“I know God is love. I know all the verses that talk about His grace and mercy. There’s absolutely no excuse for why I’m acting like this.” Vincent shook his head in disbelief over his own struggles with scrupulosity. “Sometimes I fall into these compulsive cycles or blasphemous thoughts and then I think God hates me. But it’s not true — is it?”
Vincent’s voice ended on a questioning note. What he knew from God’s Word didn’t match what he felt. It was a ping pong match between “God loves me” and “God hates me,” a common pain point for many others with religious OCD.
Vincent would never verbalize the sentiment, “God hates me.” But there it was, eating away at his mental health (and spiritual life) like a canker. It wasn’t a belief, it was a feeling — a subconscious dread of God that undercut all his beautiful doctrines.
For many people who suffer from scrupulosity, our deeply-held views of God may be so awful that we dare not express them for fear of offending Him. But it is only as we place a finger on these hidden fears that we can begin to find healing.
In this article, I want to talk about this unspoken feeling that “God hates me,” and how it plays out in our experience with obsessive compulsive disorder.
Scrupulosity’s “Danger Paradigms”
In my work as a scrupulosity coach, I have found that there are two problematic paradigms that people with religious OCD hold about themselves and God. These two paradigms lie at the root of a great deal of our anxiety. I call them scrupulosity’s “danger paradigms.”
- The “Dangerous God” Paradigm, and
- The “Dangerous Me” Paradigm
These two seem quite different from one another, but actually, they both stem from the idea that God hates me. At the foundation of religious OCD is a misunderstanding of God’s character, which in turn impacts our sense of safety.
Sure, OCD is a mental health disorder that feeds constant “danger signals” to our brains. We can’t chalk this whole thing up to being a faith issue. But at the same time, our biological predispositions to anxiety are feeding off something — and that “something” is our thoughts.
Every single OCD theme out there — religious OCD, contamination OCD, sexual OCD, and all the others — is powerful because it invokes a sharp sense of danger.
So we must ask ourselves — do we view God as dangerous? Do we view ourselves as dangerous? How does our understanding of God’s character influence the way our religious OCD manifests?
I usually illustrate the two danger paradigms as follows: either God is big and dangerous and I am small and powerless, or I am big and dangerous (to myself and to others) and God is absent, weak, and powerless.
Let’s look at both paradigms in a bit more detail.
God Hates Me: The “ Dangerous God” Paradigm
People with the “dangerous God” paradigm view themselves as being small and defenseless in the hands of a big and scary God. They are simply at the whims of an all-powerful Being whom they can’t control or influence. Talk about feeling helpless!
This paradigm is sometimes more common among those who believe in the more radical forms of predestination. Whether they want to be saved or not, the choice is out of their hands.
It’s not hard to imagine how this can cause us to develop a scary view of God.
But the “dangerous God” mindset can go deeper than theology.
Many people who hold the “dangerous God” paradigm have experienced spiritual trauma of some form. This also influences our picture of God. Maybe someone at church judged us harshly, or an authoritative spiritual figure abused us.
When this happens, we sometimes project our experience onto God, leading us to have the same feelings about God that we have for those judgmental or abusive people.
“God is dangerous. If I make a wrong step, He will harm me. In fact, maybe it’s too late and God hates me already. I need to be careful so that nothing bad happens.”
Remember, these are usually not conscious beliefs. They are feelings that influence our behavior — feelings that you may have never stopped to think about before. In fact, you might sit in church every week and sing “Amazing Grace” and be able to give a stirring testimony about the love of God. But yet, your feelings about God are different from what you know to be true.
Common Coping Mechanisms
How do we cope when we feel helpless in the shadow of a powerful and dangerous God?
Ironically, we try to control every detail of our lives to appease this capricious God, resorting to ritualistic behavior such as counting, mantra-like Scripture recitation, or repetitive prayers. (Check out my video, “When Have I Prayed Enough?”)
For example: Avery believed that she had to visualize each person of the Godhead in order to feel authentic when praying. If she failed to get it right, she would force herself to start all over. Sometimes, Avery would pray the same section of her prayer a dozen times before getting it “right.”
