Editor’s Note: If you want to read more up on what Scrupulosity is, check out this previous article on what this diagnosis is as well as an article 5 Ways The Church Perpetuates Religious OCD that we did as a follow up.
I trust my testimony will give the reader helpful insights into this subtype of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Moreover, for those who can personally relate to what I am sharing, may my words offer comfort amid your suffering.
I’ve walked with God for about as long as I can remember. I asked Jesus into my life around age four after “praying through” with my dad on our living room couch.
Growing up, I struggled with anxiety and depression and had an overarching sense that I had to present myself as “perfect”; this only worsened as the years went on. Because of this, I was extremely well-behaved and rarely caused any trouble — not even simple mischief. On the one hand, many could consider this a good thing, but on the other, I went overboard in forcing myself to toe the line lest I disappoint my parents or especially God.
I was raised in a Wesleyan-Holiness denomination that stressed Spirit Baptism (i.e., Entire Sanctification) as an essential part of one’s regenerative experience; with this, it should be striven for until having received it. The church also held an interpretation of “backsliding,” where a Christian who sins could die and go to hell without having repented beforehand. As I looked at this, I understood the importance of striving to be made holy by God through the sanctifying process and possibly falling away from Salvation and ending up in hell; being overly sensitive and anxious was frightening to me. I gradually started feeling as though I had to do all these good deeds for God to be pleased with me and guard myself against anything that I might engage in, which could send me to hell.
Things finally reached an ugly climax in my sophomore year of high school. I pushed myself to the point of emotional and spiritual exhaustion, feeling as though I had to be a “super-Christian” or else I would be doomed to hell. I had a prayer list, two pages front and back of needs I felt I had to pray for specifically each day, and if I didn’t, I wasn’t faithful to Christ. The same thing went for Bible reading, and that I had to read at least a chapter of scripture every day, or else I would be disobedient to God. I started volunteering in a nursing home several days a week because I felt I must garner God’s approval.
While at my public high school, there were different things I felt I had to engage in to follow God’s will and be a witness to my non-Christian peers. I felt as though I had to carry a pocket-sized Gideon Bible with me, and when I felt “led” to do so, pull it out and started reading it as a public demonstration of my Faith; if I didn’t, I would be sinning. One classmate I felt compelled to witness to and invite him to church — even calling him at home regularly and asking him to come to church with me; basically, I was hounding him, but to me, I felt that this was what God wanted me to do.
Even in church services, I felt as though I had to be “in touch with the Spirit” at all times and be obedient to whatever I “sensed” God telling me to do. I often remember going to the altar to pray during the middle of services before the preacher gave an altar call. Once or twice, I stood during service and gave what I thought to be a “word of knowledge,” but in hindsight, I highly doubt it was. I attended a Christmas play put on by a church youth group, and in the middle of it, I felt compelled to stand up and give a testimony! (It’s a miracle in and of itself that the teenagers on stage could pick up where they left off in their production after I had finished.)
Now, there was nothing necessarily wrong with any of these things I did, and I know for a fact that God ended up using me in ways that, in hindsight, are mind-boggling. It’s important to pray, read the Bible, and engage in outreach. It was just that I felt if I didn’t meet every obligation like this, I was not faithful to God and therefore going to hell. I mentioned earlier that I was emotionally and spiritually exhausted. That is a gross understatement. I remember sacrificing much of my free time simply relaxing and enjoying life as a teenager by doing these multiple deeds day after day. Being exhausted, I quickly became burned out and lost any joy in doing these things; however, since I was “being faithful to God,” I should have been excited about doing all these things. Since I wasn’t, there was something wrong with me spiritually.
Faith and OCD
Not only was I plagued with the compulsion to do all these things, but I also had what I thought at the time to be horrific, blasphemous thoughts go through my mind, urging me to act on them. Like most Christians experiencing this, I immediately thought it had to be Satan tempting/tormenting me, so I followed scripture and rebuked the devil. I would feel a sense of peace for a brief moment, but the thoughts only became more robust and more intense. Also, when I prayed during these times, I felt as though I had to say the prayer a certain way or else it was ineffective: “I rebuke you, Satan, in the name of Jesus!” I felt I was sinning if I missed a word or my focus drifted while praying this. I would pray this prayer repetitively — over and over….and over again.
So, here I was. My Christian faith — the bedrock I had built my whole life around — seemed to be nothing but a lie. I felt like I was on the banks of a raging ocean, hanging onto a boulder with only my fingertips while the waves beat against me.
Most interesting, though, during those times of feeling doomed for hell and having to prove my worth, deep inside, I knew I was irrational. I knew that my actions and experiences made no sense in the grand scheme of things and that I was striving much harder than God would ever expect of me. But this rationality was wholly overshadowed by fear and anxiety.
