ERP–the bitter pill nobody wants to take. The most uncomfortable form of therapy ever known to mankind. And yet, ERP for scrupulosity is our best way forward.
I won’t spend a lot of time describing scrupulosity, or describing what ERP is. You can find out more about these issues by clicking here or here. What I’d like to do in this article is offer a few suggestions for how a Christian can navigate the bitter waters of having to apply exposure therapy to sensitive topics like our fears of sin, hell, and blasphemy.
ERP for Scrupulosity: A Fast Track
The key to successful exposure therapy is not merely to expose yourself and “do nothing.” I know that’s what it sounds like when you first hear about ERP. The “do nothing” is the “RP” of ERP. No, it doesn’t stand for Rest in Peace, it stands for “Response Prevention.”
ERP is built upon the assumption that the brain will acclimate itself to triggers by repeated exposure. Thus, our therapists guide us through a process of intentional exposure, followed by the do-nothing experience of resisting our compulsions.
Compulsions are the “do something” urges that arise in response to the trigger. Response prevention pushes back and says, “No, I shall sit right here and refuse to do anything at all that will make myself feel better in the presence of this feared thing.”
But honestly, I don’t want to wait twenty years for my brain to “acclimate” to my triggers. I don’t know about you, but my brain is a jumpy little thing. I’ll spook in surprise if a cockroach sneezes two rooms away.
Isn’t there a fast track to getting through these ugly ERP exercises a bit faster?
I do believe there is. But you’re probably not going to like it.
(Here’s where I insert a trigger warning for anyone not prepared to jump off a really crazy cliff with me…)
Making Peace With Our Fears
Here’s my theory: the ERP fast track does require us to do something in the face of our fear. We can’t do our compulsions, because that’s an automatic game-over. But there’s something we absolutely must do when we confront our biggest fears.
We have to make peace with the possibility of them happening.
No, I’m not saying that these feared events WILL happen, and I’m not saying that you have to agree to follow through with them. But if you want to get your money’s worth out of ERP, you’ve got to genuinely, sincerely make peace with the possibility.
Of course, that will look different for every person and for every obsession.
Let’s talk about the hell/loss of salvation obsession. This is one of the top three biggies for scrupulosity. A huge percentage of religious obsessions are variations on this concern. What if I’m not saved? What if, for whatever reason (insert obsession here), I don’t make it and I end up in hell?
The core fear is hell.
ERP says we have to expose ourselves to the idea of hell.
Okay. Can do.
(Close my eyes. Think about fire. Lots of fire. FIRE FIRE FIRE.)
If you’ve done ERP, you know the flooding sensation of ugly emotions that comes over you as you contemplate your worst triggers. It’s horrible. You want emotional relief, so you’re sorely tempted to engage in compulsive behavior, like googling for reassurance, praying for salvation (again), or juggling Bibles.
But, like a good ERP student, you resist. You do nothing. Eventually, through sheer exhaustion of the will, the feelings begin to subside ever so slightly.
Your therapist gives you a sticker on the back of your hand and sends you home to eat a piece of cheesecake. Come back next week and we’ll do that again.
(If you’re a therapist and you’re reading this, we love you. We love all that you do for the OCD community. We don’t exactly love you when you push us through ERP for scrupulosity, but we know you’re helping us get better. So thank you for torturing us for our better good.)
It’s done. You survived ERP. But is that the best we can do? How can we really engage deeply and fast track this (ahem) disgusting process?
By making peace with our fears.
Making Peace with Hell: A Case Study
The inspiration for this blog post actually came through an email discussion I had with one of my clients. He wrote to me about his first ERP session, which went something like I described above, minus the sticker and the cheesecake (as far as I know).
My client, whom I’ll call Mick, struggles with fears of not being saved. His therapist asked him to write out a script of being judged and sentenced to hell. So Mick obediently wrote his script and found himself thinking about, well, hell.
It wasn’t enjoyable, but he made it through without reverting to any compulsive behavior.
But how many more times would he have to do it? Maybe ten times. Maybe a hundred. He would need to keep repeating the process until his brain could learn to cycle down from panic mode and treat the topic in a more reasonable manner. Yes, salvation is important. It’s the most important thing in life, ever. But it’s not something that should spin us into anxiety-driven spirals of insanity that make us unable to operate in daily life. The brain needs to reclassify these concerns, because that’s not how God works. That’s how a mental health disorder works.
How can we help our brain calm down?
By making peace with the possibility.
Getting Rid of Catastrophizing
One of OCD’s major cognitive distortions is catastrophizing. We think of a feared future possibility, and it all but actualizes in our minds. We think and think and think about coming disaster until it seems like it actually exists. But yet, we tell ourselves that we can’t bear it. That we’ll never be able to endure. That it’ll completely destroy us! No, no, no, we just won’t be able to stand it at all!
One of the doctors I worked with during my journey called this the dreaded disease of “I-can’t-stand-it-itis.”
It really is a mental disease to think that I can’t stand something. It’ll drive me to behave compulsively, because if I believe that I can’t stand encountering my fears, I’ll do anything to prevent them.
The truth is that I CAN stand it. I can bear my fears. I can experience them and still be okay.
This is the core truth that will give us a successful journey with ERP for scrupulosity.
We have to make peace with any and all possibilities that are out there. Not that we are going to passively lie down and accept whatever comes to us, but that we’ll stop being controlled by that little voice that tells us we won’t be able to survive XYZ.
Some possibilities in life, naturally, will be more attractive than others. For example, winning a million-dollar house is a more attractive possibility than becoming homeless. But since I do not know the course that my life will take, I must admit it is completely plausible that I might win a house, and it is also plausible that misfortune might strike me hard and I could one day be homeless.
