Why do we feel so bothered by uncertainty? What drives us to painful rumination as we try to solve the mysteries of an unknown future? Why is it so hard for some of us to get out of our head? OCD is indeed a ruthless taskmaster, but it isn’t a legitimate one. In this article, I’ll share with you why our ruminative cycles and desire for absolute certainty are ultimately vain endeavors.
Bothered by OCD’s Uncertainty Trap
OCD seems monstrously overwhelming, but in reality, it only has two main weapons: doubt and guilt.
Mark Freeman argues on his blog that OCD doesn’t really have subcategories such as scrupulosity, harm OCD, contamination OCD, etc. He suggests that all OCD types are just surface variations of the same underlying patterns. I definitely agree, although I still think that it can be helpful to categorize simply for the sake of OCD sufferers empathizing with each other and providing more specific and helpful support. Anyways, read Mark’s article because it’s brutally hilarious and quite a good read.
OCD of all kinds operates on the same general pattern. Like the hinges on a door, it only turns in two directions. It either tortures you with guilt or with a sense of uncertainty.
- People with scrupulosity may feel guilty about not having completed their prayers correctly. Or, they may feel uncertain about their salvation.
- People with contamination OCD may feel guilty about leaving their own germs in places that might infect others. Or, they may feel uncertain about whether they have contracted AIDS from touching something in a public place.
- People with HOCD may feel guilty because of their intrusive thoughts of hurting their children (which causes compulsions such as hiding knives). Or, they may feel uncertain that they wouldn’t actually follow through with such thoughts, which spikes their anxiety.
The guilt and uncertainty of OCD is an emotional trap that keeps you engaged in the obsessions and compulsions aroused by these negative feelings. Imagine that OCD is your annoying older brother who knows just how to goad you into a fight. These emotions of guilt and uncertainty compel us to fight back, despite the fact that there’s no chance of winning.
How to Not Be Bothered by the Uncertainty of OCD
One of the most difficult parts of therapy is letting go of our need to feed our guilt and uncertainty. That’s what compulsions are, actually. They are our twisted way of feeding guilt and uncertainty.
Unfortunately, when we feed our uncertainty (by reassurance-seeking, internet searches, compulsions, etc.) we are caught in what I call The Fallacy of Omniscience. It is a fallacy that you can know everything completely and perfectly. But we sure try, don’t we? We’ve got to figure everything out before we feel internally safe and at peace.
But is it actually possible to know 100% that the germs you spread in your child’s daycare will not kill someone? Is it possible to know here in this physical life your metaphysical destiny – either to heaven or to hell or to stardust? Considering the unexplainably random, looping power of intrusive thoughts, is it really possible to know whether you’re secretly attracted to homosexuals or underage children or poodles? Can you REALLY know everything in the Bible to a satisfactory level?
The reality is that our search to find absolute certainty is a way of putting ourselves in the place of God. This, my friends, is idolatry – plain and simple.
To indulge the obsession that you CAN and SHOULD overcome every last shred of uncertainty was never promised to us. Jesus said that His burden is easy and light, but He didn’t say there is no burden at all. As long as we live in this life, we will encounter guilt, uncertainty, and many other disturbing mental phenomena. What we DO with those disturbing thoughts is up to us.
If you’re like me, contemplating the idea that we can’t be 100% sure about such important things is pretty terrifying. But maybe that’s why we call it “faith” instead of “knowledge.” But we’ll get to that later. First, let’s take a look at a few case studies of religious OCD where individuals were hot and bothered by uncertainty.
Scrupulosity Case Study 1: Compulsive Prayer
Unnamed obsessive #1 had a compulsion for prayer. He had several thick notebooks where he had written down every single time that he promised someone that he would pray for them. After all, if you say you’ll pray for someone and then you don’t, that’s a lie, isn’t it? By the time he sought treatment, he was compulsively spending more than three hours per day going through every page of these notebooks – which by now were wrinkled and greasy from many years of handling.
His obsession about making sure he prayed for every single request every day was based – not on Christian love and faith – but on a desire to avoid the guilt of moral failure (lying) and the uncertainty of what might happen to him if he failed to meet God’s expectations for him.
After seeking treatment in a Christian mental health program, he was encouraged to burn these books and develop a healthier prayer life, centering on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and balanced views of responsibility.
