The relationship between faith and feelings is a critical issue that plagues nearly everyone in the scrupulosity recovery community. Our faith can override our emotions, or it can flounder beneath them. Learning how to handle our emotions from a strong core of faith forms a massive part of our healing.
Here are a few examples of “faith and feeling” problems to help you discern whether this is something you struggle with. Have you ever:
- Sunken into a pit of despair because you FELT rejected by God, despite Scripture’s testimony of His love for you?
- Made decisions that you knew weren’t very logical because you were trying to find something that would eradicate the vague, staticky FEELING of God’s displeasure?
- Repeated compulsive religious behaviors over and over, long past the point when it made sense to quit, because you didn’t FEEL like you were finished?
- Spun yourself into a tizzy of anxiety because of an unanswered spiritual question that FELT super urgent to answer–right now?
I could go on and on with ways that emotionality feeds the OCD cycle. Perhaps you have some examples that you’d like to share in the chat. My point is that emotions are a critical issue in the OCD community.
We often think of OCD as being a “thinking” problem, but that’s not the entire picture.
OCD is a feelings problem, too. Our obsessions wouldn’t bother us a single mite if we didn’t feel very strongly about them. Intrusive thoughts would easily pass in one side of the brain and out the other if they didn’t bring on a jolt of fear, disgust, and anxiety. And we would certainly not be ruminating all day about how to figure out God’s will if we didn’t have huge undercurrents of emotion telling us we are in extreme danger if we don’t get this right.
Religious OCD explodes in the critical juncture between faith and unmanaged feelings.
(Notice I said, “unmanaged” feelings. Feelings are not bad. Unmanaged feelings are.)
The topic of this blog post was inspired by one of the members of our weekly group coaching session. He said, “I need to stop using my anxiety as a barometer for God’s will.” I thought that his comment was so profound that I wanted to make a blog post digging a bit deeper into this topic. I’d like to share one psychological concept, one spiritual concept, and three suggestions for how to stop letting your faith and feelings create a constant battleground in your mind.
Faith and Feelings: How the Brain is Misbehaving
As a non-psychologist, my psychological thought will be very brief. It is simply to point out that there is a cognitive distortion called “emotional reasoning” which is relevant to this discussion.
Emotional reasoning is a thought fallacy which says, “because I feel such, it must be true.”
Because I feel rejected by God, it must be true that I am rejected until I do something to earn back His good graces.
Because I feel so despicable when I have these blasphemous thoughts, I must genuinely be a horrible person. I must have really meant to have those thoughts.
Because I feel anxious when I think about doing _______, it must not be God’s will for me.
When we can crawl out of our own heads and analyze this from a distance, it’s fairly easy to see the distortion in this manner of thinking. Emotions simply don’t tell the whole story. In fact, they may tell a completely opposite story from the truth.
When we begin elevating our feelings to a status of truth, that’s when we end up following random rabbit trails of anxiety. We feel bad about something and think God is trying to send us a message. We have an apathetic day and think it means we’ve lost our faith. And so on. Faith and feelings are pitted against each other and feelings wins.
Dear friends, this is a cognitive distortion. It’s not helpful to your mental health or your walk with God.
Spiritual Lessons About Faith and Feelings
The verse that comes to mind when I think about faith and feelings is Proverbs 14:12.
There is a way that seems right to a man,Proverbs 14:12
But its end is the way of death.
We know we can’t trust our feelings (I’ve hashed out Jeremiah 17:9 multiple times already), but it’s worth noting that we can’t trust our brains all the time either. Proverbs 14:12 tells us that there’s a way that “seems right” to a man, but ends in death. To “seem right” probably involves the faculty of both the mind and the emotions. It’s like living the matrix–it seems so real, so right, so convincing. Your thoughts and feelings are blaring messages at you…
…but the messages aren’t correct.
That’s when “faith” is important. There’s GOT to be an objective reality outside of our own feelings and brains.
Faith transcends both the intellect and the emotions to access that objective reality, which we discover in God’s Word.