Getting her prayer “just right” was the only way she felt safe enough to go to sleep at night.
Despite knowing that God is love, she couldn’t manage to feel safe in His presence.
The Problem with the “Dangerous God” Paradigm
This paradigm presents a very twisted and unbiblical picture of the character of God.
Avery viewed God as unsafe, so she attempted to manipulate God by her rituals in order to feel like she was in a safe place with Him. To her, God was capricious and unpredictable — out to punish her if she failed in any small detail.
Relating to God in this way is incredibly traumatic. In fact, it’s the same way that people in abusive relationships relate to their abusers. They seek to placate the abusive person in hopes of feeling some sense of security.
Treating God in the same way reveals a deep-seated disconnect between our daily experience and what we really believe.
We know God is love. We know He is trustworthy. But deep down — deeper than we may have analyzed up till this point — we are terrified of God and we believe He hates us. And so our compulsions become tools to manipulate. Our obsessions are a way we try to protect ourselves.
So how do we move away from this version of “God hates me”?
The Solution to the “Dangerous God” Paradigm
The first step in moving away from the “dangerous God” paradigm is recognizing what shaped this picture of God in our minds.
For some, it may be an actual traumatic circumstance, like a manipulative relationship or spiritual abuse.
For others, it may be a doctrinal misunderstanding. The OCD mind tends to be so black and white that it often overemphasizes certain biblical concepts.
Want to know the three “biggies” that make up 2/3 of all religious obsessions? In order, the religious obsessions that take the cake are:
- The Unpardonable Sin
Now, does Scripture talk about a final punishment? Yes. Does God hold the events of this world in His hands? Yes. Are there final limits beyond which we may not safely cross? Absolutely.
But these three ideas can be taken to such an extreme that they cease to be accurate portrayals of the true Biblical teaching. And that happens — a lot — with scrupulosity.
The first step to overcoming the “dangerous God” paradigm is to seek balance in our views of God and Biblical concepts. We must recognize that the OCD mind tends towards polarized thinking, and almost always paints things in a much more black-and-white manner than it really is.
Develop the ability to leave room for “maybes” and “I’m not sures.” I know your mind is 100% sure that you’ve committed the unpardonable sin, but try to leave room for other possibilities.
Secondly, overcoming the idea that “God hates me” involves putting trust in who God really is. I’m sure you’ve heard of cognitive behavioral therapy — that process of changing the way you think. Think of this like “spiritual CBT.” Learning to trust God — I mean, really trust God, at a deep and visceral level — means we have to stop blabbing those pat praise lyrics and come face to face with how we honestly feel towards God.
Sometimes it isn’t pretty. Often we’ll dig out some nasty spiritual skeletons from the closet. And that’s ok. We’re moving forward. We are learning what it really means to trust.
Psalm 97:2 speaks of God in this way,
Clouds and darkness surround Him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.
Though we may not be able to understand everything about God—that is, when clouds seem to darken our understanding—we can know with certainty that His character is trustworthy. He proclaims Himself as a God who is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6, 7).
God is not a fickle deity who changes how He feels about us depending on His mood on a given day.
On the contrary, He is totally trustworthy!
And He invites us to put our trust in Him:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.Proverbs 3:5-6
God Hates Me: The “Dangerous Me” Paradigm
At first glance, the “dangerous me” paradigm seems opposite of the “dangerous God” paradigm. People with this second viewpoint see God as weak and absent, while they themselves are dangerously powerful in ways that terrify them. They feel they are in danger of harming others or being damned themselves if they don’t control these latent powers.
For example, John may get intrusive thoughts about hurting someone he loves every time he sees a knife in the kitchen. Because he doesn’t understand where his thoughts are coming from, he fears that these thoughts will materialize. Soon, he’s overwhelmed. “God can’t stop me from stabbing someone with a knife,” he fears. To him, God is distant and uninterested in protecting him from these thoughts.
