Engaging Scripture When It’s Terrifying

A few weeks ago I wrote about how Scripture can be discouraging and even terrifying for those with scrupulosity (read it here).

If we engage with Scripture, we’re bombarded with intrusive thoughts, doubts, and anxiety. If we avoid Scripture, we’re bombarded with intrusive thoughts, doubts, and anxiety.

If this is reality, what can we do? These are by no means “the” way to proceed; they don’t promise a linear path or prescribe complete healing. They’re just things I have found helpful over the years.

I’ve written a lot about how we deal with scrupulosity: label the thought as scrupulosity and disregard it; resist compulsions while taking the risk of being wrong; abide the uncertainty while engaging with God (read more on this here and here). But in addition to these, I want to offer some things that have been helpful for me, specific to the topic of Scripture.

Don’t allow your reaction to Scripture to become a sign of spiritual danger.

When I read Scripture, I disengage. Other times I avoid it altogether. Why then is it so hard to engage with? My distorted view of myself and others tells me that I’m the only one who struggles in this way, and that my lack of desire to engage with Scripture is yet more evidence that I’m unsaved, or spiritually immature, and so on. Yet, if I’m always on the lookout for potential evidence against myself, then I will take everything as evidence.

I worry that my fear over reading Scripture and subsequent avoidance are signs of spiritual danger. Yet my fear of Scripture is a telltale sign of scrupulosity, not a state of my heart. As for avoidance, my counselor has likened reading Scripture to sticking my hand in a socket. I know I’m going to get burned, so why would I put my finger in it? It makes sense that I would avoid it; it’s not a sign of spiritual danger.

Look for the objective.

One goal for those of us who struggle is to look for the things we can stand on. For me, it’s too hard to put weight in the verses that say, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9), because I start to think: “Have I ever really confessed or believed?”

But verses like this are often more hopeful: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:8). Even though I’m not sure I’m saved, this verse shows me who the Lord is against my faulty notions of him.

In other words, look for the objective truth. Scrupulosity wants to focus on the subjective: “How does this apply to me? What does it mean for me? Am I living up to this?” But notice objective truths about the Lord: “What does this say about who Jesus is?” While my subjective experiences are important, with scrupulosity they can become over-important, so it’s vital that I focus on the objective, too.

Asking questions like, “What does this mean for me?” can cause further anxiety and rumination. Asking questions like, “What does this say about God? What does it reveal about Jesus?” may stir up the same reactions, but they point my gaze up from this downward spiral and out of my own experience.

It’s okay to abstain!

There’s a belief going around in evangelical circles that you can only be a thriving Christian when you spend daily time in God’s Word. I worry then what this says about me, as I’ve had seasons where I’ve refrained from reading the Bible due to anxiety.

But I believe this is true: we can’t always—nor should we only—read Scripture on our own. It’s okay to refrain from certain passages of Scripture that are especially anxiety-producing. It’s okay to refrain from all of Scripture for some seasons! Of course, this is not our end goal or aspiration, but I am certain that the Lord understands our weakness and is committed to meeting us in other ways.

I know this may sound concerning to some. Why am I telling someone who wants to become more like Christ that they possibly shouldn’t read the Bible? Because reading it is like going into battle without any armor.

On the flip side, Scripture can be a good opportunity to expose ourselves to something that makes us anxious. It can be a helpful step in the fight against scrupulosity. But it’s also a wisdom issue. Sometimes it’s just too hard to read Scripture alone. There’s a tender balance between wanting to engage with Scripture as an exposure therapy exercise, and then wisdom in knowing when is too much. Therefore it is vital that we have a plan for when we read it and are able to discern when it might be best not to read it.

Regardless of how much we choose to expose ourselves, we should do this in the context of professional help, or at least a wise friend who understands scrupulosity/OCD.

Find other ways to engage with Scripture.

I believe Scripture is God’s revelation to us, his very Word, and is vital for our walk with God. And yet, this doesn’t mean our only exposure to it has to come through reading Scripture alone. I’ve been challenged not to think of Scripture too narrowly (i.e., reading it alone during “devotions”). Listening to a sermon is hearing Scripture (though, of course, there are times when it may be too hard to do this, too). Other things—Christian music or Christian nonfiction—may not be word-for-word Scripture, and yet can be saturated in biblical truth. There have been times where all I can do is to listen to music that wouldn’t even be labeled “Christian” but is full of references to God’s kindness and grace, and yet that has been very powerful for me.

Don’t forget God’s presence in his creation, too. Often, taking a walk outside can be such a healing experience. Notice the little ways that God is taking care of his creation: in rainbows reflecting his promise, in the turn of seasons that reflects God’s story of redemption, in a wonderfully-woven spider web that shows God’s glory even in the smallest of details.

All I’m saying here is this: we shouldn’t limit God’s revelation of himself, and our ability to be impacted by the gospel, through the personal reading of Scripture as the only possible means.

Look to others for help.

In 21st century America, we value individualism, and this has impacted church culture. We put more emphasis on individual devotions and forget the communal aspect of faith. Scripture cares about the individual, but it also puts a lot of emphasis on the body. Community is so important to any struggle. Specific to scrupulosity, others can help us in our struggle to read Scripture.

It’s hard to read Scripture on my own. Even when I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like I can start pushing back against my doubts and engage with Scripture, I’ve still needed someone to help me. When I read Scripture, I get into these cycles of doubt and questioning immediately, and sometimes without realizing. Frankly, I don’t always trust myself to read the Bible, because I can twist even verses of grace into a to-do list. It’s helpful to read Scripture with a trusted friend, voice my thoughts to them, and allow them to speak into my doubts. Others encourage me and model Jesus, which has helped push back against my distorted view of God and Scripture. They offer another, more gracious perspective than my scrupulosity gives.

Look for Christ’s heart.

When we are bombarded with doubts and intrusive thoughts, our goal is to walk them through with God. If you’ve read this blog before, most likely you know what I’m talking about. We take our thoughts and doubts to God as we’re reading Scripture (or as we’re struggling with guilt over refraining). We can pour out our heart to him and trust that he hears.

Similar to looking for the objective versus the subjective, we look for Christ in Scripture. We look for where he appears, and where the gospel shines through. We look for his heart for sinners and sufferers.

Remember this: Jesus understands. The guilt we feel when we refrain from reading Scripture due to intense anxiety and obsessive thought patterns is not from Jesus. That is from ourselves and our own expectations that we have for ourselves. And it is from others who insist that the only way to be a genuine, strong, growing, Christ-loving Christian is to read the Bible every day. But that guilt is not from Jesus. He is a lot kinder to us than we are to ourselves. And he is committed to walking with us through our scrupulosity, even in—especially in—our weakness, fear, and doubt.

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