met with some type of repetitive behavior which is done in an attempt to quell the high levels of anxiety. The anxiety and obsessing really obscures reality such that you can't "see" things that you otherwise know to be true. The brand of OCD that attacks spiritual issues is often called "scrupulosity".

For me, personally, I am a pure mental obsessor. Some people obsess about more physical things (contamination with germs, touching things the "right way", etc.) I obsess over Christian doctrine and salvation, mostly. It is the strongest obsession with me because God's truth, and being saved by Christ, are by far the most important things to me. There is nothing more horrible to me in all the world than being separated from Jesus Christ. OCD is great at attacking that which is the most critical to you.

I have said to myself before, "I wish I knew why it seems so easy for others to believe and rest in Christ, yet for me it is so hard." I realize two things: 1) That is sort of a myth. Every believer has a struggle, a battle on their hands. and 2) The particular reason is that the "normal" person can hear an explanation of something, such as the Gospel, see a general correspondence with the Scriptures, and take comfort in it without being pressed to go any further. I am not able to do that, much of the time. The perfectionistic obsessions are so strong that I can't just "leave it", and the microscope gets focused in tighter and tighter until I can't see anything at all anymore. It is the proverbial "can't see the forest for the trees". I realize that I don't need to have perfect knowledge, that even a warped presentation of the Gospel can be "sufficient" for the Holy Spirit to save with, yet knowing and experiencing are often two different things. That is another part of OCD -at some point the OCD sufferer realizes that the obsessions are silly, unrealistic, and at best exaggerated, but they still lack the capacity to stop. It is actually the process of trying to stop the thoughts and anxiety that reinforces the obsessive cycle. Mental analysis and written analysis are often "compulsions' for me -things done in an attempt to find my way out of the maze, but the process only serves to concrete myself more deeply in it. That is another hallmark of OCD.

In that support group for OCD I used to be in we had a common way of describing OCD. We called it the "polar bear principle". It works like this: try as hard as you can to NOT think about a polar bear for 5 seconds. What happened during that 5 seconds? The harder you tried to NOT think about a polar bear, the more the thought of a polar bear is stuck in your mind. Now, add some high levels of anxiety to the mix. Imagine there was a guy with a brain-meter that could see what you were thinking and he was holding a gun to your head and saying, "If you think about a polar bear, I will blow your head off. Do NOT think about a polar bear!" It would be impossible to do. So, that is how it is for OCD. It is a paradoxical mental trap. The OCD person has no recourse by trying to stop the thoughts, which are really just mental noise that normal folks just dismiss without thinking. The OCD person, instead of dismissing the thought, gets fixated upon it because of how much anxiety it produces. The OCD person, using the Polar Bear analogy, would then start to worry, "I must WANT to die, because why else would I not be able to stop thinking about Polar Bears when this guy is threatening to shoot me if I do!"

So how does this translate to me and my obsessions. Well, using the example of my obsession with grasping the Gospel accurately, I might know full well that I do not need perfect knowledge to be saved, nor do I need a perfect articulation of the Gospel, but you would be amazed at what an unwanted sense of isolation and potential "lost-ness" does in motivating you to focus right in and check, check, check, over and over, to make sure the Gospel you know is the Gospel and that you "believe in Christ". The more fervently I try to dig my way out of it or debate and argue with this unwanted sense of lost-ness, the more immersed in it and blinded by it I become. It comes over and against any sense of peace that I have in Christ, attacking it, wearing at its foundation. The anxiety and confusion is almost unbearably intense. The illogical nature of it is seen best in occasions where I lend some counsel to someone hurting in the Gospel or explain it to someone. I can explain it clearly and, by God's grace, with power (see them lifted up, by the Spirit of God), yet that self-same message is "unsure" to me because of the persistent "sense" that attacks me and pushes me to check and re-check to perfect it. It is much akin to the common example of the "light-switch" where the OCD person has to come back and keep checking the light-switch and touching it to get the "completed" feeling, so that they can move on. The funny thing is that all of this exists as a layer over what is truly there in reality and in the heart. This is why I prefer to describe it as "blinding". When the obsessions fade for a spell, I realize that Christ was never gone, that all is well, that I am His, that He has called my by name as His sheep.