Seeking Clinical Services
After enduring months of this torment, I happened to be listening to our local Christian radio station. There was an advertisement about a Christian psychiatrist opening a mental health practice nearby and accepting patients. I leaped at this opportunity and had my parents schedule an appointment immediately.
I went through the assessment process and was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and I learned that all the symptoms I had made me a textbook example. I remember how relieved I felt when I found this out and agreed to treatment.
OCD can be thought of as engaging in a nonsensical ritual repeatedly to avoid a negative consequence from occurring. Despite the intensity of the emotions deep inside, the person knows it is all likely irrational. (This is distinguishable from someone experiencing psychosis who does not see their behaviors as bizarre.) For instance, some people feel as though they are germ-infested, so they must wash their hands; however, although relieved for a moment after having done this, the thought immediately returns that they are dirty and need to wash again….and again….and again. Other examples involve symmetry, cleanliness/orderliness, counting, and checking. There is also another sub-category of OCD that involves religious connotations called Scrupulosity. As well-defined by the International OCD Foundation:
[Scrupulosity is] a form of OCD involving religious or moral obsessions. Scrupulous individuals are overly concerned that something they thought or did might be a sin or other violation of religious or moral doctrine. . .. Besides excessive worry about religious and moral issues, scrupulosity sufferers engage in mental or behavioral compulsions.
That was me; my OCD subtype was Scrupulosity.
Upon further study, I discovered that I was not alone in my experiences. Although most research has shown its prevalence within the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Judaism, and Mormonism, it certainly spans into Evangelicalism and other faith traditions. Indeed, many revered Christians from centuries ago suffered from Scrupulosity, including Martin Luther, John Bunyan, and Samuel Johnson. (A psychiatrist once told me, “Scrupulosity in the Church is as underground as homosexuality. Many people deal with it, but no one talks about it.” Especially as OCD is one of the most diagnosed mental disorders, I completely agree with his sentiment.)
After receiving my diagnosis, my psychiatrist prescribed me medication to treat my symptoms, and I began seeing a Christian therapist. Although it took weeks to start noticing improvement, relief finally came. I distinctly remember being in the backyard of my house and, out of nowhere, realizing my anxiety had noticeably dissipated; I couldn’t remember the last time I felt that good emotionally.
The Lessons Learned
From my struggles with OCD and especially the religious obsessions/compulsions I suffered, I learned many lessons in hindsight: First, most importantly, I realized how much God loves me and how far He went to protect me. Although I didn’t sense His presence at all as I suffered, and it seemed just the opposite, He was holding me closer to Him than I could even fathom. He wasn’t going to let me loose even for one second. If it were not for Him watching over me, it would be hard to imagine where I would be today. Potentially, I could have given up on my Christian faith altogether, or there’s a chance I may not be here writing this today.
Second, I’ve learned so much about Grace and true eternal security. Whereas I had thought if I “sneezed the wrong way,” I was going to hell, I now see that — for the Christian — it must take a lot of intense, intentional rejection of God to potentially step so far out of His grasp that hell could be a possibility. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but it takes much more than a slip-up or two without asking for forgiveness.
Third, I’ve learned that thoughts don’t necessarily equate to reality. People can think of all sorts of things that are the furthest thing from the truth, although they might “feel” real. Martin Luther once said, “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” John Wesley said that sin is a willful transgression against God. There is much truth to this: Thoughts are not necessarily sinful, whatever they might be. Thoughts can be…. well, thoughts, with no actual intention attached to any of them.
Fourth, I’ve learned that — what might seem to be a strictly demonic attack could be something entirely different. During my times of intensely scrupulous suffering, I prayed so earnestly that demons from miles around would have fled. Of course, I say this figuratively, but if I’m wrong, then James 4:7 is a lie: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Rebuke the devil, and he will flee from you” (NIV). Now, I have absolutely no doubt that Satan was observing everything going on, rooting against me, and laughing his head off at my suffering. To say, though, that demonic forces were the root cause of my despair, I can’t disagree more.
Overall, I have to say I’m grateful for what I experienced, as the lessons I learned were invaluable. It gave me a deeper understanding of who God is and that He is not someone with such unreasonably high expectations that are impossible to reach. He wants us as His followers to enjoy even the simplest things in life and not get caught up in a “works” mentality. The most devout Christians should not spend all their waking moments in spiritual service but also take time out for some much-deserved R & R. Walking with Jesus is not something you should feel you have to do but that you want to do. Also, it has opened in me a deeper channel of empathy for those suffering from intense distress. I can “be Jesus” to them in a way I never would have been able to otherwise and in a way that makes all the pain I endured worthwhile.