Let’s imagine I have an obsessive fear about homelessness.
I can make peace with this adverse possibility by telling myself that I CAN STAND being homeless.
I would hate it. It would be unpleasant. I would feel frightened and vulnerable every day. But I would make it through.
And little by little, as I make my peace with dreaded possibilities, they lose their power over me.
What to Do With Hell
So how do you do something like this with the idea of hell?
As in, being lost eternally with no hope of ever entering the Kingdom of God?
Well, we begin with the assumption that we can handle things. Even things we hate, things that disappoint us, things that are absolute tragedies in life. It’s not the end until it’s the end. So we’ll keep pushing, we’ll keep finding a way to make it. And even the end itself can finish with a burst of glory and color. We can inject meaning into even the most untimely death, the most tragic loss, the most disappointing crisis.
There are a few ways people with OCD have made peace with the possibility of hell.
(Which reminds me: I say possibility of hell because we are challenging our brain’s insistence on 100% absolute certainty. We aren’t saying we’re going to hell. We are just saying there’s definitely a possibility that things might not turn out the way we expected. It’s a challenge to be ok with uncertainty and a challenge to be ok with whatever that catastrophic, unwanted outcome looks like.)
Making peace with our fears will look different for everyone, depending on your specific denomination, your personality, and your unique experiences with God. But here are a few possibilities:
- Even if I go to hell, I’ll praise God from there. Like Job said, “though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” I’m going to light up hell with my songs of praise!
- There are some Christian groups that believe the Bible teaches that hell is not forever, and that the words used for “eternal” and “forever” have been misunderstood. If, therefore, hell is not everlasting, I’m going to roast for awhile, as I deserve, and then be phased out of existence. That’s fine.
- I don’t always understand what God does–but I know that I love Him! My heart will never stop beating for Him, even if I go to hell. Like a rejected lover, I’ll gladly accept a place of pain and agony if I cannot be with the lover of my soul.
ERP for Scrupulosity
There are dozens of other ways you could “make peace” with the possibility of hell. As you can see, you do not need to deny your faith. You simply must become creative in finding an intellectual anchor that explains WHY it’s not important for your brain to respond so radically.
Please note: making peace with your fear is NOT the same as giving it reassurance.
You will not progress if you keep making lists of why your fear will not come true. This is about confronting your fear, admitting that you have no way of being absolutely sure that things will turn out the way you anticipate, and figuring out how to be okay with that.
Think about what it would look like to apply ERP for scrupulosity in other themes. How can you make peace with the possibility that:
- You might have ruined someone’s life
- You accidentally lied and can’t find the person to make it right
- You can’t figure out the answer to your doctrinal concerns
- You might have meant to have that blasphemous thought
- You can’t remember when you were saved, which makes you think you might not be
- Your baby could die if you don’t pray just right
- You can’t figure out if something is a sin or not
There are a million possible ways you can make peace with these feared possibilities. But at the end of the day, you CAN stand it. And what’s more, even if you did ruin someone’s life or even if you did curse God in your heart, God still loves you.
God loves everyone. He IS love. He can do nothing other than love. Even His wrath and judgment are expressions of His love–both to protect the innocent and to restrict the wicked from digging themselves an even deeper pit.
Even if we are lost and go to hell, this does not change God’s character of love.
Viktor Frankl, a Jewish Austrian psychologist who endured the horrors of the Holocaust, emerged from the concentration camps to write the book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” While suffering in the work camps, Frankl noted that his labor in sub-freezing temperatures could be made almost sublime by thinking about his wife. I believe the insight he gained can help us in making peace with our religious fears, which always center on eternal loss.
Even if we lose all, God’s love will always go on existing. Peace and truth and goodness will go on.
We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way —an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pages 37-38
And thus Frankl summarizes the most that I can say about ERP for scrupulosity: it doesn’t really matter what happens to you and me. God will go on forever and ever. Whatever happens to me is okay. Whether I live or die, whether I go to heaven or to hell, God is upon His throne–the greatest Treasure of my soul, my most Beloved.
I do not need to be in a golden city to find bliss in contemplating my Lord.
I’m guessing the topic of ERP for scrupulosity will generate many questions. Please feel free to dialogue in the comments below. If you’ve had a successful time with ERP, we would especially like to hear your success stories. Others who are just beginning the journey will benefit from your encouragement. Or, if you feel confused about this idea of making peace with your fears, write a comment and let’s talk it out.
Ultimately, the bottom line is that we can’t hide from our fears and try to assuage them all day long. That’s what’s keeping us stuck in a rut. But at the same time, I think there’s more to ERP than just facing it and waiting for the bad feelings to go away. In the best cases, it’ll work, but it’ll take a long time for ERP to have it’s positive effect. In the worst cases, you’ll have an emotional shutdown or depersonalize to escape the anxiety.
If we want to jump off the cliff, we need to be able to accept the possibility that bad things will happen to us in life, and that we’ll still be okay. If we can twist our brains around a way to be okay with anything, ERP will win the day.
How does it sound? Clear as mud? 🙂
Let me know in the comments!
Best wishes on the journey,
Thanks a lot. Very interesting !
I'm finally realizing, after an apparent lifetime of scrupe, that my main fear is of not discerning and being in the will of God (whatever the specific decision may be about), and thus incurring God's displeasure, hell, etc. I hope to apply these principles.
Thanks for this article. My struggle is mainly fear of other people going to hell because I haven't done 'enough' to share the gospel with them. Or people dying of hunger because I haven't been generous 'enough'. Or that I haven't loved animals and the earth 'enough' by not being vegetarian or buying things in plastic. This makes it hard for me to rest and I feel a lot of guilt and I find it hard to do nice things for myself. I think I may be struggling from scrupulosity.