Scrupulosity Case Study 2: Compulsive Bible Study
When I spoke with unnamed obsessive #2, he was having significant obsessions with Bible truth. He admitted spending upwards of five to six hours per day dealing with questions that simply will not go away – such as “are the angels male or female?” and other questions that most Christians would view as unimportant. For him, these truths are life-or-death.
Although he knows he has OCD, he felt caught in the loop of finding answers, because when a question came to mind, it was accompanied by extreme anxiety. This anxiety subsided slightly when he researched for the answer, but would come back in full force when he least expected it. His hours and hours of research online were intended to reduce a sense of uncertainty that caused him extreme anguish and a sense of guilt that truth is “there” but that he is not doing his part to uncover it.
Is It Ok to Be Uncertain?
Most people are to some extent bothered by uncertainty. But for individuals with OCD, this emotion can feel even more intense. We have to remember that we are not omniscient! We have to realize that we do not know the answer to every uncertainty that arises, nor do we need to! Yes, there are some uncertainties that we have a legitimate right to research, but to everything there is a limit. For me, recognizing the simple fact that it’s ok to say “I don’t know” was perhaps the most freeing realization I ever made.
And this will take practice. Telling yourself “I don’t need to research whatever is causing me anxiety” will feel very awkward at first. Your anxiety will probably spike even higher in the initial moments that you resist the compulsion. But check out this graphic I’ve prepared that compares the long-term effects of giving in to your compulsion versus exposing yourself to the anxiety and “sitting through it,” as we say in the OCD world.
The first blue line illustrates your level of anxiety when you embrace uncertainty. If you’re treating your scrupulosity with the clinical route, it is called exposure therapy. If you’re treating scrupulosity with the spiritual route, it’s called faith.
(If you would like to test yourself for scrupulosity, take the quiz here.)
The faith that is strong enough to defeat religious OCD demands a tough response. As you can see on the graph, when you embrace faith instead of certainty and allow yourself to accept the fact that there are and always will be “unknowns” in your faith experience, you will definitely feel a spike of anxiety.
This is normal, and you may mistakenly identify your anxiety as conviction or as the voice of the Holy Spirit. A pastor, chaplain, or spiritual coach can help you work through which of your “urges” are compulsively sourced from your OCD, and which are truly supported by Scripture.
What you don’t want to do is try to “fix” your feelings of anxiety. You will experience a thought or situation that causes feelings of anxiety, and your natural instinct will be to engage in compulsive religious behavior that has made you feel better in the past (the orange line above). But to move past these cycles of rumination and compulsion, you need to sit through the anxiety until it goes away on its own.
That is, you do not try to push it away, and you do NOT try to argue against it. It’s just there, and you let it be there. You learn to give it as much attention as the weather. After all, you don’t argue with the cloud that rains in the sky. It’s just there, and you’re under it. What can you do? You know that rain cloud will go away eventually, and the same with your intrusive thought. Acknowledge it. Say hi to it. And let it just be there without arguing against it or interacting with it. When you get braver, you will tell it, “you’re not as important as you pretend to be.” After an initial spike in anxiety, you will notice that the emotions will drop significantly.
The orange line represents the traditional anxiety reaction that occurs when you allow yourself to get caught in reassurance-seeking and checking behaviors (researching for hours, seeking reassurance from religious authorities, doing your prayers over again because you may have made a mistake, etc). After a spike of anxiety, the reassurance-seeking behavior drives the anxiety back down – a little. But these behaviors are cyclical, and always lead to a repetition of the same. Soon you find yourself bothered by uncertainty again, and it spirals you up into more and more anxiety. The reassurance-seeking behaviors, which promised relief from anxiety, have deceived you in the end, and you find yourself at such a height of anxiety that you find yourself at a crisis.
Faith doesn’t depend on you, your actions, or your mental achievements. Faith is a reaching up to God and grasping His merits, His strength, His wisdom. Faith readily admits our ignorance but is not bothered by it.
Omniscience, after all, is for God alone. Who am I to think I can know everything with complete certainty? Is that not utterly prideful?
Whether your scrupulosity leads you to compulsive prayer, study, evangelism, purification, confession, or conscientiousness, recognize that at the root of your compulsion is a groaning, anxious pain of either guilt or uncertainty. In this article I’ve focused on uncertainty, and in an upcoming article I’ll talk about guilt.
