I don’t know exactly when my struggle with scrupulosity began. The timeframe is foggy, and it’s hard to keep track of events and timing. The struggle has lasted for at least eight years and has been full of ups and downs, yet there are some noticeable consistent threads and themes. I hope a brief overview of my journey will provide a framework for the rest of the content you’ll find here.
There were sporadic times throughout my childhood where I doubted my salvation, but these periods of doubt only lasted days to weeks and were soon resolved for a time. However, when I was thirteen, the doubts came again and seemed to stay for good.
I failed to understand what I was going through. I viewed my doubt as the antithesis of faith, my struggle primarily as sin, and myself as far from the Lord. This produced discouragement, lack of peace, and even more doubt, and so the cycle continued. A swirl of “what ifs,” one after the other, in a sea of uncertainty with no definitive landing. Was I a Christian, or wasn’t I? It seemed the jury was still out, and every little thought, deed, or motive seemed to scream I was doomed, a constant nagging that perhaps I’m not saved.
Every obsession came as a new twist on the same central theme: am I saved? When one fear began to weaken in my mind, another took its place. I had general doubts about God’s existence; doubts about Jesus’ person and divinity; sudden urges to blaspheme; fear of committing the unpardonable sin; worries over the warning verses in Hebrews; and a vague sense of doom, with the threat of hell and judgment always in my mind. I would compulsively confess or pray for salvation, even dozens of times in a day; seek reassurance from others, even when I knew what their answer would be; frantically research certain questions, even though I already knew enough to give an unprepared speech on the topic; and avoid Scripture and prayer, which only ramped up the thoughts.
These obsessions would produce differing reactions in me, from a vague sense of dread underlying everything I did to intense anxiety that often resulted in panic attacks or extreme fatigue. In all of these doubts, there was neither the desire to reject Christ (or even displease him) nor an indifferent stance toward belief or unbelief, and yet I assumed my heart intent through it all was evil, twisted, and devoid of good.
I was able to go about my days with little outward signs but near-constant inner turmoil. Other people usually didn’t notice, and I am not naturally bent toward unsolicited sharing. At my worst, I’d wake up in the mornings and immediately feel a weight on my chest. I’d go through my day with a two-track mind, outwardly focused on the task at hand while inwardly consumed in anxiety and rumination. I struggled with fatigue and felt that no matter how long I slept, it never seemed to curb the tiredness I felt throughout the day. At my best, I was able to focus more freely on the task at hand, but there was often a nagging in the back of my mind to pay attention to the thoughts that convinced me I was doomed.
About five years into this more difficult season, I discovered my experience has a name and is shared by many others. This realization came when I stumbled upon a talk given by CCEF faculty member and counselor Mike Emlet, in which he talked about religious OCD/scrupulosity (you can find it here). It had caught my attention because in the description were the exact questions I’d struggled with for so long: “Am I saved? Have I committed the unpardonable sin?” I bought the talk for a few bucks and listened. I felt completely understood. It was as though someone had seen right through me and provided a cup of cold water for my thirst. There was no resolution to my uncertainties, but at least here was an answer to the why behind them.
I wasn’t just crazy. I wasn’t just weak in faith. My brain was a part of the struggle, too. Suddenly I was offered an alternate perspective, one that didn’t revolve around what I saw as my sinfulness and hard-heartedness, but one that took into account my whole being as body, mind, and soul.
Though the talk helped, I realized in the following months that I needed professional help. I was able to get an appointment with a specialist, who agreed that my symptoms were consistent with the experience of scrupulosity. I’ll be honest—I expected three or four sessions with this counselor to do the trick and straighten me out! It took one session to convince me otherwise: I was so entrenched in these patterns of compulsions and so ensnared by these obsessions that it would take a lot longer to learn how to manage them. Though it has in many ways been life-changing, counseling is more than a few pieces of advice to straighten me out, more than logical arguments with which I can counter the intrusive thoughts and doubts.
Daily life with scrupulosity doesn’t always look like panic attacks, sudden urges to blaspheme Christ, or persistent images of hell, as it has in the past. Instead, it often looks like guilt at not reading the Bible, confessing too many times “just in case,” and thoughts of hypocrisy every time I sing in church or even listen to Christian music. Though I’ve seen much improvement in my OCD symptoms in the last three years, I have not gained any greater assurance. The only constant has been the nagging fear that I’m not saved. Daily I have condemnatory thoughts about my standing with God; no matter the form they take, even if they aren’t so explicit, this is always the fear at the bottom of them. I can’t read Scripture without anxiety. I can’t pray without obsessing. I can’t go to church without doubts.
Obsessions and compulsions still comprise much of my daily life and walk with the Lord. I’m constantly looking for any shred of evidence against myself, proving I’m not saved. I know God is good, but I struggle to believe it, and it’s as though I’m looking for loopholes in God’s promises that I might slip through. I compare myself with other Christians, expecting my journey to look different and also feeling that I’m behind or not “doing it right,” whatever that even means. Well-meaning encouragements from loved ones never seem to stick, which means further guilt: “Am I just unteachable and proud?”
I often wonder what a Christian life without scrupulosity would look like, without all this spiritual anxiety. I wonder what it’s like to have full assurance. As much as I want this to be the case, I realize it may never happen. Today, each and every day, I need the continual reminder that the goal is not to live without fear, but rather to live with God in the midst of it. The goal is not more assurance—though I certainly pray for that!—but more Jesus. That is a truth I’ll turn back to again and again throughout this blog, because it’s a truth I need to hear every day.
A quick note: If you read this, you may think that scrupulosity is mainly doubting your salvation, but I want to be clear: not everyone with scrupulosity doubts this. It has been the prominent fear and central question in my struggle, but others may struggle with spiritual anxiety, obsessions, and compulsions and yet know they’re saved.