In my faith, the idea of personal revelation and "knowing for certain" that God is real is talked about a lot. I have had so many beautiful experiences with the Holy Spirit testifying to me that God is real, but my OCD is ALWAYS questioning if I really do know. Was that God? Do I really know? Is any of this real? Is it all in my head?
I am terrified to even think that my faith isn't real, but you are saying that I need to question it and lean into the uncertainty? What if none of it is true? I don't want to even entertain the thought!
There are many things we can know about our faith, but there are also many things we can’t know. Ultimately, the idea here is NOT that we go become agnostics. The idea is that we embrace the fact that my knowledge, which OCD tells me ought to be perfect and infallible, is not, and is not able to save me. I’m not saved by knowledge, I’m saved by grace.
Truth is true, but our knowledge of that truth is limited. This idea is scary but liberating, because it helps me let go of the urge to figure everything out and lets me really experience salvation by grace through faith, rather than salvation through my own human knowledge.
Oh Jaimie this was beautiful. Thank you🙏⚓️💜
Hi thank you for your blog. I am a Christian and have scrupulosity. I have started after many, many years working with a therapist who specializes in ocd and erp. Anyway she was just introducing me to the concept of living with uncertainty.
I was watching a video she sent me on “why pushing your thoughts away doesn’t work”. Made me scared because aren’t I supposed to take captive every thought? Although I can’t anyway. I am thinking this is ocd trying to tell me I can’t do this therapy. So how do we as Christians reconcile taking thoughts captive while not resisting them.
The Bible does not actually tell us to resist bad thoughts. It just says to take them captive. What does that mean? It means to use whatever strategy works to contain them appropriately.
When I was a child of about 10 or 12 years old, our family had a big vegetable garden behind our home in Florida. My parents were very annoyed because the squirrels kept coming to bite the tips off all our green beans. Never a whole green bean, of course, just the tip off every single one. It was driving us crazy! My dad remarked, quite jokingly, that he would pay me a dollar for every squirrel I could catch. I took the challenge! I would “take captive” as many squirrels as possible. But how? By resisting them? By fighting them? No.
I set up an old bird cage and put a stick holding the door open. I put peanut butter toast inside, tied a string to the stick and then pretended to ignore the trap. I wasn’t hunkering over it in an intensely watchful state, I was just relaxing in the shade, ignoring the cage until the squirrel went inside. I caught more than 20 squirrels this way (they were deposited in the woods several miles away).
Taking our thoughts captive can happen similarly when we have OCD. Besting a bad thought doesn’t HAVE to look like outright warfare. Sometimes it looks like stratagem and tactics, learning how to outsmart rather than out-wrestle. To ignore my intrusive thoughts is the way I overcome them, because that is the only way to make them go away. To pay attention, to wrestle, is to give them substance and validity.
The verse you bring up is a hugely important verse. The best way to interpret that is to remember that there are multiple ways of taking captives!
I'm 56 year old man, a preachers kid, police officer for 25 years. been in church my whole life except for a few stumbles. excepted God's free gift of salvation when I was young. I never really feel like I'm saved. I know we are saved by grace and not feelings. I am learning a lot about scrupulosity over this past year. Thank God for you all that are talking about it. for those of us who think there is something wrong with ourselves, learning to be ok with these nagging feelings of possibly going to hell is a game changer. From this day forward I'm going to walk my journey and trust God for where I spend eternity. I'm not going to sit on my hands and be afraid any longer. I understand that some days I may take one step forward and two steps back. that's ok this is a life long journey and my healing, if it ever comes, will take however long it takes. sorry for the long comment but that's how we roll with the scroops. thank you for all you do, I hope to give you a big hug one day.
Thank you for your comment! I am glad to hear that you are taking big steps forward. The backward steps are just so that we can see any beautiful views we missed the first time around. 🙂 Keep moving forward and keep trusting the Lord. Scrupulosity is real, but God’s power is more real!
I recently found out about OCD and scrupulosity I read Grace Abounding by Bunyan around a year ago and it was an anchor for my soul. But I hadn’t realized the man (and I) clearly had a condition, my family has recently been helping me through it and The Lord I was about to go homeless apart from their help it was driving me mad from doubt . Ian Osborn has great books on OCD for the believer.
His Grace is sufficient It’s been a God-Send to find a community of believers like this. Bunyan and Luther would’ve rejoiced to see this day. Poor guys didn’t have much human support that related (But Christ did.) ty for this website and the helpful articles I’m hoping to help believers in the future with this also it’s a bigger issue than ppl think.
Excellent recommendation! I am also reading Luther’s Commentary on Galatians lately, as per a recommendation by a member in our online coaching group. It’s fantastic!
Hi Jaime does ERP help people who have a fear they want to worship the devil, I’m finding it really hard. My mind just keeps going round and round, thank you in advance
I’m really struggling with embracing erp exercises of going to hell. I just don’t know how In the world anyone could make peace with that. Like how do you live your life with this thought it’s possible I’m going to hell. I can’t reconcile this. I’m feeling stuck in questions about whether something I did is sin or not and there is a Bible verse that says people who do such things won’t inherit the kingdom. How do we make peace with being in hell eternally. It makes me mad at God. I hate this disorder so much.
Yes, I know. I hate this too! The point here is to find a way to give yourself permission to not ruminate on the topic. Whatever gymnastics we need to do with our mind to give ourselves permission to let it go and stop ruminating is how we have to move forward. If “making peace” isn’t the door that helps you find freedom, maybe there’s another mental trick that will help! Keep looking up, it’ll get better!
I’m just starting ERP with my therapist. I liked this article. You showed me that God’s love is there for me in spite of my thinking.
Wonderful. You can do it!!
I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now!
