Last week I wrote about “doing the opposite.” But how do we face uncertainty without losing heart? And how do we engage with the Lord in the midst of it?
As Christians, even as we strive to follow Christ faithfully, we have a lot to learn from modern psychiatric practices, including exposure and response prevention (ERP). Yet, while many manuals and academic studies understand the disorder from a psychological and physiological standpoint, they lack one thing: the importance of engagement with God. It’s important for us to ask where the Lord comes into the struggle and the fight against it.
In day-to-day practice, I don’t think in the language of exposure and response prevention; in fact, I’m not sure my counselor and I have ever discussed this formal technique! But for the practices we’ve set in place to help me fight OCD, the principles are the same, and engaging with the Lord is key in doing the opposite. Otherwise, the technique feels like nothing more than a cognitive battle. It will still help us tremendously in our obsessions and compulsions, but on its own it can’t help us cultivate an increasing trust in the goodness of God, which those of us with scrupulosity often greatly doubt.
The Risk of Uncertainty
Whenever we choose not to follow through with our compulsions, we’re taking a risk. Whether felt, imagined, or real, it’s a risk. When I take communion even though my thoughts are telling me to avoid it, I take the risk of eating and drinking judgment on myself. When I choose not to pray the salvation prayer again even when I feel the compulsion to do so, I take the risk of being wrong. In a way it feels safer to pray the prayer, just “to be sure.” But the only way to get out of the loop of scrupulosity is to not heed our obsessions by giving in to compulsions, and there’s a risk to that.
At the end of the day, though, how can I avoid such risks? What is any effort on my part going to do, if these warnings really should be heeded as my OCD says they should? Either way—whether we choose to move forward or stop, refrain from the compulsion or give in—we have to take the risk of being wrong. I can’t be 100% sure that I’m saved, but I also can’t be 100% sure that I’m not saved.
OCD thrives on uncertainty. Uncertainty can feel like the enemy. And yet, the fight against scrupulosity involves pressing into it—we must live in that place of uncertainty without trying to figure it out. It can feel like we can’t trust Jesus until we’re 100% sure that he loves us. But then where does faith come in? In a way, even Christians who don’t struggle with scrupulosity must take this risk.
Engaging with God
How can we take such a risk? Only with trust in the Lord. We can throw around phrases like this so that they become stale; they are trite, simplistic, and alone insufficient in times of anxiety. However, OCD does require radical trust in the Lord. Trust isn’t believing he will take away the struggle, but choosing to believe he will walk with us in the midst of it. We don’t need enough trust to run a marathon, but trust enough to keep on going another day when we feel like giving up. When it feels like we can’t bear a lifetime of struggle, we can bear one more day.
In his book Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, John Bunyan details his life with obsessive thoughts and intense anxiety. He sums up what it looks like to live with uncertainty and risk:
“I must continue on and stake my eternal state with Jesus Christ, whether I have comfort here or not. … I will leap off the ladder, even blindfolded, into eternity—sink or swim, come heaven or hell. Lord Jesus, if You will catch me, do so; if not, I will still risk all for Your name.”
This is a helpful picture of what fighting scrupulosity feels like: leaping off a ladder blindfolded. There’s no guarantee that Jesus will catch us—there isn’t any audible voice of God or his writing in the sky assuring us we’re safe. The only thing we have to trust is his character. Because we know certain things about Jesus—who he is, what he did, what he’s said—we can depend on him. Because where else can we go but to the One who has the words of life?
That’s the foundation of our trust. In the midst of ERP, I can cry out to God. When trying to sit with the thought, I can talk to God. This takes the battle from the merely mental realm, where it’s me against OCD, into the hands of the only One who truly understands why I’m suffering and when it will end. I can take the risk knowing Christ knows all and sees all, and he, the Judge of all, will do right (Genesis 18:25).
This third, middle way—combining the helpful tools of ERP with knowledge of our Creator’s character—is not a last-minute effort to tack on God at the end. It’s about walking forward, equipped with the courage of the Lord’s kindness and promises, into the face of your fear. After all, Christ is the only reason fear is worth facing.
Courage to Keep Going
I regularly feel discouraged thinking that I’m never going to change (there’s my scrupulous all-or-nothing thinking). Fighting scrupulosity is hard, and the struggle itself is heavy. Trust in Christ is not easy, nor is it as simple and straightforward as it may appear in this post. In reality, I want doing the opposite to be like magic. That’s my ideal situation: I successfully do the opposite and then find that my unwanted feelings of anxiety or unease are replaced with comfort, peace, and joy. But reality is not like that. There are no easy answers or quick fixes to scrupulosity (as in much of life!).
Engagement with the Lord in suffering isn’t a quick solution; it’s the Christian life. Our goal—in any form of suffering—cannot be eradication of the problem. While certainly something to pray for, it can’t be the ultimate goal, because it may never be reality. We aren’t promised freedom from suffering, but we are promised God’s presence with us throughout, if we feel it or not. I can do the opposite boldly, knowing God will not hold my struggle against me. He will walk with me every step of the way, whether I see him beside me or not.
Slow, Small Steps
Each moment practicing ERP can feel so insignificant. We know that it doesn’t change our feelings. It doesn’t alter the reality of the struggle. It doesn’t even give us less anxiety, greater assurance, or deeper peace—at least not in the moment.
Then why on earth should we do it? It is the gradual movement that is key, not the leaps and sprints but the slow, small steps. Each time builds on the next. It may be two steps forward and one step back, or three steps forward and ten steps back. But there is movement! And this is how new paths are forged—by continually trekking through the brambles.
OCD demands certainty, but there is so much I am not certain about, and may never be. Our lives are so often shrouded in ambiguity. We cannot see too far ahead of us. We may not even be able to see our next step. But we take a next step anyway, trusting God is with us in the midst of the fog. We can’t see clearly, but he can. And he has never given us cause to believe he will leave us.