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    Living with Religious Scrupulosity or Moral OCD

    Nobody warned me how obsessive-compulsive disorder can take the thing you care about most – your faith – and turn it against you.

    By Alan Noble

    July 10, 2023
    • L. Morales

      Brilliant. Thank you for risking so much to share this. I grew up in a church that praised my anxiety as pious. The path out of OCD is long and ongoing, but there is so much more life. Your comments and comparison to Abraham and Isaac’s sacrifice are brutal and accurate and helpful in describing how this condition is experienced. I’m grateful for you!

    • Susan Milillo

      I've struggled painfully with this my whole life. Thank you so much for understanding, and for speaking out about it.

    • Haley Wayerski

      Hi, I don’t know if you remember me! I was a student in your CIV class probably around 2018. I was just diagnosed in July with severe OCD/scrupulosity. It has quite literally shaken up my entire identity. I feel like I had made all this progress with the Lord and now I’m back at day 1. Thank you for sharing this piece. It’s cool to see a familiar name and struggle with a bit of hope attached. I am in the market for a good ERP therapist if you know of one in Oklahoma that does telehealth! They are surprisingly difficult to find.

    • Annette

      Thank you for your excellent article. As a mom of a Christian son diagnosed with OCD Scrupulosity, I was desperately seeking information and treatment options. We are thankful to have found an excellent ERP counselor specializing in OCD. Another great resource is Ted Witzig Jr.’s church’s website. He has excellent resources for Scrupulosity sufferers.

    • David Douglas

      I am in my 60s and I began to suffer from over-scrupulosity in my early 20s a couple years after my conversion, but the temperament was there all along. It is debilitating and to anyone suffering from this, so please find a competent pastor/elder whom you trust and whom you can be sure are scrupulous, but only biblically so ... because over-scrupulosity is not biblical ... and you need to trust them and begin to believe that their approach can be your approach. God gave at least two verses to guard against this ditch...and it is a ditch: "Do you see a man who is right in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him". Nothing feels as "right" as over-scrupulosity. "Do not be righteous overmuch. Why should you destroy yourself?" This is not a license to sin. It's a license to stop sinning by not being over-scrupulous. Take the cues from your counselors about where you are not seeing this correctly, confess fear as a sin, and obey the scripture God has made plain to all rather than the interpretations that are plain only to you... God has given me a degree of victory in this area compared to the paralysis I suffered from initially. But it is for me, like you all, a thorn in the flesh. So run after glory by his grace by rejecting the falsity of this approach to life, conscience and scriptures. This just touches the surface, but there is hope. And you are not alone. DDD

    • Vicky Denman

      Dear Allan, I also have this form of OCD (amongst others). I was always running to the confessional. When I stopped doing that, things got better. You did an exemplary job of showing what we go through. I am eternally grateful. Vicky Denman

    • Rev. Liza B. Knapp

      Thank you for sharing your journey, your challenges, your insight. I am riveted by the weaving of your own story with the story of Abraham and Isaac. I do hear an echo in Genesis, of the struggle between compulsive scrupulosity and the ‘teleological suspension’ of that scrupulosity. But, the resonance I hear has opened my heart to a dramatically different interpretation of the text than the one you propose. This is what I hear: Abraham, in his over-scrupulous fear, becomes convinced that God wants ‘one more thing’ of him — the sacrifice of his son. While the voices of reason around him can see clearly such an act would be utterly unholy, Abraham fears that failure to obey this inner conviction will incur divine wrath. He is in the grip of obsession. It is only at the last minute that the grace of God breaks through Abraham’s obsessive thoughts. It is only at the last minute that Abraham finds faith enough to trust the voices of others. It is only at the last minute, that he finds the strength to disobey his own fear-driven excess, and spare his son. Thanks again for stirring me to reflection. Peace and continued strength on your journey, Rev Liza B. Knapp

    • Jillian

      It's such a relief to read something that resonates so strongly with me, makes me feel less alone and wrong for having religious OCD. Thank you Alan!

    • Gianna

      OBU?! Curious how long you've been there. I graduated from the tiny Catholic college down the road from there in 2014, went through my own agony with OCD and scruples. I wish we could have met; it would have been good to have someone who understood.

    • Sherene Joseph

      Thank you for this, Alan! Your writing has meant so much to me over the last few years since I discovered your work! I have never been clinically diagnosed with OCD, but I do believe I have some very strong elements of it running in me. I believe I could not have survived this world without the radical power of Christ's love. Every day it takes effort and a choice to believe and trust in HIM. Thank you for sharing your story and for being a wounded healer.