Thank you for all your teaching, it has really helped me. Also knowing I’m not alone has been great. This whole area of scrupulosity is not something I find I can talk about to others!
The information about the psychologic/brain part and the theological/soul part has been particularly helpful for me.
The struggle feels real, but I believe that while my soul is secure through my faith in Jesus Christ, the problems is definitely in my thinking,
I believe it’s true (maybe you have said this) that neurological pathways’ form in your brain when you think repetitive thoughts sparking off certain emotions. This makes perfect sense.
Rerouting these pathways is bound not to be
an easy process but it’s one I would like to achieve. With God’s help!
Thanks again Jaimie .. may God bless you for your heart to help others!
Thank you so much for your thoughts and teaching about ERP. My wife is still stuck in her mind. This morning she seemed more desperate to be locked up so that she wouldn't do the things her mind was telling her that she would do. I know that she has been saved and has served the Lord for many years, even if her mind recently is deceiving her into thinking that she "must not have been saved" because of the thoughts she has these days. You writings today are an encouragement to me to continue seeking to expose her to that which will help her, even if it isn't comfortable. It is amazing that she thinks that she needs to be locked up when she is the one reminding me to pray and keeps doing things that help others. This evening I will be teaching the Youth Group about prophecies, past and future, to help them understand more of God's greatness and our need to learn from Him and follow His direction. My wife will be at my side helping, and somehow forgetting that she thinks she is such a terrible person.
May God continue to guide you and help you to be a blessing to so many of us.
Rejoicing in the Lord Jesus Christ,
Hello. I was wondering if you could make a post on how to tell your parents you are highly likely to have scrupulosity because I have been struggling with telling mine.
Jamie, I’ve been struggling heavily with OCD for a few months now. It started with relationship ocd with a girlfriend and it got so tough I had to break up with her. I would have fears that god didn’t want me to be in that relationship or even if I thought she was attractive (which seemed super shallow so I carried a lot of shame with that even though I knew it was a blatant lie because I was truly attracted to her). I’ve been torn as to where gods been and where he’s taking me. I thought breaking up with her would be easier for me to manage but it’s been 5 months and shortly after breaking up, ocd took its aims at my faith. To be honest I’ve seen it manifest in past relationships, I just wasn’t aware of it and it wasn’t as strong. Now I’m 5 months down the line and she is still on my mind and I believe she’s someone I could marry because of her love and support through the tough times because I told her everything. I have fears of feeling like I’m losing the things that used to bring me closer to god like reading the Bible, prayer and worship. I feel like I’ve lost connection. My mind seems to be works driven. I know the word of god still lives in my heart. I have a fear of adopting doctrine that isn’t sound and everything I read or hear gets put through this filter that has zero grace for my heart. I’ve become so devoured by my problems that it’s been hard for me to empathize with others and that is one of my strengths. Empathy. I’m scared I’ve lost my way.
I know the way OCD can shift themes on us. I have had some ugly times with relationship OCD as well. Not fun at all, it really feels like we are losing our minds sometimes.
I hope you can get back with your girlfriend or if you don’t feel like that is best, I hope you will find someone who will understand you. The “God doesn’t want me to be in a relationship” is only true if you are unequally yoked. That’s a super common obsession that overlaps between relationship OCD and religious OCD. Don’t fall for it.
The part about worrying whether you felt she was attractive definitely sounds like the relationship OCD. Ignore it. Not worth your time. (But try to internalize this message so that whatever happens in your future relationships, you won’t need to seek reassurance too many times.)
And yes, the works-driven, legalistic approach sums up scrupulosity very well. If empathy is what you need right now, I can assure you that there are 10,000 readers on this website who feel the same way as you. Us scrupulous people aren’t a handful of five or ten folks in a corner. This is real.
I just wanted to quickly comment on your end remark about empathy. I felt empathy was one of my greatest gifts too, and felt so devastated the more I saw I lacked the capacity to give or have it anymore.
However, I got some peace knowing that, as a totally emotionally and mentally exhausted person because of OCD, it was my body's only natural repsonse then to not have any more emotional energy to give towards other's problems! We are human and not God, Who has an unlimited amount of empathy and cannot grow weary like us. I guess it's just an understanding human limitations…which I often try to negelct.
Since discovering my OCD, the Lord has been in the process of healing me, but I still am not fully healed and my emotional capacity hasn't returned yet. However, the Lord "will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish" us in His time as we walk the road to healing at His pace (which can seem a little slow). It has also personally humbled me knowing that every gift we have is only from Him and a gracious reflection of His character bc we are made in His image and His Spirit is now in us! My empathy was never truely "mine" in the first place…ah how dependent am I on Christ and all the glory goes to God:)
I hope that encouraged you my friend!
Oh I also just wanted to say that my heart goes out to you (to the extent it can rn) with your OCD. It sounds exhausting. And I feel very much the same with losing my connection with God. Honestly sometimes I feel I don't even love Him anymore and I'm all confused.
But I have taken peace in that, as emotionally drained with OCD which affects my feelings even with God, I need to have grace on myself as He has in me, but more so that He will never let go still. Clinging to the Bible above all else and meditating on His words (without putting on the pressure to see all the glory of every word but simply taking it and letting it naturally roll through my mind knowing it is rock solid truth) has helped me a lot.
Here's a song that might bring some comfort….it has broughten me a lot.
