A Constantly Condemning Conscience

What do you do when it feels like your own mind is your enemy?

That’s how it feels. The flood of self-condemnation seems almost unending. I can over-analyze every little thought, action, or word, and be encroached by guilt. Even good actions and words are discounted; I chalk them up to bad motives.

OCD is like a cruel taskmaster that demands certainty, berating us with thought after thought, doubt after doubt, piling on the condemnation and questions. My scrupulosity whispers lies to me, but I take them as fact. It magnifies failures but camouflages grace.

Everything can lead to doubt. I don’t feel this way, I don’t do that, I don’t desire this, I have this thought… It is a disorder driven by anxiety that enslaves the struggler. We feel crazy. We act out our compulsions just to have a bit of relief from the roaring self-condemnation.

In this swirl of voices, I don’t even know what’s true and what’s not. I have an overly tender conscience that pricks me even when I’m not sinning, but then I also have moments of outright sinning, so I think that must mean something significant, too.

I feel guilty if I don’t read the Bible, but if I do read it I have a host of intrusive thoughts and doubts. If I take communion I’m “drinking judgment on myself” (1 Corinthians 11:29), but if I don’t take it I have no faith. If I sing in church I’m a hypocrite, but if I don’t sing I’m growing cold and hardhearted. These are just some examples of where I feel that I have no ground to stand, because I’m condemned either way.

And then, because everything comes back to me, I think, I am so self-centered. Always thinking about myself, always inward focused. Because I condemn myself, I think, I just don’t believe in Christ’s mercy, which means I can’t be saved. I think that if I feel distant from the Lord, I must have sinned in such a way to warrant it.

I have the thought, Maybe I sinned against that person. I feel so trapped and stuck, so I mention this to a loved one. As I do, I think, I’m just feigning humility so they think I’m humble, when really, I’m prideful. Then I mention this thought, too, but it’s immediately followed by this thought: You’re just doing THAT to show off. Nothing I do, say, or think seems to help me out of this cycle.

I have the faint thought that I should look to Christ, should trust him, but how?

Variations on a Theme

Most of my thoughts are a variation on the theme of this core central fear: not being right with God. I think, You aren’t saved because this isn’t how a Christian acts. Every new fear seems new and different, and I think, Maybe I really should take notice of this now! And yet, if I pull it apart and get to the bottom of the fear, I see that often, if not at the forefront then lurking around the edges of my mind, there is this fear of not being right with God, a lack of assurance that I’m saved.

It almost seems like it’s assurance that I’m not saved.

And yet, it’s not ambivalent. I may be constantly scrutinizing my spiritual state, but it is through a negative lens, with the assumption that I’m guilty. It is heavily weighted on the side of self-condemnation. Whenever my conscience pricks me—whether true conviction or scrupulous condemnation—I translate it to the extreme. If this, then that. And it’s always the same. It’s always a self-judgmental attitude: If I struggle to pray, then it must mean I’m not saved.

My counselor has compared the experience of scrupulosity to the game Whack-A-Mole. As soon as one thought seems to subside, another pops up in another area, so that even when one particular thought doesn’t last, another takes its place. Fighting the thoughts one by one with counter-arguments is equally as repetitive and futile as playing Whack-A-Mole.

I cannot outthink my thoughts. I can’t combat each thought individually, because they’ll just pop up again or in different variations. What then do I do in the barrage of condemnatory thought after condemnatory thought? What do I do when my conscience malfunctions, like a smoke alarm blaring in the absence of any smoke?

Abiding in the Uncertainty

Again, the best method of fighting OCD is exposure and response prevention, or doing the opposite, all the while living with the uncertainty. And that can only be done resting in God’s hands.

No amount of scrutiny will change the sins I’ve already committed. No amount of willpower will keep me from committing less sins in the future. No amount of striving for righteousness (or of sinning, for that matter) can change the status of my relationship with God right now. I am completely and totally in God’s hands.

This is a freeing and terrifying thought! It’s freeing because it means I can’t do anything to change my destiny. It’s terrifying because it means I can’t do anything to change my destiny!

I want to be able to do something, even though I know I must rest in the Lord. I truly am in his hands. And thank God he is more gracious than my own shame-ridden conscience! The King of the universe isn’t even impatient or frustrated with me; why then should I be with myself?

But how do you know if the stab to your conscience is conviction versus scrupulosity? There is much more to be said on this topic, but for now I will say this as a general rule of thumb: When in doubt, don’t! If your thoughts are dominated by maybe, what if, or similar questions, then the thought is probably not leading you to the right solution. The Lord does not convict you in your sin without providing a way out.

I can confess those things I am absolutely sure are sins. For the more foggy situations, I can engage the Lord honestly, such as with this prayer: “Jesus, I don’t know if this is sin or not. I think it’s just a scrupulous thought, but I don’t know. If it’s scrupulosity, I want to treat it as such. Will you make it clear to me if it’s a sin, and otherwise help me to go about my day unhindered by it? I want to do the tasks set before me and love the people in front of me; help me.” It’s not a quick fix and it doesn’t make the condemnatory thoughts stop, but I believe it’s one more step on the path out. I can let the thoughts keep swirling in my head without having to figure them out, instead abiding in the uncertainty with the Lord who sees all and still loves me.

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