Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
Have you ever felt a sudden compulsion to promise or vow something to God, even though it seemed irrational?
If so, you’re not alone.
Sudden, rash impulses are part of the human experience (due to original sin), and for some people, impulses of this kind are a frequent thing.
Recently I received an email from a gentleman who was concerned about promises and vows he felt driven to make by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
He was concerned that he was making, or might be making, sudden, irrational promises that would bind him under pain of sin, including mortal sin.
I’ll keep his email to me private, but I wanted to share my response so that it can be of assistance to others.
The Basic Response
First, here’s what I sent the gentleman in reply to his query:
Dear [Name Withheld],
Thank you for writing. The problem you are experiencing is one that many people who suffer from OCD have.
The good news is that promises/vows/oaths that are the result of a pathological thought process (which OCD is) are not binding.
When the impulse comes to make such a promise, do your best to put the issue aside and not worry about it.
If you compulsively make a promise anyway (or think/feel that you have), recognize that it is not binding on you.
You will please God more if you resist the pathology of OCD by ignoring such promises (and, to the extent possible, ignoring the impulse to make them).
Setting aside such thoughts is a sign of health, and working toward a healthy thought process is what pleases God.
I hope this helps, and God bless you!
That’s the basic advice I would give anyone dealing with this kind of concern, but there is more we can say, which may also be of help.
The Limits of Promises
One of the things people sometimes forget is that promises have limits and unspoken conditions.
Suppose that you promise your spouse you’ll pick up some ice cream on the way home from work so your family can have it for dessert that night.
But after work you are kidnapped at gunpoint and forced to drive the kidnapper to another state.
By the time you get shed of the kidnapper, it’s way past dinnertime, and you arrive home an exhausted wreck.
No sane spouse would expect you to have fulfilled your promise to pick up ice cream under these conditions.
There is an unstated condition when you make such a promise that you will keep it if it is reasonable to do so.
If something happens so that it becomes unreasonable (or even impossible) to keep the promise then you have no obligation to do so.
This offers hope to people who are suffering from OCD because it allows them to introduce reasonability as a check on any promises they may have made or fear that they have made.
They can ask themselves, “Is it reasonable for me to keep this promise?” and if the answer is no then they do not need to.
And the answer will be “it is not reasonable” more often than you might think . . .
Promises and Compulsion
Let’s go back to our kidnapper example. Suppose that the kidnapper was of the opposite sex and, while you were being forced to drive to another state, the kidnapper pointed a gun at your head and said, “Promise you’ll marry me.”
“But I’m already married,” you say.
“Doesn’t matter,” the kidnapper replies. “Promise to divorce your spouse and marry me instead—or I’ll kill you.”
To save your life, you make the promise.
But you are absolutely not bound to keep it. It was made under duress.
There is thus another limit on promises: To be binding, they have to be made freely, not under compulsion.
This is where obsessive-compulsive disorder comes in: There may not be a kidnapper physically holding a gun to your head, but there is something going on in your head—the OCD—that is creating a compulsion.
Promises that you feel compelled to make as a result of the condition thus do not count, and God does not expect you to keep them.
One way of seeing this is to change the situation a bit: Suppose that, instead of feeling compelled to make promises to God, your OCD made you feel compelled to make promises to your spouse.
No sane spouse of an OCD sufferer would expect such promises to be kept.
Instead, as soon as the OCD started manifesting itself in this way, a reasonable and loving spouse would say, “Honey, I know your OCD is trying to attack you by making you feel you need to make all these promises to me, but don’t worry. You don’t have to keep them. I release you from them all. Put them out of your mind and focus on having a healthy thought process.”
Well, guess what: God is not less reasonable or less loving than a spouse. He’s more reasonable and more loving.
Therefore, God does not expect you to keep promises made under the effects of OCD. He wants you to ignore them and to focus on thinking in as healthy a way as you can.
Promises to Sin
Sometimes people with OCD feel a compulsion to make promises to do something sinful. These also are not binding. Quite the opposite!
Suppose that, on your interstate flight, the kidnapper pointed a gun at your head and said, “Promise that you’ll help me rob a bank.”
To save your life, you do so, but then the kidnapper somehow loses the gun.
“You’re still going to help me knock over that bank, right?” the kidnapper says. “You promised!”
It doesn’t matter, though. You have no obligation to help the kidnapper rob the bank. In fact, you better not—especially now that the threat to your life is gone—because it’s illegal.
That illegality is key. Under civil law, no contract between parties is valid if it involves promises to do something illegal.
Even if two businessmen enter into a contract in good faith, believing that what they are promising to each other is perfectly legal, the contract will be null and void as soon as it is discovered that the terms entail an illegal act.
The same thing is true in the moral sphere: Promises to do something immoral are automatically null and void.
If your OCD is manifesting so that you feel compelled to make promises involving something sinful, that’s just all the more reason to set them aside and ignore them!
Vows and Oaths
I should say a word about vows and oaths, which are solemn forms of promises.
I don’t want to encourage scrupulosity by going into the details here of what makes a vow or an oath, but some OCD sufferers might think that just because they have the word “vow” or “oath” in their head instead of “promise” that it’s somehow more binding.
Not when OCD is involved.
Obviously, basic morality is still a fundamental requirement of vows and oaths. Just like you can’t bind yourself with a promise to do something sinful, you can’t bind yourself with a vow or an oath to do something sinful, either.
Adding solemnity to the promise doesn’t change the basic requirement that it be moral.
Also, precisely because of the greater solemnity of vows and oaths, they even more emphatically require freedom.
If freedom is required to give even basic promises, it’s even more clearly required to be able to make a more solemn promise.
Therefore, if your OCD is driving you to make vows or oaths, the compulsive aspect of the behavior prevents them from having the necessary freedom to be binding.
As before, the thing to do is to put them aside and ignore them.
You need to focus on developing healthy habits of thought, and that means ignoring compulsive promises of any kind.
God wants you to be happy and healthy, and ignoring such promises—and other manifestations of OCD—is what will please him.