Beautiful song thank you so much for that
I wonder if what you are saying is comparable to what Ian Osborne was saying in his book Can Christianity Cure Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? That was a great book for me and I have been trying to apply its principles to the various fears that have arisen. I haven't been through ERP but what I've been trying to do over the past year or so is surrender the fears to God. Like if I feel like I might not be saved or if I worry about sanctification issues I just pray, "God I am giving this to you trusting that You will save me because I have faith that you will. I am trusting that you will make me into the person you want me to be, I trust you will get me through if this or that happens etc, etc." I put it in God's hands because I can't be sure what to do about these things except worry, wring my hands, etc. I get paralyzed by the thoughts unless I do this. The thing I am working on is trying to not pray about it more than once because I sometimes catch myself praying on a specific issue if I get triggered by a thought (like this article for one). i do this with some fears and I know that is a compulsion because God hears me the first time so I don't need to repeat myself. I am working on that aspect of things but I feel the overall concept of surrendering the fears to God is helping with the day-to-day. It is not perfect yet but I hope one day to be able to not pray on the issues again. I was diagnosed with both OCD and OCPD. The OCD has been very humbling I must say.
Yes, I recommend Dr. Osborne’s book to everyone! Much of what I write about on this website is inspired by his work. 🙂
I believe that I understand your post completely. Since the source of OCD is anxiety and the source of anxiety is fear, all we have to do is win the battle over fear. The first step in winning that battle is identifying exactly what we are afraid of. Then comes the difficult task of using ERP to reprogram our brain to no longer be afraid of whatever the source of our fear is. I believe that ERP is the best method for managing this disorder. We have to STOP the compulsions through the process of elimination of the fear from our brains. Hope that this makes some sense to anyone who chooses to read this.
Thanks for chiming in, Jerry! I think you’ve summarized it perfectly! 🙂
Love this! BUT (as OCDers always say) my brain seems to find a way around every single answer I give it that gives me any peace. That’s why reassurance does not work for you OCD. We will logically and intellectually try to find any answer congruent with our beliefs that gives peace. I have had rest with the way you said that before . “Well, even if I end up in hell, I’ll praise God from there”. But, then OCD just takes another route. . . “But, what if God really isn’t love and Jesus really isn’t His Son?”. After a twinge of discomfort grows to a full-on pit in my stomach, the fear starts getting backed up with verses from the Bible where God didn’t look so “loving”. OCD will make anything line up with the fear. So, what then? To make peace with that thought and accept the possibility that God is not love? Because that is completely incongruent with what I theologically believe and what I’ve known to be true. It becomes a whack-a-mole of making peace with thoughts. This seems to look a lot like reassurance 🤷♀️
I love what you have written and see the wisdom in it, just struggling with the practicality of accepting the outcome of fears.
I have found most of your teaching very instructive and uplifting, but this last blog on ERP left me bewildered. It kind of left the believer battling with the OCD in a fatalistic faith – he may or may not make it home to heaven.
The more biblical and much more encouraging approach would be Romans 8 which has a much broader scope of adversity in view than merely OCD, yet Paul has the conviction that nothing cab separate the believer from God's love that has run to our rescue – event to the Cross:
31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”[j]
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Yes, the ERP path is bewildering, indeed! And I am certainly not the final authority on how to make it work for religious obsessions, so feel free to challenge me along the way. 🙂
I like Romans 8–a lot. It’s really a bedrock passage for our struggles with feeling separated from God. And yet, if we take the ERP route, we have to admit that there WILL be people who will be eternally separated from God. (Hence, the hell obsessions that many people deal with.) As I mentioned to another commenter, we have to make a distinction between theological statements and psychological practices. The theological truths I love so much are a double-edged sword–they soothe my spirit but they keep my OCD brain stuck in a cycle of reassurance-seeking. God loves me, He will never leave me, He is not willing for anyone to perish, nothing can pluck me out of His hand. But WHY do these comforting truths fail to give lasting comfort to a person with clinical OCD? I believe it is because the brain has to go through a radical, painful surgery to rip out every last strand of self-dependence and control.
We INSIST on knowing with absolute certainty that we are going to heaven. We INSIST on controlling and micromanaging the details of our lives (often in extremist ways) to ensure we won’t be lost. We INSIST that our compulsions are a necessary component of our spiritual journey. And on and on. There’s no trust. There’s no faith. OCD strips us of God-dependence, leaving us focused only on US and what WE do.
ERP changes this. It’s a mind game that rips the carpet out from under our tightly-managed inner lives. Again, it is NOT a theological statement. It is a painful procedure meant to destroy our sense of self-works. I definitely hear you when you say this sounds like fatalism; if you can bear to hear it, my response would be that yes, we have to force a dichotomy inside of ourselves. We must give our brain over to a kind of God-entrusted fatalism, while we tuck our souls away into the warm embrace of Christ’s truth. How in the world can we dichotomize between the brain and the soul? I don’t really know how to explain it, but this is what has helped me so much. I know my soul is safe in Christ–but I have to feed my unwieldy brain a hard diet. Afterwards, I experienced a reunification of brain and spirit after I found healing. I know that I am hidden in Christ, and I know that my eternal destiny is secure. My relationship with Jesus is so tender and gentle and comforting–I love Him more than anything in the universe. But there have been very tough times when I have had to deny my brain the reassurance it craves–and yes, even expose it to scary thoughts in order to make it shut up (pardon my coarseness).
I hope this helps clarify a bit. In any case, I know ERP for scrupulosity IS a very bewildering thing, so I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. I am sure you are expressing the bewilderment of many others as well!
This came at THE moment I needed it. I praise God that it changed everything tonight. I’ve been experiencing increased anxiety, panic and fear over the last few months as I am navigating a painful divorce. THANK YOU for your work. I’m calling out the fears one by one to begin making peace with them.
