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Idolizing Certainty in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I have with me Dr. Keith Palmer. He’s the associate pastor of Grace Bible Church. He served there in that capacity since July of 2002. He and his wife Lisa have been married since December of 2000, and they have three children—Alan, Amy, and Eric. Keith is a graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with an electrical engineering degree. He’s a graduate also of the Master’s Seminary with a Master of Divinity and also Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with Doctor of Ministry. He’s also working to complete his PhD at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He’s a fellow, which means he’s one of our supervisors here at ACBC and he’s also a board member. He’s an adjunct instructor in Biblical Counseling at The Master’s University and a chaplain in the Civil Air Patrol—the auxiliary of the United States Air Force. His passion in ministry is studying and teaching God’s word and seeing God transforms the lives of His people, as they apply and live the truth. He especially enjoys time with his wife and children. He also enjoys running, volleyball in general, aviation and saltwater reef aquariums. I wish we had time to talk about some of those things, Keith.

Keith Palmer: Wow, that was quite an introduction, Dale. Thanks. 

Dale Johnson: That was good. Well, now listen. We’re going to talk today. We’re in mental health month. This is the month of May. And has been our custom, we take the month of May and talk about issues that arise that are very prevalent in the world of mental health and some people may wonder what idolizing certainty is. What in the world are we talking about? We’re talking about this issue of OCD—Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. And that is consistently one of the primary questions that I received in places that I go around the country in different churches. People always want to know what we do with these issues of OCD. And as we talk about these things, it is sort of a pursuit of certainty. There are certain things biblically that we believe certainly that are true, factual 100%. So, the idea of certainty in and of itself is not terrible, wrong or unbiblical, but we have to categorize what things should we or ought we be certain about. And so, as we jump into this OCD discussion, Keith, I want you first to just give our listeners just sort of a quick definition, a quick understanding of what we’re talking about. And then, I’ve got a few questions for you. 

Keith Palmer: Sure. Well, thanks Dale. It’s always a joy to be with you. Yeah, and I want to, in giving a definition, I want to try to make sure that we’re thinking at it from a biblical point of view. So, we can say that OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) is a cycle of both heart and behavior, and it’s characterized by those two elements of obsessions, which are intrusive, unwanted, persistent, reoccurring thoughts that fuel fears. And the fueling of those fears, create a mental distress and anxiety that’s so strong that a person pursues relief through the second component, which are the compulsions, and those are repetitive behaviors or rituals or mental exercises that are designed to bring relief from the distress that is created by the obsessions, and that is just a back-and forth-cycle. That’s really hopeless because those compulsions bring some temporary relief usually, but it doesn’t last. So, when we’re thinking about examples, we’re thinking there are different types of OCDs, right? So, we call them checkers, washers, organizers, obsessors, and orders. Checkers, fear of potential dangers, you know, the stoves left on, washers, or fear of germs, etc. And then, they’ll engage in rituals to try to mitigate those fears. So, that’s a little bit of an overview. 

Dale Johnson: Well, that’s really helpful, and I want to distinguish here because a lot of people listening may say, “Well, that sounds a lot like me.” I’ve said also all kinds of things. I feel compulsive in all kinds of decisions that I make. And I think we have to distinguish here the difference in what we’re talking about that often is categorized by OCD. We’re describing not just, you know, our faddish obsessions. We’re not just talking about here, the ways in which we in a compulsive manner, emotionally made some sort of decision. What we’re talking about here is something that dominates the life of a person where they are absolutely obsessed by certain thoughts throughout the day. It has them in bondage. It controls their life. So, this is a huge distinction.

So, I want to start with this question—talking about a relationship. What is the relationship of certainty with those who struggle with a set of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors? And by this issue of certainty, I want you to flesh that out, if you can, a little bit for us as well. 