The compulsions that urge you to “fix” these doubts or feelings of false guilt will never allow you to feel “fixed.” Only a genuine faith response that learns to sit still in the face of anxiety will bring lasting relief.
It is a long and difficult road to bring OCD under control, but it is possible. I believe that recognizing the fallacy of omniscience is a powerful step that can help sincere Christians who have OCD. Only God is omniscient. Uncertainty will always be a part of life here on earth, and sooner or later, we have to face our fear of it and learn to sit still instead of arguing against it.
For some of us, the hardest battle we’ll ever have to fight is to sit still in the face of terror. But once we learn how to do that, we’ll know that we have genuine faith. If you consistently feel bothered by uncertainty, perhaps it’s a call to faith rather than certainty.
What about you? How does uncertainty manifest itself in your religious OCD experience? Drop me a comment below to share.
Take care, and have a faithful journey.
Just joined recently, and what a blessed resource your site has been for me. Thank you many times over. Please keep posting! Dawn
Welcome, Dawn! Glad you’re here, and yes, I’ll be doing my best to keep posting 🙂
I had a truly terrifying problem, that seemed to put me on the list of people who would not go to heaven. I’d repented of it, but because of my situation it was still my status as a person. I sought help and counsel and was told it was ok, but that didn’t make sense, and there are hard liners out there who thought the same, which was terrifying. I kept digging because just being told Jesus loves me was a wishy washy thing to say. Jesus says we are to obey him and I didn’t know how, in my predicament. So I dug deeper into the Greek, and eventually found I was ok, through research. I’m sorry, but uncertainty wasn’t an option. I had to know whether I was still in a state of sin!
But the OCD part of this is that sometimes I still feel this deep dread that I’m mistaken, or the Greek scholars are wrong, or everyone is being too soft, or I just don’t feel right about it. Or I need to do the most extreme remedy in order to be safe. No actually that would also be a sin, so I was damned if I did and if I didn’t. I was already in hell! And so in that sense I have to trust and let go and tell myself to ignore it.
Actually the feeling of dread and guilt came first, before I found anything wrong to hang on it. Feeling like that made me search for the problem, to try to fix it! It crescendos into a rush of adrenalin, and hot flushes and is truly debilitating.
I have several thorny problems from the past that I cycle through, but the way I worry is the same OCD type of thing, and I was beginning to recognise that and see a pattern even before I came here. I must remember Paul said to put things behind us. This is a terrible thing, knowing you’re forgiven but not feeling the weight lift off, still worrying about it. It make me seem faithless, ungrateful, even calling God a liar by behaving as though I don’t believe I’m forgiven. How ungrateful, did Jesus die for nothing, then? Of course not, but why am I doing this?, and round we go again!
But, reading these things you say, Jaimie, has shown me the pattern, the typical things common to all OCD that I can stuff my uncertainty into and say, there’s a good chance that what I’m worrying about is not true, because I’m fitting this pattern, I’m very careful anyway and wouldn’t knowingly sin if I could possibly help it, so how about we relax? A bit… it was such a striking similarity between your comments and my mental habits, it reminds me of how different infections have their own patterns of rash. Now why a measles rash is distinctly different from shingles or chickenpox, take your pick, is a mystery to me, but it’s diagnostic to a doctor. This is MARVELLOUS in our eyes!! This is OCD! This is a safety margin in which we can rest and trust God that he won’t let us fall. He at least knows we don’t want to fall, nothing could be further from our laboured intent.
So thank you for sorting it all out and describing it so well! I could easily recognise my problem. I’ve not got an official diagnosis, and in the U.K. they tell us not to rely on internet tests (I wonder why?) but it’s glaringly obvious to me. So I’m confident I’m barking up the right tree! I’ll keep reading. Thank you again.
Hi Jaimie! I have read many of your articles, and I like the idea of us not being able to be absolutely certain about our salvation. I was looking over the worksheet from this article, and it asks why our craving is unbiblical. I feel that my craving to know Im saved is biblical, as stated in 1 John 5:13, where it says if you have put your faith in Jesus Christ you can be absolutely sure that you are saved. This trips me up because the Bible says we can have this certainty. I imagine this verse is what pastors based their statement on when they say "if your not absolutely sure your saved, you can know today." and similar statements. Can you help me reconcile this?