HI, Jaimie! I have to admit that I am probably among the many people who are afraid of ERP, but perhaps for a different reason. I have struggled with the blasphemous intrusive thoughts and ones with cuss words. However, cussing has been a real struggle for me and my counselor offered to do ERP with me. I know in order to face my fear of cussing in any form, whether hearing the occasional swear uttered by a complete stranger or from someone at work, I need to try ERP. The problem I am having is this: my counselor is a Christian (SDA) and I believe cussing is a sin. So my thought process is that if he has to cuss in order to help me with my response prevention, then I would rather him not, because then he is sinning in the process. I know probably that my main reason is that I just don't want to hear those words, but if he has to sin in order to help me then I rather him not.
I also have dealt with a fear of hell and such only because I struggle to obey God's commands concerning, perhaps, talking to a stranger or such and this is also connected to cussing as well. I fear because of my struggle that I am useless to God, because I can't stand hearing cuss words. Any advice or help? (P.S. my main struggle is with the more hardcore swears like s***, b****, the other b-word and f***, but I am bothered by the others as well.)
Hi Jamie – thanks for this…it is my struggle and I never get better. My problem is that I have never found a good way to make peace with my fears of hell. All three of the suggested ways you present as examples above are not faithful to the theology of my denomination and personal beliefs about hell. For instance, I believe hell is forever, that no one praises God from hell, and that hell is where the presence of God's endless wrath exists (to the praise of his justice) on sinners that are not saved. Also, that is it is a place of eternal conscious torture. So, none of your ideas will work for my theology. Do you have any suggestions for something that fits my theology (reformed Presbyterian)? The only thing that helps me at all for the last 15 years is that I know I could be wrong about not being saved, and actually be saved in the end. I have tried to ERP for fears of hell for years and no matter how long I expose myself (sometimes hours) the fear never goes down. Thoughts welcome.
Yes, it’s tough–and please remember that ERP is NOT a theological exercise, it is a psychological one. We are not saying that we will go to hell, we are playing a mind trick with ourselves to help our sticky thoughts get out of the endless loop. So to be quite honest, I don’t think people will be having a party in hell. I think it will be a terrible, terrible place. But each of us has to find a way to make peace with unwanted outcomes for purely psychological reasons–otherwise OCD will not allow us to live the life God wants to give us. So I think here it’s important to differentiate between making theological statements and engaging in psychological exercises.
I am not a psychologist, but my personal guess would be that doing ERP for years without seeing your fears go down might be because you’ve never been able to make that step of finding a way to have peace with outcomes. I know it sounds bizarre and anti-faith, but at some level we have to do this. Like the person with contamination OCD makes peace with the thought that it’s entirely possible he might contract HIV AIDS from not washing his hands enough, which is the only way he can move on from his obsession, we MUST do the same with our fears of hell. It’s entirely possible we might end up there.
I could go on another tangent and say that hell obsessions are purely fueled by self-powered and more legalistic approaches to religion, where God is typically seen as a bit more faraway and disinterested, and I am the one working and working and working to convince Him to save me. Ultimately, the Bible says that hell was created for the devil and his angels–no human being was ever meant to be there (Matt 25:41). God doesn’t want me to be there, and He has poured out all heaven in the gift of His Son Jesus Christ to make a way for me to escape it. Hell obsessions are built on me thinking I have to keep myself out of hell. Freedom is in looking away from self to the wonderful gift of Jesus. And sometimes the ugly path towards God-dependence instead of self-dependence is through something like ERP, where I push my brain through an intense “fire baptism” to completely rip it away from any sort of human solutions and human predictions. What will happen is what will happen. I can’t be in control of this anymore.
Thanks, Jamie – you are correct. I cannot find a way to find peace with this outcome. My struggle is that my theology (core beliefs) will not let me, and they feed my mind. Psychological exercises have to let me keep my theological beliefs or I will reject them – and you would too if someone told you to do the exercise but you have to deny Christ for example. Every way you suggest finding peace in your comments violates my core Calvinist beliefs. For instance, I believe God has NOT sent Christ 'as a way for me to escape hell' as you suggest unless I am one of the elect that he died to save (specifically). It is a core belief for me that Jesus only died to save 'His people' – specific people from around the globe, but not everyone. If I am not one of them, then I am going to hell and I cannot change His decision about that in any way – ('I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy', or Jesus – 'no one can come to me unless…'). Anyway, this all just fuels the fear. All your suggestions for embracing it violate my core convictions. Can you make a suggestion that does not violate these beliefs? Thanks for your articles!
I’m 74 years old & have served & loved the Lord most of my life, butI fell into doubt & depression several years ago & struggled with the same issue as you. I kept stumbling over these words like “chosen, election, called” & then started ruminating. I did get on medication for awhile which pulled me out of the pit enough I could focus on words that I knew are true.
I know it’s impossible for our Holy God to lie & I began to pay attention to verses that speak of His love. I love 1 Thes. 5:9 God has not appointed us to wrath but to salvation through Jesus. Micah 7:18 God delights to show mercy. Isaiah 54:10 God’s loving kindness will not be removed nor His covenant of peace be shaken says the Lord Who has compassion on you.
I pray these & many other verses will help you & I also believe as I read in book by Michelle Cushatt “Relentless” that the fact we want & need God is His Grace.
Praying you will talk with your Priest, I think Calvinism gets taken to an extreme more than John Calvin intended & of course the enemy of our soul interprets God’s Word to our mind to steal our peace. John Piper says “God is glorified by us who come desperately seeking &pinning all our hope on meeting Him.
Let’s pray for all our fellow sufferers that the tenderness of God will see our stumbling despair & confusion
You may want to look at the articles at this website. …and Jamie, I trust/hope it’s OK to mention another helpful website. You may want to check this out too.