On those days when you don’t understand what God is doing in your life, and your brain simply cannot figure out the WHY…
On those days when you feel rejected and unsaved, and nothing you do can fix the bad feelings swirling inside…
Theologian-philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (whom I believe may have had scrupulosity) wrote about the “leap of faith.” He believed that we must make a radical commitment to God based on something more than evidence and logical reasoning, which may not always be sufficient. There will always be doubts, uncertainties, and unconquerable questions in life that leave us baffled. There will always be negative feelings that arise.
Faith, true faith, is paradoxical–something which cannot be parsed out, measured in test tubes, or proven through longitudinal studies. It is a deeply personal commitment to God, a desperate clinging, which weathers the storms of doubt and negative emotions.
In that sense, faith is a choice, not a feeling. It is not even something that can be equated with logic, for even the demons have knowledge, logic, and evidence.
When your faith and feelings collide, faith is not a process of figuring out all the details and gathering more evidence. Faith is a matter of clinging. Moving forward in the darkness. Doing the next right thing despite the feelings.
Or, in Kierkegaard’s terms, just making the leap.
Job: Trusting in the Darkness
Job is a biblical example of someone whose faith helped him cling to God even when he felt rejected and despairing.
Remember the ancient assumption that riches equaled the favor of God. By all outward appearances, then, Job was very much in God’s favor at the beginning of the story. But then tragedy strikes, and chapter after chapter we read about how his friends are pressuring him to admit what he’s done wrong to fall out of favor with God.
But Job sat on his ash heap, scraping his boils with a shard of pottery, and said,
“Look, I go forward, but He is not there,Job 23:8-10
And backward, but I cannot perceive Him;
When He works on the left hand, I cannot behold Him;
When He turns to the right hand, I cannot see Him.
But He knows the way that I take;
When He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold.”
Job was confused. He didn’t know why tragedy had struck in such an eerie way. But he chose to cling to God, despite the lack of understanding and the bad feelings.
When we wrestle with faith and feelings, it must be the case for us, as well. All our outward circumstances, inner emotions, and ruminative cycles can tell us something that isn’t true. Behind the cosmic curtain, there may be a whole different story being written.
That’s why feelings can’t be trusted.
What the Scrupulous Person Can Do to Prioritize Faith Over Feelings
If you have religious OCD, dealing with the emotional reasoning distortion isn’t going to be easy, but it is a critical lesson to learn if you want to manage your obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I’ll admit it’s been a tough road for me to walk in learning how to be the boss of my own feelings, but it’s been well worth every battle. The payoff has been noticeable–the more I learn to put my feelings in perspective, the less intense my OCD symptoms become.
So I won’t pretend to have a pristine emotional life, but I think I’ve come a long way, and I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned in prioritizing faith over feelings as a believer with OCD.
1. Know Yourself
My first suggestion is to know yourself and the way your brain operates. I’ve talked often in group coaching sessions, videos, and blog posts about discerning when you are in your “sound mind” versus your “OCD mind.” I simply can’t emphasize this enough. The style of thinking, the emotional atmosphere, the conclusions reached, the fruit produced–these are points of analysis to help you determine which mind you are in.
Imagine if you could short circuit a ruminative spiral simply by stopping and reflecting on what mindset you’re in.
“Oh, I’m in my OCD mind right now,” you say to yourself. “Lemme just ignore what my brain is doing.” You might feel horrible at the moment, but the feelings would quickly pass. Like the sun coming out after a heavy rain, you’d have clarity afterwards and realize that all those feelings were…just feelings.
That’s not just an imaginative scenario. You can get to that point. It starts now, with the little baby steps done consistently.
2. Lean into People You Trust
Sometimes the OCD mind can be difficult to detect from within the eye of the storm. It’s helpful to have a secondary perspective from others around us. Perhaps a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a trusted friend, or a pastor can check your thinking pattern.
I, for one, have had times when I’ve told my husband what I’m feeling, and the simple act of verbalizing my emotions over a situation sounds so dumb that I haven’t even needed him to tell me his opinion. Just saying my silly thoughts and feelings out loud to another person helps me realize I’m being a bit OCD.