    • Steve

      I appreciate this thoughtful piece. I am also a practicing Christian who has experienced OCD for many years, including the variety described here. As the author indicates, one of the biggest hurdles in treating moral scrupulosity is becoming comfortable with uncertainty. I have learned to accept a fair degree of grey in the moral decision-making process, all under the overriding belief that God truly loves me. This entails living with the possibility that I might be wrong: God may be dissatisfied with the extent of my repentance, my avoidance of sinful behaviors, etc. The key is listening to what my gut says is true about the gospel and trusting that God loves me despite my incomplete obedience.

    • Meagan

      Thank you for posting this article. I have not met anyone else who has struggled this way or read an article like this before. I struggle with this form of OCD as well and for about 10 years of my life, before I got counseling, it was debilitating. My turning point was when I finally chose to believe someone other than myself. I chose to believe what my counselor told me about God’s grace and perfect acceptance of me in Christ. I chose to believe that I wouldn’t lose my salvation by going against my “conscience” and that freed me to make choices that felt risky, but that allowed me to function like a normal person. I am much better today, but the healing is ongoing.

    • Summer Rottinger

      Wow. I could’ve written many of these words myself. The experience of OCD is indeed misunderstood and therefore can be extremely isolating and shame-inducing. Thanks Alan for sharing this struggle so that others like me, as well as those that love us, can learn a bit more about how to live and love well.

    • Keith Williams

      Thank you for this Alan…

    • phil bence

      Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for making yourself so vulnerable. You have helped me better understand OCD and religious scrupulosity. We all have foibles. I pray that we all can be as honest with our own uniquenesses as you have been.

    Growing up evangelical, I was taught that your personal conscience is law. God uses the Holy Spirit to guide and convict us through our innermost selves. So when the conscience speaks, not to listen is a sin. Your conscience can be mistaken, of course, but really only in one direction: a seared conscience. If you are insufficiently attentive to God’s word, or if you allow a particular sin to dominate you, then your conscience, rather than being God-guided, becomes “seared”: deaf to the promptings of the Spirit. But otherwise, I was told, when your inner voice speaks with conviction, you are morally obligated to obey.

    What nobody told me was that your conscience, or what feels like your conscience, can be entirely mistaken through no fault of your own. Just like it’s possible to feel no guilt when you should, it’s possible to feel guilt or anxiety or shame over things that you shouldn’t feel bad about at all. Nobody told me how your mind can be your own worst enemy. How it can fixate on imaginary sins. Nobody warned me about moral scrupulosity, the type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) I suffer from. Nobody warned me how anxiety and fear can take the thing you care about most – your faith – and turn it against you.

    OCD is what psychologists call an “ego-dystonic” condition: your fears come from the things you value the most, your greatest hopes, your most cherished aspirations – the kind of person you most deeply desire to be. I deeply desire to be a trustworthy, safe, responsible, morally upright person. So my OCD takes the form of fear that I’m exactly the opposite. Fear that I’ve behaved irresponsibly. Fears that I’ve harmed people in the past. And no matter how little evidence I have for these fears, no matter how many times or in how much detail wise friends reassure me that I haven’t harmed anyone, my OCD never lets me accept that reassurance. There’s always something my friends must have missed, that I must have overlooked. There’s always “one more thing.”

    Having OCD is like living with Columbo. There’s always just “one more thing,” one more doubt, one more detail. One more fear. And each fear feels like an accusation. The accusation that I’m an immoral, irresponsible person who has done grave harm and must live under judgment forever. That I can never be redeemed.

    OCD is surprisingly prevalent in the general population: around one in every hundred people has it. In spite of this – and in spite of how disabling the condition can be – the condition is widely, sometimes frustratingly, misunderstood. Typically, when people hear the term “OCD” they imagine obsessively tidy people: it’s not uncommon to hear someone refer to themselves as “a little OCD” about tidying their desk. The better informed, when asked about OCD, may think of someone who compulsively washes their hands. But the reality of OCD, especially in its severe and extreme forms, is much more debilitating.

    It’s washing your hands until they bleed. It’s ruminating alone for hours about harms you fear you’ve caused. Thinking over an event that occurred a decade ago again and again, finding it impossible to let go. And those are the good days. On the bad days OCD can look like locking yourself in the bedroom to agonize alone for ten or twelve hours. And when you’re done, you have a kind of hangover to deal with: the physiological cost of intense, anxious focus on the same thought for hours on end. Your body is worn out. Your mind is in a fog. And even then, when you’re wracked with shame over your endless rumination, the guilt you feel acts to tip you back into the habits that brought you to that point in the first place. Just check one more time. One more thing.

    silhouette of a man against fog and windswept trees

    Photograph by Majid Rangraz

    OCD can be treated. One way to do that is called “exposure and response prevention therapy” (ERP). Over time, in safe environments, you are exposed to the fears that torment you. And over time – often with the help of medications – your mind learns not to catastrophize or obsess about imagined failures. Slowly and sometimes painfully, you learn to tolerate uncertainty.

