Do you have an inordinate amount of fear in your spiritual life or feel afraid of going to hell? Are you an earnest follower of Jesus and yet have days where you doubt your security in Christ? You’re not alone. Many sincere believers who have a chronic anxiety disorder like OCD may struggle to feel consistent assurance of salvation.
Our guest poster today is Julie from the UK. She works as an accountant and lives with her husband of 31 years, Ben, and a diamond dove called Chalcedony. She’s been a follower of Jesus for 34 years and in her free time she enjoys walking in the countryside or by the sea, and reading. Today, she has graciously agreed to share her story of how she’s struggled with religious OCD. Follow along as she tells about being afraid she’s going to hell, afraid she’s losing her faith, and how God has begun healing her.
My Scrupulosity Breakdown
The first signs of my struggle with OCD appeared about twenty years ago when I would stand on train stations gripped with terror that I was going to jump off the platform onto the tracks. I would stand as far back as I could, gripping on to anything that I thought might help me hold myself back.
Then later I would find myself in church services certain I was going to shout out something terrible. I would bite my cheeks, suck sweets, again anything that I thought would stop me. And of course I prayed hard.
I gradually began to realise I was struggling with OCD but it still didn’t enable me to spot the intrusive thoughts that came just as part of everyday life. I became certain people were plotting against me, and imagined there was a big conspiracy against me involving different church leaders and churches. We even left one church for another but I was certain it had followed me there. Only after I discovered I had scrupulosity did I begin to understand it was all driven by intrusive thoughts.
That did my spiritual health no good, and in late Autumn 2021 I crashed. I had started a new temporary job. The first night I became anxious I wasn’t going to sleep, and so of course I didn’t, then I didn’t sleep the next night and the next. Verses about God giving sleep to those He loves kept coming into my head and I became certain I was under God’s judgement. Looking back of course there are plenty of Psalms about believers struggling through sleepless nights, but none of those came into my head. All I could think about was being under judgement.
Then one night I was praying to God for forgiveness and I didn’t feel forgiven. I suddenly found myself aware that I couldn’t feel my faith and I became convinced it didn’t exist. My faith seemed to unravel completely and I found myself doubting everything I had believed for 32 years. By Christmas 2021 I was certain I was doomed and afraid of going to Hell. But what I didn’t ever do was stop talking to God. My quiet times with Him at the time felt very forced, I felt no connection, I felt like I was telling Him I was coming into His presence through the blood of Jesus but that I didn’t really believe it. But I am very thankful that I never stopped talking to Him.
Trying to “Feel” My Faith
At the same time as I was convinced I was going to Hell, that God had cut me off, I was also desperate to be able to feel my faith and believe I had faith once more, and to feel that I was saved. So for months, from morning to night, I was obsessing all day long, going round and round in circles trying to convince myself I was trusting in Jesus, trying to feel saved. I would do whatever I could to make myself feel like I had faith, and as soon as I had achieved it, five minutes later it was gone. I kept coming up with new ways of feeling I had faith, and sometimes they even ‘worked’ for an evening, but then by the next day they didn’t ‘work’ any more.
I asked everyone I knew well enough to pray for me, asking them to pray that I would get my faith back, that I would be able to trust in Jesus once more. Each day I would have a morning quiet time, somehow get through the day, and then spend the last hour of the day praying about my struggle, desperately praying He would restore me, restore my faith, forgive me, give me another chance. I kept telling my husband I felt I was clinging on to the Lord for dear life.
The first step forward was finally realising that I had turned faith into a work. I had come to see myself as responsible for generating faith, and that if only I could do it everything would be ok and I would know I was saved. But I finally came to my senses and remembered that faith is God’s gift, we’re not capable of generating it ourselves. I started praying that God would grow my faith and my belief in Him. My brother also gave me a helpful suggestion, that I should read the creed out loud every day and declare ‘this is what I choose to believe,’ so I started doing that and it has worked well for me.
Afraid of Going to Hell: Reading the Difficult Passages
I had continued following my reading a Bible in a year plan but I was finding that almost every passage I read in the Old Testament was passing judgement on me. In the end I said to my husband I thought I should just read the gospels, and then I found myself terrified I wouldn’t believe what I was reading. If I didn’t believe the gospels that was it, I was certain then I would be absolutely lost. I became afraid of reading them in case I didn’t believe what I was reading. And my feelings made me think I didn’t believe.
Then I began to realise that if I really didn’t believe the Bible I wouldn’t be worried about not believing it, that actually the fact I was so terrified of not believing it showed I did really believe it. I found that helpful and finally decided that as I wanted to see my faith grow the best thing to do was to work very slowly through the gospel of John using a commentary, so I really understood what I was reading. That has been a very helpful thing to do and has worked well for me.
My aunt and uncle, my husband, and believing friends who know me well have consistently kept telling me I am definitely saved and that it is Jesus who holds on to me. I started learning the verses about the Lord’s hold on those He saves like Philippians 1:6 “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” and I started learning verses about the love and faithfulness of God. I wanted to drive into myself the truth that God is a God of lovingkindness and faithfulness who I can trust.
My temporary job ended in April 2022, and for a couple of months I was at home all day, and I began driving myself mad walking round and round the house all day praying desperately to God for deliverance and restoration. I thought I was too ill to work, but actually I desperately needed to be distracted, and God knew that. A friend who is an employment agent started pushing jobs at me, I went for an interview, and when I was offered a second interview I tried to back out saying I wasn’t ready to go back to work, but my prospective employer said come in and talk about it. The second interview was her talking me into taking the job, and by the end of it I realised that God’s hand was in it so I took the job and it really has been therapeutic. Many days, not every day but many days, I get so engrossed in my work I don’t spend much time ruminating and that has done me enormous good.
