Many Christians attend church, and yet for those with scrupulosity it’s often not easy. Here’s what a day at church might look like for the struggler. For me many weeks are better with fewer doubts and less anxiety, while other weeks may be much worse; this is just a snapshot to give you a window into the experience.
The struggle of going to church starts before I even get there. On the drive to church, I feel that I’m not preparing my heart for worship as I should. Maybe I’m listening to non-worship music (I should be preparing my heart with worship music, I think). Maybe I’m thinking about all of my worries (I should be praying!). Sometimes I listen to worship music, sometimes I pray, but sometimes when I do these things, it’s just to appease my faulty conscience. My self-critical mind concludes that therefore they must be meaningless.
When I get to church, I am immediately self-conscious, a mixture of social anxiety, fear of man, and an over-active, self-condemning thought life. Because of my scrupulosity, this is looped back into the cycle as more evidence that I’m not right with God (A true Christian wouldn’t be so self-centered, I think).
Then the service begins with singing. We sing words like “I am bound for the promised land,” and I think, Not me. Everyone else singing, maybe, but certainly not me. We sing about God’s grace and kindness to us and our hope of ultimate redemption, but I feel like a hypocrite for singing about promises I struggle to believe in. It seems I don’t qualify. Some weeks I sing or play piano on worship, which ramps up all these thoughts so they’re even more insistent: You hypocrite! How can you lead worship when your own heart is so full of doubts? You probably aren’t even saved! I worry I am being prideful or attention-seeking.
Between songs comes a time of confession. This is the easy part. I’m great at probing my heart for sin. I’ll confess to the Lord my sins of the past week (and past hour) and even things that are uncertain and probably aren’t sin. I’ll confess that my heart feels so distant and cold to him this morning (which I say every Sunday morning). I know that it isn’t the strength of my repentance that saves me, but rather the Lord’s grace, which is triggered even at the slightest turning to him. But I doubt whether I’ve turned to him at all, or if I really want him. Every what if seems like the most important thing to pay attention to at the moment.
Then the sermon. It’s a double-edged sword. Scripture is read (which is its own battle and deserves its own blog post), and then the sermon. I ride it like a wave—there’s an encouraging thought, a discouraging thought, something to give me hope to keep on another day, and something to plunge me into despair that I’ll ever see light again. I obsess over the words my pastor says, the broader ideas he implies, and the reaction of my heart in the moment. I check my feelings (another forthcoming post) for any sign of repentance or a softening to the message. You probably realize by now that I’m not the most reliable self-evaluator. If true repentance is there, I doubt I’ll even see it for what it is.
Then communion. The whole service has been working up until this point, and frankly, I’m exhausted by now. I wonder if it’s even worth the fight. I consider leaving the sanctuary to avoid taking communion (and sometimes I do). Other times I take communion, with thoughts darting through my head: You, take communion? How can you be sure you’re saved? Heed the warnings of Scripture against those who take it from an unworthy heart! Then I think, Have I repented enough? Is it true repentance? Can I take communion or will God punish me because I’m not saved? These doubts keep me in the loop. Because I don’t often doubt my doubts, I assume they must be true, giving them more weight than their alternative.
Finally the end of the service. We sing a final song, which often looks toward a Christian’s future home with Christ and the hope found in him, but it’s hard for me to muster up any hope. I know I can’t muster up any hope, but I feel the urge to have to some days. But then the fact that I even feel like that is another layer of condemnation against myself.
We receive the benediction and I hold out my hands in response, but I feel like a hypocrite taking a blessing not meant for me. Then the afternoon following church can bring its own doubts: Did the sermon affect me? Do I feel any different? Is there a change in me? Do I even care?
Church isn’t relaxing. It doesn’t feel life-giving. It’s like swimming upstream, exhausted limbs and spent lungs making it seem much easier to give up and go with the current. It’s like a battleground, but I have no shield and am at the mercy of my enemy, scrupulosity.
In the context of church, I am steeped in the thoughts which my scrupulosity revolves around. I am opened up to my doubts, confronting them head-on. As I go about my day at home or work, I can find some measure of distraction, but at church, I have to think about the Lord and consequently my relationship to him.
Thus, I hope this has shown you that church can be one of the hardest places for scrupulous people to be. Some even avoid it altogether because it’s too anxiety-producing.
If you have scrupulosity, or even if you experience any of the above things, be gracious with yourself. It’s no wonder that it’s so difficult, due to all I just shared. More importantly, you’re not the odd one out! Scrupulosity is not the normal Christian experience, nor what everyone in the church faces. However, it has been so helpful for me to realize that, though my obsessiveness may make my struggle extreme, I am not on a different plane than others. Every Christian can relate in some way to the experience of doubt, including on a Sunday morning. Everyone can relate to days when they feel dry or indifferent. I feel guilty in church because I feel like it’s supposed to be easy, a time of joy and peace, and yet I know that countless others are struggling too, even if they don’t have scrupulosity. We can’t judge others according to their outward appearance; someone could seem to behave “normally” while a storm is raging inside.
How about you? What particulars about church can trigger difficult thoughts and emotions for you, whether you have scrupulosity or not? Are there ways you seek to battle scrupulosity in the context of church? I’d love to know!