By Kristine Sung, Crosswalk.com
When you read about prayer in Scripture, it is hard to imagine one could pray too much. In the 316 verses that use the word "pray," we see various types of prayers: confession, thanksgiving, pleas, complaints, petitions, dedications, blessings, supplications, intercessions, etc. Scripture shows people praying in all kinds of circumstances: in worship, distress, joy, gratitude, confusion, desperation, doubt, certainty, want, need, sorrow, and guilt. Paul's commands to believers on prayer are quite stunning; he tells us our prayers are to be constant, never ceasing, steadfast, earnest, for all the saints, at all times, night and day, and in everything.
Do you read that brief overview and feel convicted about your prayer life? Or perhaps you recognize new ways you can deepen your relationship with the Lord through prayer? If so, great! We have the immense privilege to commune with God through prayer!
Or does reading that brief overview of prayer create anxiety or panic in you? That might seem like a dramatic response, but that is quite possibly how someone with a disorder known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) might respond.
As they read the overview, their thoughts might start racing. They might think, "Oh, Paul says I should pray in everything at all times! I am not sure that I've done that. What if I didn't do that? Scripture also says if I love Jesus, I will obey him. Since I am unsure if I obeyed this command, what if that means I don't love Jesus?!"
As their mind races with these doubts, their body will flood with adrenaline, giving them an intense fight or flight feeling. Their heart might race, their chest could tighten, and their breathing becomes unhealthily rapid.
In response, they might stew for hours, days, or even weeks, wondering if they actually 'prayed in everything at all times.' They might ask another person how they think about those commands. But one person's opinion would not be enough; they would ask more people and possibly ask the same people repeatedly. They might read articles online about what Paul means and urgently post questions on message boards. As they seek to understand the command with 100% clarity, they will confess their lack of prayer and earnestly attempt to fulfill the command, praying until they feel they have 'prayed in everything at all times.'
To ensure they don't forget to 'pray in everything' in the future, this person may make a checklist of when and what must be prayed about. This checklist is not a helpful tool for them to organize their thoughts or guide their prayers; instead, it is a necessary safety mechanism required to ease their anxiety. Doubting whether they check every box off the list, they may document their prayers daily by writing them down, reassuring themselves that they prayed 'correctly.'
At first, their documentation list may cover the basics of what they believe 'in everything, at all times' to be. But over time, as new doubts creep in, they'll wonder if the list is adequate.
Additional requirements will be added. What used to be 10-20 minutes of prayer will develop into hours upon hours. While the hours pass, they will obsess, seeking a more complete answer to what it means to pray in everything, never quite landing on the elusive, ever-changing, ever-growing requirement. A heart attitude that Paul is seeking to encourage will morph into a legalistic set of ever-tightening chains.
Intellectually, the OCD sufferer knows others don't pray or stress this way. They've done so much research and talked to so many people that they know every different way that those verses can be understood. But nothing quite satisfies them. They may have even talked to a pastor, a small group leader, or a counselor about their behavior and anxiety. And despite these leader's guidance and reassurance, they just can't seem to stop.
While they know others don't pray this way, they don't understand why they are so stuck. They don't realize this is caused by a mental health disorder, specifically OCD. Many feel out of control, trapped in doubt, and overwhelmed by shame. They can't see themselves holistically and explain to others what is happening to them. Even when they do seek help, far too often, pastors and mental health professionals don't recognize this as OCD. The sad truth is, according to research, an average OCD sufferer will go 14-17 years before getting an accurate diagnosis.
So, to answer the original question: Yes. It is possible to pray too much!
When faith gets infected with OCD, earnest believers become trapped by a disorder that distorts their thinking, controls their emotions, and directs their behaviors. The disorder's hold on their mind prevents their ability to live out a healthy, enriched, growing faith.
And if it is not properly recognized, many forms of help just end up adding fuel to the fire. Talking tends to reinforce obsessive thinking. The good news is that change is quite possible. Evidence shows that with the proper treatment, known as Exposure Response Prevention (ERP), 80% of sufferers get better. ERP helps sufferers develop plans and skills to face their doubts, resist their compulsions, and realize they can manage anxiety without staying in the viscous OCD cycle. While treatment is challenging because you have to learn to sit with the anxiety for a period of time, it is quite effective, and improvements can happen rapidly for many.
If you (or someone you know) are struggling in this way, please know that you are not alone, you did not cause this, and that there is help! Find a counselor who specializes in OCD and is experienced in ERP therapy. The International OCD Foundation is a great resource for learning more about the disorder and finding trained professionals in your area. Many, even if they are not Christians, understand this type of OCD, named "scrupulosity," and will partner with your pastor and church leaders to help get the treatment that will set you free and get back to a meaningful relationship with the Lord.
Kristine Sung is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Texas specializing in Anxiety and OCD. For more information, go to sungcounseling.com.