Truths That Help Me Stop Being Afraid of Going to Hell
I have kept looking back at my job as evidence of God’s care for me. Then in May 2022 I started seeing a new Biblical counsellor. Once she had got to know me, she started assuring me I am really a believer, and started helping me to find ways to recognise that. She pointed out a number of things to me that have really helped me:
- Even when I thought I was cut off I never stopped wanting a relationship with God and seeking Him. She pointed out to me that that was all the work of the Holy Spirit. I thought I was abandoned but He was still pursuing me, and every desire to seek after Him, to know Him, to believe in Him, was all His work in my heart.
- That I could see my faith in Jesus reflected in my desperation. My desperation to be right with God, to know I’m right with God, and to have a relationship with Him, is all evidence of my faith.
It was my counsellor who first identified that I was struggling with Scrupulosity, which I had never heard of. But it made sense looking back on my history of OCD. That was a big step forward for me, just understanding what I was struggling with and learning that I could trust God instead of being so afraid of going to hell.
One morning I was praying hard that the Lord would not let the destroyer within destroy my faith. I felt like I had this enemy within me who was intent on destroying my faith completely and I was praying hard the Lord would not let that happen. I started on my verses in John for the day and looked up a cross reference in Isaiah. I prayed and when I opened my eyes I found myself looking at these verses in Isaiah 49:15-17 in the NASB which is what I use: “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; Your walls are continually before Me. Your builders hurry; your destroyers and devastators will leave you.”
It felt like God was saying, “I heard your prayer and I’m going to answer it, just wait and you will see what I will do.”
I was listening to a sermon one day and my eye fell on a verse on the opposite page I had underlined: “Those who hopefully wait for Me will not be put to shame” (Isaiah 49:23). That together with Psalm 63:8 “My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me” have been life verses for me over this time.
A friend in my church gave me a copy of Is It Unspiritual to be Depressed? by Paul Ritchie and I found it the most helpful book I have read. He also struggles with Scrupulosity and there is a quote in it that says “The lives of many godly Christians, the experience of the psalmists, the suffering of our Saviour and the teaching of Scripture all show that one of the ways that we honour God is holding on to Him for dear life in the midst of inner turmoil and pain.” I found that so helpful because from the start I had felt I was clinging on to God for dear life and I found it so helpful to know I was honouring God by doing that.
One day I noticed a book was sticking out of our bookshelf – one I had read in the past: Dark Clouds Deep Mercy. I thought maybe God wanted me to read it again so I did and it was also hugely helpful. It is about using Biblical lament to express pain to God, cry out to Him, and express faith in Him. I started doing that and have written out many of my own laments based on the Psalms, crying out to the Lord to help me.
Learning to Trust God
I recognised as I prayed each day that before my ‘crash’ I had become very complacent in my Christian faith in many ways, particularly in treating lightly Jesus’s commandment that we love one another. I acknowledged to God that I had gone wrong in many ways as a believer and asked Him to forgive me, and I began to recognise the struggle I was facing as God’s will for me, as both His loving discipline and His training, and to pray He would work through it to make me into the person He wants me to be.
I also recognised that as the Lord is the giver of my faith so He is the maintainer of my faith. As He is the Saviour of my soul so He is the keeper of my soul. So every day now I express to Him my total dependence on Him to keep me going, to keep me clinging on to Him, to keep me following Him. I have begun to understand that He wants us to be dependent on Him, and that scrupulosity makes us dependent on Him in a way we would not be otherwise.
One day I was praying with my head down as the computer was turning on, and I started asking God to enable me to step off the bridge and trust Him to catch me. When I looked up, there was a picture of a bridge on the Windows log in screen. I could hardly believe it, again it was like He was saying, “I heard you. Trust Me.”
All these different things have fed into a growing faith and trust in Him that He is going to bring me through this, and now when I come to Him to pray to Him I know that I have a relationship with Him.
I recently found Scrupulosity.com and I am starting to try to put into practice what I am learning. As I write this I am not better, far from it. I am working on recognising that a lie of scrupulosity is that I can’t deal with uncertainty, and that actually with God’s help I can. I am working on recognising my doubts as scrupulosity symptoms, and not responding to them. I am seeking to give God responsibility for the depth of my faith in Him, and for all my OCD anxieties. I am trusting Jesus for my salvation and my eternal home, but because my scrupulosity at present prevents me from feeling assurance, I will follow Him anyway, as I ask Him to heal me.
Lessons from My Battle with Religious OCD
In my struggle to stop being afraid of going to hell or losing my faith or all the other things scrupulosity has thrown at me, here are a few lessons I’d like to share:
- Faith is God’s gift. There’s no point trying to generate it. We need to look to Him and depend on Him which is exactly what He wants us to do.
- Keep talking to God. Even if the only way you can do it is by reading a Psalm out loud, still keep talking to Him. And try to keep listening to Him in His Word, even if for a while it is just a few verses a day.
- Refusing to engage with our doubts does take faith. Because the feelings of fear and ‘not being safe’ can be overwhelming. But I think at the moment this is for me ‘stepping off the bridge’ and trusting Him to catch me. Just refusing to engage with the doubts and trusting Him to hold on to me.
- Remember always that it was Him who chose you. Philippians 1:6 He will complete the good work He began. Keep clinging on to Him as He holds on to you.
We are so grateful to Julie for sharing her experience with scrupulosity. If you would like to respond to her story, please feel free to comment below. Thank you, Julie, and may God continue guiding you on your journey to mental, emotional, and spiritual wholeness!