    But even beginning treatment requires a lot of faith. To get better, you have to believe that it’s appropriate to treat your fears as irrational, as medical problems and not existential threats. Which is a leap of faith. And, from the perspective of someone with OCD, also a risk. From the outside that perceived risk might look ridiculously tiny. Rationally, the chances of accidentally giving your family a fatal disease because you didn’t wash your hands enough are infinitesimal. But to someone living with OCD that risk is reasonable, even urgent. What would you do if one of them died from your negligence? You’d better wash one more time, just to be safe. You can’t risk it.

    True conscience is not a hyper-individual inner experience, but a knowing with others, a cleaving to the wisdom of God’s Word and the witness of the church.

    This disconnect between inner self and outside reality wears on the family and friends of people with OCD, asked again and again for reassurance that the sufferer’s worst anxieties won’t come true. To them the irrationality of these catastrophic fears is obvious. But to the OCD sufferer it’s obvious that those catastrophic fears might, at any moment, come true. And the reassurance feeds the OCD, sending a signal to your brain that there really might be a threat present. Then even that reassurance becomes a source of doubt and unease. Maybe you left out a crucial detail. Maybe the other person isn’t really trustworthy. Maybe they’re all lying to you. Just one more thing.

    Another serious misconception about OCD is that sufferers know what they are doing is irrational. Sometimes they do but often they don’t. People with “low-insight” OCD aren’t sure if their fears are irrational. Subjectively, their fears feel real, urgent, and serious. With successful treatment, it can be possible to look back and see irrational fears for what they are. Without treatment there are no such guarantees. The parts of the brain that warn of danger are on constant high alert in the minds of those suffering from OCD. The psychological equivalent of alarm bells are going off; red alerts warning you that something terrible will happen if the compulsions inherent to OCD are neglected.

    Instead of guidance and comfort, your conscience – or what seems to be your conscience – gives you just one message, again and again: be afraid. How do you summon the faith to go against your own conscience? What vantage point can be taken to objectively weigh up the situation you’re in? No matter where you go, there your mind is. And along with it, there is the fear.

    In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard describes Abraham’s obedience to God’s demand he sacrifice Isaac as entailing the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” The ethical standards of society embodied in the perspective of Abraham’s wife warned that sacrificing his eldest son would be an immoral act. But faith required Abraham to stand alone, trusting in God’s promises over and, if necessary, against what society told him was ethical, just, and right. Obvious and apparent good has to be rejected for the sake of the ultimate goodness of God.

    When you suffer from moral scrupulosity, you find yourself forced to practice a kind of teleological suspension of the ethical too. But here the ethical standard you must suspend is your own – of the standards of right and wrong given you by OCD. You have to choose the ego-dystonic option, no matter how abhorrent it seems. While the voice that feels like your conscience screams at you to repent or confess or make recompense for some imagined harm, you have to trust in the voices of others. Like Abraham, you keep faith in God’s promises, his ultimate goodness, but as mediated through the wise voices of family, friends, doctors: people who will your good.

    And you have to. For the good of your family and to honor God you must take the risk that you are committing sin, that you’re causing harm. This means accepting a peculiar kind of suffering. Ask me to sacrifice my life for my family and I will, without hesitation. But ask me to willingly take on the fear, anxiety, and shame of OCD for my family, and I curl into a ball. Because to my mind, the latter feels like you are asking me to become unrighteous for the sake of righteousness. And that’s a much, much heavier burden to bear. Even though the ideas OCD places in my mind are not, in the end, true, it doesn’t feel that way.

    This life demands more of us than we can imagine, but not more than we can bear. Because we don’t bear it alone. True conscience is not a hyper-individual inner experience, but a knowing with others, a cleaving to the wisdom of God’s Word and the witness of his body here on earth, the church. Conscience, understood this way, demands not that we follow every whim of our fallen minds, but that we collectively trust in the grace and goodness of the Father.

    When your mind turns against you, you need other minds to ground you. In OCD – and in many other mental health conditions – recovery requires you to take a leap of faith, believing against your own deeply felt beliefs, accepting that you can’t always trust your mind, but that you can trust in God’s love for you. And in that love, he has given you voices of compassion and wisdom. Some days those voices will be all you have: a single faint, flickering light in the darkness. But that’s OK. It’s enough. It has to be.

    Contributed By AlanNoble Alan Noble

    Alan Noble is associate professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University, cofounder and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, and an advisor for the AND Campaign.

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