Or maybe you’re the type to be stuck on a really difficult obsession, and everyone around you is telling you, “This is your OCD! Let it GO!” and you’re having a hard time listening to them. Please, try to lean into the people in your life who you trust have a genuine walk with the Lord. Sometimes they can see things much clearer than you.
I will add one caveat to this point, though.
Talking with others about your obsessive material can easily become reassurance-seeking, which is a compulsion. To know the difference between helpful conversations and compulsive conversations, ask yourself:
- Is the point of this conversation for me to immediately find emotional relief?
- Do I gain a sense of being “absolved” when I talk to another person about my struggles?
- Do I feel that I absolutely cannot move on from my thoughts unless I get another person’s input, and then find myself almost immediately “cured” after speaking with them?
If you answered yes to the above questions, you may be using other people as a form of unhealthy reassurance seeking. This does no favors to your OCD recovery.
What I am referring to is a healthy “leaning” on others you trust and using their input to sharpen your perception of what’s OCD and what’s “normal” in the Christian’s journey with faith and feelings.
3. Develop a Healthy, Non-Anxious Relationship with Scripture
If you struggle with figuring out the balance between faith and feelings, the ultimate cure can be found in Scripture. Unfortunately, most people with religious OCD have a complex relationship with the Bible.
No, it’s not that we disbelieve it. But we often:
- Get stuck ruminating on parts we don’t understand
- Utilize overly simplistic and literalistic hermeneutics
- Zero in on passages addressed to reprobates and apply these to ourselves while overlooking the passages addressed to the saints
- Play “Bible Horoscope” where the “verse of the day” contains hidden messages for us from God
- Find ourselves triggered by the results of any or all of the above, which can lead us to avoid Scripture
Building a positive balance between faith and feelings will have to involve quite a lot of Scripture, because it is in the Bible that we hear God speak to us. (But not in the “Bible Horoscope” type of way.)
Yes, it is possible to rebuild healthy interpretive methods (hermeneutics). It is possible to re-engage with the Bible even if you’ve been avoiding it for a long time for fear of being triggered. It is possible to feel reasonably confident as you read, even when you encounter heavy passages or you read things you don’t understand.
Even if what I’ve just written sounds like a far distant dream, please tuck it close to your heart and believe it is possible–for you. We never set our eyes on any goals except those which we believe are possible to achieve. So I assure you, no matter how obsessive-compulsive you are, no matter how anxious you currently are when you interface with Scripture, you can break through the fear and one day enjoy reading the Bible in a balanced way.
And THIS will be the nurturing sustenance that feeds your positive relationship between faith and feelings. All good things will stem from this fountain of truth in your life. The Bible, the Bible, the Bible–let these divine words be the cure for your fear and anxiety.
Wherever you are in your OCD recovery journey, keep Scripture in your sights. Even if you’re paralyzed by fear and haven’t cracked the Bible open in ages, at the very least say a prayer and ask God to help you figure out baby steps that will help you return to His Word.
The One who said, “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” will certainly help you.
Learning to place faith over feelings isn’t always an easy task. For most of us–if not all of us–it is a work in progress. We are learning to silence the cognitive distortion of “emotional reasoning.” We are learning to ignore our emotions in favor of a higher reality–God’s Word.
The battle of faith and feelings is a gamble, really, because we can’t see the end result just now. But it’s a gamble between objective truths and subjective moods. Our fickle feelings change with the wind. Our obsessional thoughts may plague us for months on end and then vanish with a sudden puff of randomness. But the truths that we cling to by faith–the reality of God, the atoning death of Jesus on the cross, His soon return and His promise to recreate our bodies and our planet–all are based on a book that claims to have binding, eternal, objective truth.
Let’s choose faith.
Don’t try to obsessively “feel” your faith. Don’t try to force perfect understandings of the mysteries of Scripture.
Just cling to Jesus. Let your feelings go. Ride them out like a nasty storm. They’ll pass. But you know what will never pass?
Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.Matthew 24:35
That’s good enough for me. How about you?