So glad to hear that you’re thoughtfully working through these concepts. You are correct, it is a biblical thing to have certainty of salvation. The question is, what does biblical “certainty” actually mean? My understanding is that our certainty is to be placed in the Person of Jesus Christ rather than in outcomes, feelings, externals, or thoughts. So, for example, Job felt bad, he had bad thoughts about God, his external situation seemed horrible, and as he listened to the accusations of his friends it almost seemed as though his eternal outcome would be bad. But he still had certainty in GOD, even though everything else was very hazy. That’s why he was able to say,
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
And He shall stand at last on the earth;
And after my skin is destroyed, this I know,
That in my flesh I shall see God,
Whom I shall see for myself,
And my eyes shall behold, and not another.
He doesn’t mention any sort of certainty in what will happen to him when he sees God (those in the Old Testament don’t seem to have had an understanding of heaven that was as clearly-formed as Christians who have the New Testament, so in general OT depictions of the afterlife tend to be hazy foreshadowings rather than clear descriptions). Job’s certainty is that God is real, and that he’s going to see Him one day. Beyond that, Job doesn’t seem to know much at all.
This is echoed by John when he wrote, “He who has the Son has life.” Our certainty is to be placed in God, not in ourselves and our frail brain’s ability to feel confident about the future.
Of course, this whole thing can get a bit muddled with OCD, because we doubt everything that can be doubted. That’s why it’s helpful to step back and say, “I know God calls us to certainty, but my brain tries to take it to a new level that He didn’t intend–and that’s what I don’t have to force.”
I hope this helps a bit. I know it can be hard to apply Bible truths in the obsessive-compulsive context, but again, as I’ve said elsewhere, it’s important to remember that God understands why our brains operate the way they do, and He’s with us to help us find healing.
I read this article by David Servant (marvellous name for a pastor!)
I actually found it very unsettling because he was talking about our doing works in response to our salvation and God’s grace, and there’s plenty of verses to say yes, we have assurance, if we pass the test of faith, if we examine ourselves, and other such things that paint a picture of conditional grace. We will obey Jesus if we love him. And I must say I then fret about not doing enough to show I do,
His article is full of verses to debunk the once saved always saved thinking. I felt unsettled because I was worried, and because I was left agreeing with him and hoping I was doing enough! It is perfectly reasonable of God to want our our obedience and for us to want to, more and more, out of gratitude and love. I just find it easy to worry that I’ve dug a hole and climbed into it! I’ve written to him and asked for a balancing statement for people who would worry excessively about this.
So I hope this is a topic you have, or will cover for us, please?. I think it’s sorely needed. This subject is not agreed upon out in the non OCD world, after all. Thank you Jaimie
Dear reader, I pray my comment hasn’t triggered anything too painful in your soul. This business of demonstrating out faith by our response to God’s grace should be possible,, since we are believers, but it is tricky nonetheless. Jaimie invites our comments and questions here, and I can’t see an email address to hide this question from distressing you. I pray you will be safe in the Lord in faith, have that assurance.
Thank you Jaime!!!!!!!!!!
I'm so glad I came across your blog and the helpful phrase 'fallacy of omniscience' (I was searching online for resources on this topic). I'd already knew I have struggles with recognising that it's not my job to be superhuman :-). But it wasn't until today that I thought more specifically about how only God can be fully certain; I need to be willing to live with uncertainty and put my trust in the one who knows.
Over the last 13 years I’ve had OCD…recently scrupulosity has popped back up. The major theme is sharing the gospel with friends and loved ones. Do I make it happen or lean on the Holy Spirit to open the doors? I KNOW that being led my anxiety and compulsion is NOT an option. I feel that I’m staring down the beginning of a dark tunnel if uncertainty but I’ve been clinging to the word of God. I do have a biblical counselor who loves me and is walking with me. But we all know that you can still feel alone even when you’re not.
I have this same problem. I feel like if I don't evangelize everywhere I go that God is going to be mad at me. I want so much to witness out of love and the leading of the Holy Spirt and not compulsion. I get super anxious and tongue tied when I start to witness for the Lord.
Fatalism is my problem. And sadly my mind has been prone to a lot of rabbit holes of so-called "sound" doctrine and theology.
Uncertainty has this cloud that often follows me, which even when things are going well and I may be happy, in the back of my mind the nagging thought says, "something must be wrong."
That sounds like a very familiar cloud. 🙂
Hi Jaimie! Your articles have been very helpful, specially coming from a Christian perspective!
