What If? A Never-Ending Cycle

What does a scrupulosity cycle look like? I gave a short explanation of the loop of obsessions and compulsions in What is Scrupulosity? But in reality, it’s not linear or simple. The cycle is less a neat sequence of steps like those of a winding staircase and more the disorientation and unpredictability of a tornado. The steps are not clear-cut, but rather, multiple may be happening at once, bleeding into each other and impossible to completely parse out. However, there is some sort of pattern to the cycle, so I’ll do my best to describe an example from my life below.

The thought comes, prompted by a variety of things or, often, nothing in particular: “You don’t have a relationship with the Lord. You’re faking it, all to comfort yourself or to get attention.” I become wrapped up in this thought—what if it’s true? It feels like it could be true. It certainly explains my experience of wavering uncertainty and lack of assurance. Because it feels like it’s true, and it seems to accurately describe my symptoms, it must be true. This creates anxiety, so I begin praying, but that prayer is soon drowned out by more self-focus and doubt.

At some point, I realize I’m stuck in this cycle of continuous thoughts and wrestling, which is largely self-focused and grace-forgetting. I know I should look to Jesus, so I try to. I confess that in my obsessing I’m trying to figure it out on my own; I’m trying to save myself by “saying the prayer right” or “properly confessing” instead of trusting in the sufficiency of Christ.

Well, what if this self-sufficiency is just pride? Better be safe than sorry—so I confess it.

But as I confess this pride, another thought sneaks in: “You just confessed your pride to appear humble. Now you’re taking pride in your apparent humility.”

So I confess that. “God, forgive me for taking pride in being ‘humble.’”

Well, isn’t that just another iteration of pride?

Soon, I’m essentially confessing about being prideful about being humble about being prideful… I’ve even lost myself at this point. I’m in a loop of confessing, and pretty much anything that pricks my conscience in the moment is thrown in “just to be sure” my back is covered.

Sometimes I’m able to step back from this, and simply confess, “Jesus, even this cycle has gotten me off track. Help me to focus on you.”

I try to focus on him again, but am painfully aware of my inability to rest. Soon I’m in tears, exhausted by all this striving, and even more disturbed by the fact that I can’t rest. What does that mean about me? I am trying to trust, which means I’m not truly resting in Christ’s grace. Surely true Christians are able to just rest. What does rest even look like? How do I know I’m trusting Christ for salvation if I can’t trust? This experience certainly doesn’t feel like trust!

Another thought: “Your tears don’t save you; you hope your tears betray emotion, which you hope would be evidence that you care, which you hope would then be evidence that you are a Christian.”

“I know, I know! Forgive me, God, for thinking my tears might save me.”

Even this “repentance” shows a potential pride in me as I think I can do it a “right” way. I keep trying to earn peace with God.

“Forgive me,” I pray, which is followed with another accusation, which I confess. Continual torment I cannot end even by confessing.

It’s a continual cycle of self-condemnation, where dagger after dagger pierces my heart by my own hands. I feel like I have done this to myself. I am the one responsible, and I sink into further shame.

This cycle can only be broken by distraction, it seems. Ignore the thought and focus on something else: TV, social media, conversation with others. But it will come back the next time I have a slower, quieter moment.

Chaos in the Cycle

Perhaps you got a bit lost in this muddy explanation—but actually, that’s okay. If you struggle with scrupulosity, it’s likely you can identify with this confusing, repetitive, complicated cycle. If you don’t, this is a window into the experience.

I know this sounds crazy. I’m fully aware that I am locked in an unnecessary battle with my own obsessions and compulsions. I know that nothing but the blood of Jesus saves me; my tears, strivings, prayers, repentance, none of it can save me or get me one step closer to God. Only Jesus can. I know that if we want to feel assurance, we must not look to our assurance itself but to the object of our assurance, and focus on him. I know all the right answers, but that doesn’t stop the cycle. After all, the struggle of scrupulosity is not for a lack of information!

I don’t think these cycles are uncommon to Christians. Perhaps it’s what we do with them that makes or shows that we have scrupulosity. For example, I am unable to move past these thoughts. People may say, “Stop thinking about it!” but it’s not that simple. You might as well tell someone with depression to cheer up, someone with anxiety to calm down, or someone with schizophrenia to just stop seeing hallucinations. I guarantee that advice has never helped.

Hope in the Chaos

So what do I do in the moment? How do I move past this cycle?

Jesus has said, “Come.” As we are, without masks, no need for pre-cleaning. I don’t even have to scrub my feelings until they’re pure; I can come to Christ in my mess. For every “but…” my scrupulosity proposes, there is only one solution: come. For every “what if” there is an open door; I am the only one holding it closed. I must come as I am, because after all, I don’t know how else to come. I cannot come another way!

This is grounding truth. Often, it doesn’t impact my feelings. I want it to, but the feelings produced by the cycle are just so much stronger. The goal can’t be eradication of anxiety or doubt (though that’s certainly something to hope and pray for), but rather a deepening engagement with the Lord. Acknowledging the truth in the above paragraph, maybe saying a short prayer, and then moving on with the tasks of the day helps devalue the OCD thoughts as I decide not to participate in the cycle.

Of course, this isn’t completely about choice—I don’t choose these thoughts or this cycle. But I can choose what to do with it. It’s not easy, but it is possible. It’s not an easy answer or a quick fix, but it’s one more step on the path out. It’s one more way to do the opposite. If Jesus is kind, then I can take the risk of being wrong by choosing not to engage in compulsive rituals of confession.

Ultimately, I can trust in the goodness of God. I can depend on the fact that Jesus does not require righteousness from me. I am putting expectations, pressures, and condemnation on myself that even he does not put on me. Jesus is merciful in my failure, kind in my doubt, and patient in my cycles of obsessions.

Practically speaking, I live my life as though I don’t believe the truths above—I always want to make sure all my bases are covered, that there’s no loophole I could slip through. But honestly, I don’t see any other way to proceed with hope but to trust in his goodness. It’s not a sure answer to the problem of assurance—I still think that perhaps I’m not saved. But I can’t say either way, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to. But Jesus says that he is good. I may have trouble believing it, but his own testimony in Scripture and that of others in my life proclaim that he is good, kind, and gracious. That’s where my hope lies.

I have to stop the “Yeah, but…” in its tracks. Because if there’s one thing I know with scrupulosity, it’s the persistent existence of these “buts,” which are close cousins of the “what ifs” and “maybes.” When the cycle of scrupulosity threatens to steal my attention and trap me in a continual loop, I can move forward in my day even in the midst of uncertainty, armed with the reality of who Jesus is and the very real, very concrete impact this has in my struggle.

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