Keith Palmer: Yeah, so really one of the features you see especially in the religious OCD, sometimes called “Scrupulosity.” Although you’ll see this in several different manifestations of OCD type behavior is their idolizing and longing for a certainty. And the way this works out is that longing for that idolization of certainty, which they view as the sole relief from the anxiety they experienced because of the intrusive thought or fear. And because they never truly arrived at total peace and certainty. What that means is there’s never really any lasting hope. It’s mission impossible. So, just some examples of that. So, maybe somebody is obsessed with the idea that they’re not saved, and they strive after a certainty for their spiritual condition. Or maybe they have an intrusive thought about hurting somebody or harming somebody or committing some horrible acts of sin. And they pursue certainty regarding their own innocence in that intrusive thoughts so that their conscience can rest, or maybe they are just talking to their friend, and subsequent to that conversation, they go, “Man, maybe I misrepresented myself in some way, maybe I wasn’t honest because I wasn’t exhaustive, and I wasn’t thorough.” And so, they obsess about certainty about their own honesty, or the same thing can be said about being germ-free. You know, “I’ve cleaned my house for six hours, and I think that I’ve got all the germs out, but no, maybe I don’t. So, I got to do it all over again.” And so, that certainty is the idol at the end of the pursuit that they’re longing after. But because this type of certainty, especially when it is pursued by self, in these ways, it is really mission impossible. It just leads to frustration and discouragement because they can never truly achieve that level of certainty that they so long to have. 

Dale Johnson: And I think, Keith, you can see here why, this is the never-ending cycle. And why this feels like a constant downward spiral, and this is a constant pressure that this person feels really dictated by. Now, I want to; let’s hone in on this issue of certainty because as I mentioned at the outset, there are certain things, particular things that I would say that the Bible tells us that we can be certain about. And so, how does Scripture help us to think about this issue of certainty? 

Keith Palmer: Yeah, it’s a great question. And I think, as you mentioned, we all can relate to some of these struggles too. There may not be just this overwhelming, life-dominating, obsessive-compulsive, but I think we can all relate to that desire and the struggles of fears that I think we all have from time to time. But you know, so Scripture does teach that we can have a certainty, but here’s the big difference—Scripture says you can have certainty only as that certainty is derived from a relationship with God. Because God alone is sovereign; God alone knows the end from the beginning; God alone determines what’s true and reveals that truth to us through Special Revelation, found in Scripture. And therefore, that certainty, that we long to have, especially these OCD strugglers, that certainty has to come in and through a relationship with the Lord, as we would submit to, and trust in His Word as revealed to us in the Bible. So, now the Bible doesn’t use necessarily that direct language. But here’s how the Bible does come at that; it’s going to call us to think about things like this—Where do we rest? Psalm 37:7 “rest in the Lord,” right? Or where do we lean? Or where do we trust? Psalm 115 verse 11 or the metaphor of taking refuge in Nahum 1:7 “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knows those who take refuge in Him.” Or that famous verse Proverbs 3:5 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” And so, the Bible pits a trust in God, a rest in God, a derived certainty in submitting to and trusting and believing what He says, as opposed to pursuing that certainty in myself and through self-appointed means. So, to use one of your phrases, “Strugglers need to unhitch the wagon of their well-being from a self-generated certainty, and re-hitch it to the certainty found in a faithful, kind, good and all-knowing Heavenly Father.”

Dale Johnson: I mean, that’s helpful. Not just because you used to “unhitch wagon” language that I think. But I think when we talk about this issue of certainty, Keith, what we consistently see is that which God calls us to, when we’re not trusting by faith in the certainty that He gives us by His Word. As Peter says, it’s a more-sure thing the way in which God has spoken to us (2 Peter 1:19a). That right on the other side of that, is this constant being driven by our emotions and our feelings, and part of what you’re describing here, is the call for us, not to trust in the lack of certainty that’s a never-ending, as Solomon would describe it sort of this chasing after the wind of our feelings, wanting ourselves to feel like something is complete or certain, versus what God has said, and that He cannot lie. If Titus is true, that God cannot lie, and we trust that by faith (Titus 1:2). So, this is helpful when we start to flesh out this issue of certainty, and you can see how quickly a web this becomes.

Now, I want to finish with this question. What are some practical helps? As we, you know, everybody’s feeling this pressure, as they’re listening. They know people like this. Maybe they are like this themselves. What are some practical steps to help those, who really place an idol of this issue of certainty?