This therapist has a “rumination-focused” approach to ERP that’s different from the norm, and it strikes me as insightful. He believes rumination of any type (not just assurance seeking but any attempt to “solve the puzzle” is a compulsion and that, just as with any compulsion, it must be eliminated in order to overcome OCD. He believes ERP, if done in a misguided way, can actually encourage rumination and keep you stuck. I wonder if that’s what’s gone wrong in your case. The articles there go into that concept to some depth and even offer an overview of exercises designed to help a person learn how not engage with the puzzle. Disclaimer: I don’t know if it works, but I’ve read some positive comments about it from people who’ve tried it (independent quotes I found, separate from this website.)
Thank you for sharing this, Nancy. My suggestions to Sean would be somewhere along the same lines. It is entirely possible to turn ERP into a form of rumination. So @Sean, no, I can’t give you a suggestion that feels right or fits with any theological system. There is no theological system within Christianity that teaches hell is a good place to be. Again, I will repeat that this is not what we are saying. Hell is a terrible thing. But what we are doing is making a dichotomy between brain and spirit. Our spirit is safe with God; we aren’t making any theological statements. We are taking the brain and giving it a hard therapy that will make it stop asking a million and one questions. Like Nancy has said, we aren’t interested in any more rumination on the topic. The brain needs a hard “no” to stop asking all the “what ifs.”
Not everyone is at a point where they are ready for ERP. And, I’m not giving the final explanation on how ERP works–this is something that needs to be done with a therapist. But hopefully it’s helpful to give some pointers here about how to make it work for spiritual questions. If we cannot dichotomize, it’s better not to try ERP yet. Because that’s going to skew our theology.
As for me, I do dichotomize between the real me and the OCD me. The real me is safe in Christ; my name is registered in the Book of Life. I know this but I don’t spend countless hours reassuring myself of it. The OCD me gets regularly tarred and feathered with jarring, uncomfortable exposures all the time. OCD me might go to hell, might have ruined countless people’s lives, might be a liar, might be rejected by God, etc. etc. etc. I see all these worrisome possibilities that OCD me is concerned about, and I say, “okay, that’s fine. Whatever. I don’t care.” I make peace with my OCD. As one of my clients expressed the words of Shakespeare today, “come what come may.” This is how I treat OCD me. If we cannot dichotomize between real me and OCD me, between brain and soul, this process will be wonky.
I hope this helps,
Thanks, Jamie and Nancy! Nancy, I look forward to exploring this idea. Jamie – I think in order to have the dichotomy you are talking about you must know that "our spirits are safe with God first" – as you say. You know that for you – I don't know that….and that is the part you keep missing, I think. You have some type of assurance in your spirit that you are safe with God that grounds you so that you can let your OCD self believe whatever it wants. I do not have this at all. Without this, any exposure is not going to be helpful from what I hear you saying. But, as always thanks for your thoughts – I do learn a little more every time I read your articles.
I would say that I have that reassurance sometimes. Not always.
I am trying to break down the ERP experience in a very easy way, but I find myself struggling to articulate exactly what I do and have done that helps so much. So if I am not making a lot of sense, feel free to ignore this post. 🙂 Maybe with more thought I’ll come up with a better way of explaining it!
My summary is that I think ERP is totally possible for Christians to engage in, and I’ve been very helped by it, and I don’t think it makes us go against our beliefs. But your comments are challenging me (in a good way) to think of clearer ways to express this. Thank you for the great discussion!
Thanks for all the replies, Jamie. I appreciate your patience also with my questioning and hope it helps me and others in the future. If my dialogue can help you help others or me, that is great! All the best.
Hey, Sean and Jaimie,
I’m glad my input might have been in a good direction. I’m a seeker about all of this myself and a newbie at this site, not a veteran, but I’m glad to compare notes with others.
The one other thought I have here in reference to your second post is that I *wonder* if maybe you really don’t have to have the knowledge that you’re safe in Christ to stop ruminating about hell. Even though it would seem that we need a logical, foundational grasp of our safety in Christ before we can stop ruminating. I *wonder* if the rumination loop is the more foundational issue that keeps our perceptions out of focus and keeps us from being *able* to have eyes to see our safety in Christ.
I agree. At some level we do need to have a foundational grasp of our safety in Christ, but the nature of OCD is to make that “foundational” grasp never enough. We want more and more assurance, an unhealthy level of reassurance, and no matter how much we get, it can’t satisfy our needy brains. The issue here IS the rumination loop, as you’ve pointed out. You’re definitely sniffing in the right direction to solve this OCD mystery! 🙂
Jaimie, I got on Dr. Greenbergs site and researched RF-ERP for longer than I care to admit! I think the approach makes sense in and of itself, but in contrast/comparison to the traditional methods of ERP, it is very confusing. Much of what he says is in direct opposition to traditional ERP, such as not wanting your exposures to induce fear. He doesnt hold to habituation at all. His approach is that rumination is what causes anxiety. His model doesnt really make sense if you consider the nature and workings of OCD. I think that now I am confused, and probably shouldve just not researched it and stuck with what I knew. Now it seems my OCD makes me doubt if the traditional ERP will work now. Such is the nature of OCD! What are your thoughts?
I am not super familiar with Dr. Greenberg’s work, I’ve only looked into it a tad bit. So I don’t feel that I’d be qualified to speak about his methods. But you’re right, OCD wants you to doubt whatever is possible to doubt. I think traditional ERP works, and can work very well. The issue with ERP is getting buy-in from the person who needs it.
Thanks so much for sharing. I'm going through ERP right now and learning that my main compulsion is rumination. I believe I have more of the "Pure O" form of OCD. I've been struggling to figure out how to address that. Your link was quite helpful and I need to study it a little more. I've shared it with my therapist as well and am working on addressing the ruminations.
