Sometimes Scripture is scary.
It takes me down rabbit-trails of terror.
Verses others find comfort and strength in seem to pummel me to the ground and kick me while I’m down.
I more easily see myself in the place of the damned than the Christian.
Scripture is a double-edged sword. By far the most comforting words come from it; so do the most terrifying.
Scripture can be one of the biggest triggers and areas of struggle for those with scrupulosity. The reason is complex, because there are multiple different themes that are present in the struggle. The struggler is often bombarded with intrusive thoughts, persistent doubts, and anxiety upon reading, hearing, or even remembering a passage of Scripture.
I noticed my first intrusive thoughts when I was twelve or thirteen. While working on a study book of the New Testament, I read the passage in Luke about the unpardonable sin. My obsessive brain latched on: “Am I in danger of that sin?” I began obsessing almost constantly about this. Even while busy on the outside, I was consumed by rumination and dread. The urge to speak horrible things about the Lord—though I resisted it as best as I could—was relentless.
Other verses (and my own misinterpretation of them) spark similar thoughts, specifically in Hebrews. I might feel the urge to say something horrible about Jesus, or to give up following him and instead live a life of sin. In the moment it’s hard to distinguish between true temptation versus scrupulous obsessions: “Is the fact that I have these thoughts evidence that I believe them? Does it mean I want them?” This sends me into another loop of obsessions, which often results in compulsive confession, ritualistic prayers, and avoidance of Scripture.
If I read a verse explicitly telling about God’s love, I think, “That’s true of others, but is it true of me?” It seems I doubt everything I read. Many doubts revolve around the Bible itself: “Is it truly God’s word? Does God really exist? Is this Triune God really kindness and grace, or is he only wrath and justice? Is Jesus actually his Son, or is he a liar—or worse?”
The thoughts cause anxiety and lead to rumination over the thoughts themselves and the fact that I am even having the thoughts. What does it all mean?
Salvation Doubts & Fear of Judgment
Then there are verses speaking about Christians. It’s so hard for me to see myself in that category. I can picture my parents, siblings, friends, fellow church members, all of whom these verses speak about. And yet I feel set apart, as though the promises of blessing in Scripture apply to others but not me.
I read verses about how to discern if you’re saved; I get wrapped up in them and ruminate until my anxiety becomes intense. I read verses about the fruit of the Spirit; I pull each one apart in my life until I’m convinced I have absolutely none. I read verses about the blessings of God for his children; I’m hopeless that they mean anything for me.
On the flipside, I worry the words about nonbelievers are true of me. This touches on where all of my fears point to, that deepest, most central fear: the fear of judgment, God’s wrath, and eternal separation from him. I begin to read myself into those verses that speak about nonbelievers. I obsess over verses in Hebrews and Revelation and the Gospels that speak of those who never received the Lord’s forgiveness, and I put myself in their shoes. I become so convinced this is where I am headed, to be damned for all eternity.
I put more emphasis on the verses that speak of wrath and punishment than I do on the verses that speak of grace and forgiveness and love. I don’t have any problem believing the Lord is wrathful or just, or even that he’s kind and gracious to a select few, but to me? There must be some loophole, because I don’t seem to fit.
“How Do I Feel?”
I also obsess over my feelings as I’m reading Scripture. I assess my attitude toward it, trying to discern what I’m thinking or believing at the moment. Any feeling of unease or uncertainty toward it becomes a “sign” that my motives aren’t good, that I’m not saved, that I’m too far gone, that I don’t believe it, that my heart is hardened, that I’m apathetic or indifferent, and so on.
Do I agree with everything? Am I finding joy and comfort and peace, or am I apathetic? I fear I’m a pharisee, a hypocrite, a whitewashed tomb, appearing to be a Christian on the outside but really dead inside. Any negative emotion I feel (or lack therefore) just confirms my fears. It’s like I’m on a hunt for my own guilt, prosecuting myself for a crime that I’ve convinced myself I’ve committed.
Even my reaction to Scripture scares me, despite others’ efforts to reassure me. When I’m not avoiding it altogether, sometimes I’m tempted to read the Bible until I find some sort of reassurance. Then when the feeling leaves, I distract myself so as not to have to think about it. I ride that wave of feeling good until the next time I go under head first. And all the while, I’m piling guilt on myself.
Avoidance & Guilt
Because Scripture causes such anxiety, it feels unsafe and unpredictable, and so I avoid it. The less I read of it, the less I have to experience these obsessions or fight against them. Thus I avoid it altogether. But, I think, that seems to be a very representation of my heart!
“What does that say about me, if I don’t want to spend time in God’s Word? Does it mean I just don’t believe? Why don’t I want to read it? What does that say about me? I make Scripture reading about myself; I’m so self-centered!” This guilt and self-condemnation just becomes another reason to doubt my salvation. And this is what Scripture, no matter the verse or context, seems to be constantly calling into question for me: where do I stand with God?
Sometimes Scripture is terrifying. Whether we choose to engage with it or avoid it, it’s exhausting. So where do we go from here? Is there any hope of change when we feel so helpless and hopeless?
I’ve been meaning to reach out to you for some time as your blog resonates deeply with me. “When Scripture Turns Terrifying” was particularly familiar. For years, I couldn’t read or listen to teaching on the Parable of the Sower without experiencing existential panic. That’s only one example, but it was a big one for me.
I struggled with Scrupulosity and other forms of OCD throughout my 20s and into my 30s. Therapy helped me manage symptoms but was never able to help me experience the assurance I sought. Now, at age 49, I can tell you it is possible to come out on the other side and experience life without existential dread. I had no power to fix myself or my thought process, but God made a way. I’ve talked to so many others who have walked this path. It breaks my heart when I hear of those who have fallen away and those who continue to seek God but don’t believe they will ever escape the anxiety. Honestly, I didn’t think I ever would. But God met me in my fear and doubts and imparted his love in a way that changed everything.
I’ve written and spoken about this experience to a number of audiences. I am constantly amazed by how many people struggle with this and yet keep their battle hidden. Shame is such a huge factor, which is why I am so glad to see you raising this important issue and bringing it into the light.
If you ever want to chat, I’d love to hear more of your story. As I’m sure you’ve discovered since writing so transparently about this issue, you are not alone.
Blessings and peace… Shay Mason
From: Grace Abounding in OCD Reply-To: Grace Abounding in OCD Date: Tuesday, February 1, 2022 at 7:00 AM To: “email@example.com” Subject: [New post] When Scripture Turns Terrifying
arw posted: ” Sometimes Scripture is scary.It takes me down rabbit-trails of terror.Verses others find comfort and strength in seem to pummel me to the ground and kick me while I’m down.I more easily see myself in the place of the damned than the Christian.Scripture i”
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you for sharing your story, Shay. I am also amazed at how many people struggle with scrupulosity! It saddens me to think that there are so many strugglers out there, many whom I suspect don’t realize this is a complex suffering, not a faith issue. I am praying for greater awareness among Christians!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Wow this hits home. My theme is constantly centered around the unforgivable sin. It’s horrible and I cannot function. When I snap out of it I am filled with joy but then something comes along and drags me back down. This has been going on since 2015.
I’m so sorry, Dylan. It is really horrible indeed. That cycle—finding some peace or joy and the plummeting again—is certainly very characteristic of OCD. You’re not alone!