Keith Palmer: Yeah, I think we start in those fundamentals of discipleship and change. Like the renewing of the mind where we read in, Romans 12:1 and 2. We need to not be conformed to the world but be transformed. So, when we go to Scripture looking for our minds to be renewed, we come away with some real changes to our thinking. So, for example, D.A. Carson wrote, I think it was in his book The Gagging of God [1]that we can know things truly without knowing them exhaustively. That’s a good distinction because when we open the pages of Scripture, and we read, for example, in second Timothy that “all Scripture is inspired by God.” What we’re understanding is we can know things truly as they are, that really as they are without necessarily being omniscient and knowing everything exhaustively (2 Tim. 3:16). So, we replace a self-oriented pursuit of exhaustive information leading to the idol of certainty in our thinking with a God-revealed, true understanding of Scripture that is built on a trust in Him, even though we don’t personally have that exhaustive big picture as He does. So, we can know things truly without knowing them exhaustively. I think is a huge thing.

Also, Scripture helps us to renew our minds in terms of the difference between sincerity and perfection. The Bible calls us to do things from a pure heart, and certainly that means we’re not going to do things perfectly. But in Christ, we recognize that in the sincerity of our heart, as we trust the Lord that those efforts at, maybe communicating to somebody or loving our neighbor or whatever the behavior is, that those things are acceptable in God’s sight because of the work of Christ, even though in ourselves, they fall far short from perfection. And with that, just remember that God alone knows everything perfectly. That’s Psalm 139, right? Because He alone knows the end from the beginning. And, you know, Pride says, “I have to know for myself.” Humility says, “I can only rest in the certainty of my God.” And that sort of paradigm shift, as we renew our minds in these things, I think is a big part of the practical side of how we help people.

Beyond that, it’s just really, really practical stuff—meditating on the character of God, especially His sovereignty, His omniscience, His faithfulness, reading Scripture text about that, or good books on the attributes of God, like those by Pink and Tozer and Sproul would be some examples.

Rehearsing gospel truths regarding the sufficiency of Christ and the resolution of guilt. So much of OCD tendency really amounts to saying, “I don’t believe Jesus is enough;” “I don’t believe His sacrifice is sufficient for this conscience that’s just weighing me down that I’ve done something wrong.” And that’s really a gospel issue. I need to trust that Christ really is sufficient and believe Him, rather than a self-condemning feeling. I mentioned pride and humility. Replacing pride and a self-focused, manufacturing of one’s certainty with a humble Christ-focused certainty on His character. And then getting to the heart of it. There’s fear underneath all this, and the Bible has so much to say about identifying these specific fears and dealing with them, especially as they relate to fears that cause us to ignore other God-commanded duties. You know, maybe a mom is so consumed with cleaning her house to eradicate germs that she’s not shepherding her children. Yes, she’s not caring for her husband. She’s not loving her neighbors.

So, the real practical stuff like that and along with that, I think the hyper researching ritual, which is huge in our generation. I’m going to Google everything and just hyper research fear-related topics, and instead use that time studying Scripture and meditating on Scripture and leaning on Christ, for where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. And if we’re making our treasure hyper Googling and hyper researching, that’s where our hearts are going to be. And conversely, if we’re spending our time meditating on the things of God and resting in Him, that is where our heart will be as well. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, so as we constantly try and chase that level of certainty, those are things that we, as human beings are assured. We’re not given infinite knowledge and infinite wisdom, and so we’re running. We’re running a fool’s errand, as if we’re trying to chase after something that really is impossible for us to us to accomplish. We can’t predict the future. We don’t know what the future holds. And so, we’re trying to pursue things and settle our hearts by means and methods that God has not given us to do so. And that we are called to take refuge in Him and trust Him. And you know, as you were talking, Keith, I couldn’t help but think about Job. As God’s answer to him was not, “Hey Job, let me explain everything that happens in chapters one and two.” And that scene, you know, that we see in the heavenlies with God interacting with the evil one. He doesn’t do that. He actually just says, “Were you there?” And it’s a call to trust in the character of God and who God is. And Job doesn’t understand it exhaustively. He doesn’t understand what’s going on in full, but he’s called to just trust this God, and what this God is doing. That’s a call for us all. And there are different ways in which we, in life, different degrees, in which people struggle with that. And certainly, this presents itself in very life-dominating ways like OCD.

Keith, I think that this has been very helpful. And we’re going to talk about some more of these things next week on the podcast as well continuing our discussion on OCD in some of the characteristics that we see. So, thanks, brother, and we’ll see you again next week.