Sean, I'm not Calvinist but am fairly familiar with the doctrine and my own dad likely leans that way. I do share the doctrine of hell being eternal suffering and separation from God. Like you, I'm struggling to find peace with that. I don't think I can find peace in hell itself, but maybe something else. I think its more faith that Christ will save me from it, but then my whole concern is that I'm not saved. So not an easy trick. For me I feel a tremendous responsibility for my own salvation and the act of "getting saved" – (need to have the right motives, words, etc). I can't seem to "get saved" in a way I'm comfortable with. If I was Calvinist maybe my peace would be "Well God has either chosen me or not, so I can't do anything to change it/His mind". For me that would give me peace with the sense of responsibility I have. Please note, I use that only as an example of how my mind might work and I'm no expert in Calvinism or mean to use that to make any kind of statement about Calvinism itself. I use it to illustrate that I think, although similar, each of our journeys are deeply personal and unique based on our beliefs, personalities, and backgrounds.
I kind of look at my problem as an analogy to skydiving (which I have never done 🙂 You can read about skydiving and how it is safe. You can ask questions from the company on their safety record. You can ask others for reassurance. Still, at the end of the day you can only skydive if you jump out of the plane and trust your parachute is going to open. I've spent nearly 30 years in the "airplane" of doubts of my salvation. I've researched it, sought counsel, asked Christ to save me numerous times, etc. Still it's not enough. I'm learning it will never be enough. To overcome my OCD I have to learn to trust my parachute (Christ). Easy to write, but not easy to practice. I feel like Christ is slowly leading me the edge of the plane to jump, but I can't say I'm there yet. That's maybe where the analogy ends. I'm not sure if that trust is a process or one big "jump". Also after I jump I feel like I'm going to flail around for that airplane again. So it will be more like a process of jumping everyday and continuing to let myself fall. I won't truly know my "parachute" pulled until I die and meet God. So that's the super scary part. Hopefully with ERP and the grace of God that fall will be less scary than the initial jump. I have a feeling that my ERP "peace" is that Christ is my parachute. I don't know for sure I'll be saved, but it's something to trust and hold on to through ERP.
I hear you Mike – I have been there. You said you have asked Christ to save you. According to God's written word then you are saved. "All those that call on the name of the Lord will be saved". God knows your calling on him is not perfect, sinless, or with perfect words. Those don't matter to him. He brought your heart (motives/intentions) to the point of asking Him to save you and He has declared in His Word that He will. If that is what you want, then he will do it (because ultimately no one wants God to save them unless He has drawn them to Himself – that is Calvinism and theology that agrees with the world around you). Look around you – do unbelievers want God to save them – NO. You do – so he will because He already has. And bonus – He is faithful to save you even if you never believe this for yourself – simply because He cannot deny His word! I hope this helps!
Nancy, thanks for the link. I found his approach helpful and it seems similar to what I've done on my own to feel better. I don't feel completely better but I can read scripture and enjoy it.
Nancy – thank you so much! I have tried ERP for years with no real progress. Dr. Greenberg's approach is absolutely fantastic!!! It works…really works! His guide on how to stop Ruminating is life-changing! If I had this 15 years ago it would have saved me countless hours and $. Please keep sharing his work – IMO it is the right approach to ERP and I hope others will follow.
Jamie – highly recommended…it is excellent! I have hope again and feel like a new person.
Thanks, Sean. Always looking for good material. Will check it out!
Update: I googled Dr. Greenberg’s work and have only scanned a few of his articles. And while he is saying that RF-ERP (rumination-focused ERP) is a new and unresearched approach, I think it looks incredibly promising. I am copying the link to his articles here for anyone else who would like to investigate. This might be great to talk with your therapist about. I’ll definitely be reading more later. Thank you, Sean!!!
And you can find PLENTY of ERP material About ETERNAL TORMENT in Hell on YouTube that Fundamentalist Christians post there . Just Listen and Listen to them until you get BORED!
You say that in essence it doesn't matter what happens to us, God will go on forever and ever. Whether I go to heaven or hell, God is upon his throne-the greatest treasure of my soul. I do not need to be in a golden city to fin bliss in contemplating my Lord.
Well It matters to me whether I go to heaven or hell Perhaps your point is that of diminishing us in comparison to the Almighty. But Jesus said God sees every sparrow that falls, and we are of more value than many sparrows. We matter enough to God for his Son to give up his glory in heaven, and then shed his very life blood for us–we are that precious and valuable to him.
I don't want to lift us up as being more important than God. He is sovereign. We were a bunch of sinners who deserved hell before we "got saved". But God commended his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Jesus could have called 10,000 angels any time during his torture and crucifixion. but he steadfastly went through it to the "end". When he said "It is finished" he meant that the debt was paid in full. And he won't go back on that. God did not have to do this, but he is love, and it may have been impossible for him to do anything else but this loving act of providing a way of saving us from hell, sin, etc.
I have to say that it matters to me whether I go to heaven/hell or not, and I think it matters to God, too.
Yes, I agree. It matters, and it matters very much. But we have to go through the mind game of letting our mind be at peace with whatever happens. We have to trust God with our outcomes rather than anxiously manipulate them with our compulsions. Otherwise, we will spend the rest of our lives in a frenzy of nervous energy and despair.
This is the unpleasantness of ERP that is a blessing in disguise. It releases us to really, truly trust, no matter what happens.
“We have to trust God with our outcomes rather than anxiously manipulate them with our compulsions. Otherwise, we will spend the rest of our lives in a frenzy of nervous energy and despair.”
Love this! Thank you Jaimie. I feel like that’s all I can do sometimes. I don’t think I’ll ever find 100% certitude of what my Judgement day will be, but surrendering it to God, and trusting in his word, love and Mercy is what brings the anxiety down. I actually cried to him this morning to bring me to heaven with him one day. I know he hears my cries, and will bring me to completion. I just need to Trust him. He knows my heart. 🙂