I have noticed that doctrine does make some difference, but only to a certain degree. For example, "scrupulosity" is often associated with being a "Roman Catholic" disease. With all respect and concern to those individuals who are Roman Catholics, this is well understood given Rome's teachings on justification. Who wouldn't be terrified if they were constantly under the gun of maintaining their justification through their own purity? But it is not found only among Roman Catholics. The next highest group, in my experience, is among those from charismatic backgrounds. I can't include all charismatic circles, but the high emphasis on "cooperation" in salvation and subjective impressions from God in our feelings that is characteristic among many (though, not all) charismatic groups is, logically and in my personal experience through talking with some individuals, a huge stumbling block. It seems to feed a tendency to obsess over our own personal purity and the quality of our feelings -or whatever standard of "right-ness" we are holding to. However, there are also many among more Biblically orthodox schools of thought who suffer. You can have a very orthodox presentation of justification, of the Gospel, of Christ, of God's sovereignty in salvation, and yet be absolutely destroyed by this daily. Why? Because, as we saw earlier, you can know that the obsessions aren't based on reality, but that doesn't make them stop. You can reason your way out of it to anybody who is suffering from it, but in yourself it is a different story. You can know the truth very well, believe it somewhere deep down, and still be enslaved to this beast of blindness, isolation, and fear.

All that said, I do still believe that the Gospel is the remedy for this constant sense of "not-right-ness" within us that we obsess to try to fix. I am not talking about a perfectly articulated formula for the Gospel. I am talking about the principles of Law and grace that undergird the Gospel. This is one reason why I am an adimant advocate of clear teaching of the Gospel -again, not a perfect articulation, but a regular, consistent proclamation of grace to the needy. I am adimant about it being clearly preached, regularly, to God's people in the context of worship and the proclamation of the Word. I reject the idea that the Gospel is just for getting pagans to be believers. The Gospel is the lifeblood of the Church, and I believe it needs to be heard regularly. Purely practical preaching is great, but even in the most practical of matters there is the potential for being swept into the presence of God in all of our sinfulness and having that hot coal being brought to our lips in the proclamation of grace. I am not talking about having an invitation at the end of every service. I am talking about a clear representation of our sinfulness under God's Law and the proclamation of life for the sake of Christ's death and resurrection. Anyway, I must stop before I continue to digress...

So, this is a brief summary of my struggle. I deal with it in some measure every single day. It seeks to rob me of my peace every day almost without exception. Some days are more calm, many more days are wrought with inner turmoil, yet every day it is there in some degree. Most days I awaken with anxiety, a tightness in my chest, for no real reason whatsoever. At that time, I don't even know what I'm really anxious about... yet.

I am sure, for me, there are many tangential issues: perfectionism, perhaps some unbelief, relying upon my own understanding, etc., which I am daily in prayer about. I cannot relegate it purely to being a physical affliction, yet a real affliction it is -a terribly crippling one that is emotionally exhausting and prone to make us isolated and self-absorbed. It is an affliction I have borne for about 6-7 years now. There were times when the anguish was so bad that I would lay on the floor in my closet with the door closed and just put my face to the carpet and cry. I have improved with it and learned much, especially about God's grace, but sometimes I am just purely laid out flat and can barely raise my brow.

What can I do but press on one day at a time, depending upon God's grace to get me through? It sounds really stupid to me, and I am often ashamed because there are so many who suffer with such horrible things (death of loved ones, poverty, terrible illness, persecution, etc.), and this thing is literally "all in my head". I ask the reader to know that I am not writing this for pity, but for information for you, for encouragement to fellow-sufferers, and for a personal release for me. I have tried to articulate to people in the past about what this thing is, but I am not sure that I have done so adequately. I hope this serves at least as a primer. I pray God would establish me and give me victory over this, but I must realize that it may be that I suffer with this for the rest of my life. If that is the case, then I pray that God would be merciful and, in time, lessen its grip, even if its group does not completely disappear in this life. Whatever it is, I know that it is for the glory of God somehow, since He has so ordained it. That is good to reflect upon.