I love the metaphor of the puppy from the comments haha 🙂
Now I am in an uncertainty cycle again, it is about 'Why does God allow suffering in the world?'. One of the hardest questions indeed. It helps me to remember Job's story, where he never knew the cause of his great suffering (in this side of eternity), but at the end he trusted God despite that, and repented of his presumptions. It helps me to see that it's important to stop where the Bible stops (in this case, assuming things about God's will that the Bible is silent about), and I've also seen many times that people wanting to go beyond what the Bible says have done more damage than good, even if it seemed right at first.
And now my intrusive thoughts want to go to the OTHER extreme (I hate it), and now I feel like if I want to investigate about ANYTHING spiritual, I am sinning because I feel like I want to be omnipresent and defy God. I like investigating and learning about new things, but I also want to be humble and recognize when I should stop.
Seems like the 'scruppy puppy' can't have meat and wants fish instead 🙁
I wonder if someone else has this 'extreme mentality' problem.
Oh yes, absolutely…I think it’s common to swing between extremes with scrupulosity. What we typically see is a pattern of either over-engagement or avoidance. And sometimes we flip-flop between these two extremes a few times before finding balance. Sounds like you’re doing just fine as you figure out where the balance is (I say that you sound “just fine” because you are cognizant of what’s happening–see my latest blog post on “insight” to know what that’s such a good indicator!) You’ll get there. Balance takes time to achieve and we praise God for His grace which helps us find the right place to “land the plane,” so to speak. 🙂
Continuing….thought of more
It's like they are implying that 100% certainty is required. That right there would cause anyone to be unsure especially us Scrupies. Also it puts unnecessary burden on us to keep ourselves saved and even get ourselves saved. I don't get why they don't just say, "It's ok if you are not 100% certain. Jesus gets it. He's got you. You could have .000000000% faith when you got saved at the start and still be saved. You could doubt literally every second after being saved and still be saved."
I mean with my scrupy puppy, it says, "You sure you fully trusted in Jesus and did not have any even of the tiniest of doubts?" Well, I can't say 100%. I mean yes I did but how am I supposed to do what only God can do? Then for other Christians to require it is not right.
Scruppy puppy whines and wants attention a lot. I need to learn to ignore its whining. Weird thing is that sometimes I get distracted from it by other things and it goes away. However, if I give it attention it just keeps whining for more. It is never satisfied. Greedy scruppy puppy!
It needs to go on a diet. Not get fed and get bigger and bigger and fatter and fatter or else it will take up more room.
Yet doesn't it take more faith to believe even if it is not a whole lot despite Scrup vs. with not? I mean anyone can find it easy to believe if they didn't have a constant whiny Scruppy Puppy.
Man, I'm full of questions. I am in that stage or what of uncertainty. However, I will never be certain, yet the Scruppy Puppy wants to be certain.
I'm surprised I don't have a migraine.
Haha, great illustration about scruppy puppy. You’re right, the more you feed it and give it attention, the more it whines. We have to learn to ignore the unnecessary whining of our scrupulosity while still feeding our true inner spirituality. Tough distinction to make, but I do believe God is VERY kind and understands the struggles of our unique brains!
Yes, unique indeed.
I remember the Scruppy Puppy first was having the blasphemous thoughts obsession. Then it started in the not sure you are really saved obsession. I had for a while there got distracted by other things so the whole not sure I'm saved thing vanished. I wasn't worrying our doubting. If something triggers it, it comes back whiney as ever.
Someone once told me that God knew I didn't mean to think those thoughts. That refers to the time I was very concerned about the bad blasphemous thoughts. The logical part of me is thinking, Well, since that is the case. Then why wouldn't God understand I also don't mean to doubt or have these thoughts I have now?
I think that makes sense.
I and we all need to be cautious that our Scruppy Puppies don't turn into old extremely fat dogs.
Now I'm wondering what a Scruppy Kitty would look like? I think if I fixiate on that, it might take my mind off the other thing.
What do you think in regards to other believers who say things like, "If you are not 100% certain you are saved, that is evidence you are not and never have been." I don't think it is fair for anyone. How can we possibly know or say for certain?
This is so me.. a big one for me is seeking complete understanding between law and grace.. i have to learn to not give the barking dog any attention
I love that! “not give the barking dog any attention.” Brilliant metaphor! <3