Laura isn’t bombarded with fears of harming someone, but intrusive thoughts about sexuality and bestiality keep popping up in her mind. She’s disgusted by these thoughts, but can’t seem to control them and fears that she’ll be condemned by God for them. She believes that God can’t (or won’t) stop her from carrying out the gross actions in her mind. After all, she’s responsible for her own actions — not God. Right? And so her thought process goes.
As both John and Laura find themselves battling these thoughts, they come to the conclusion that “God hates me. If He really cared, I wouldn’t be in this awful situation. If He really cared, He wouldn’t have created me like this.”
Common Coping Mechanisms
Those of us with a “dangerous me” paradigm cope in very similar ways to those with the “dangerous God” paradigm. We also follow compulsive rituals that they believe will prevent us from doing bad things.
John might repeat a mantra or blow air out of his mouth every time an intrusive thought enters his mind. His compulsive response is incredibly sourced in himself, not God. He makes himself responsible for preventing harm and takes little to no comfort from genuine prayer — because in his mind, God is not accessible enough to provide the same level of security that his own compulsions can.
Laura, on the other hand, goes to confession several times per week to get these disgusting intrusive thoughts off her chest. She obsessively makes lists about the sinful thoughts she must confess — just in case she might forget one of them.
She fully believes that God has given each believer the responsibility to confess and seek forgiveness from God, so she views her compulsions as merely her “Christian duty.” However, she fails to recognize that at a deeper level, she is viewing herself as more powerful than God. She must keep lists of her sins because her own list is more reliable than the ability of the Holy Spirit to convict of sin (John 16:8). And, at some level, perhaps she believes it is not the blood of Christ that saves her, but her own properly-completed spiritual behaviors that close the deal.
Both John and Laura make themselves responsible for ensuring their salvation and preventing spiritual disaster. In theological jargon, we would call this very “anthropocentric.” That is, human-centered.
And we got ourselves into this human-centered spiral because at some point in our spiritual journey, our childlike trust in God was derailed. Or perhaps it was never there to begin with. And if God can’t be trusted, we default to trusting in ourselves.
A Third Paradigm?
When I’m working with scrupulosity clients, I will typically show them these two danger paradigms and then ask, “Which one resonates with you the most?”
Some people say #1, or #2, or perhaps they flip-flop between both of them.
Then, I begin to draw another picture: a stick figure that is smiling down on a baby in its arms.
I ask my clients, “If this were your image of God, how would that make you feel?”
It breaks my heart when, time and time again, they say, “I can’t relate to that one.”
Why? Because this picture represents a third paradigm that most accurately represents the character of God!
God Doesn’t Hate Me: The “Fatherly Love of God” Paradigm
We already know — cognitively — that God doesn’t hate us. But it’s a long way from our head to our heart. And when we have scrupulosity, we need to spend more than average time contemplating the love and kindness of God.
This isn’t cheap grace or a dumbing down of the gospel message. This is a recognition that people who are predisposed to obsessive-compulsive thought patterns are naturally fixated on danger. We already pay way too much attention to the damnation passages — so as we contemplate the tender care of our Heavenly Father, we perform a kind of balancing act — spiritual CBT, if you will — to round out the picture.
And, by the way, I’m not the only one who favors focusing on the parent-child relationship we may enjoy with God. One of the favorite themes of Christ while on this earth was the paternal love of God for us. This idea surfaces over and over again in His parables.
In the parable of the lost sheep, He spoke about how “your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14).
In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus emphasized the rejoicing that the Father has when His wandering children return to Him (Luke 15:11-32)!
In an unexpected moment of tenderness, Jesus set a child on His lap and reminded His listeners that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is he who takes the role of a child (Matthew 18:4).
Are you catching the theme?
John, a disciple particularly close to Jesus, summarized it this way:
Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!1 John 3:1
He seems to be saying, “See the love of God and the way in which it was revealed through Christ. Let yourself take it all in!” That sounds like a major shift from scrupulosity’s danger paradigms!
Here’s one more reassuring passage:
Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands.Isaiah 49:15, 16
The “dangerous God” paradigm and the “dangerous me” paradigm are founded on a wrong view of God and the idea that “God hates me.”
A key in healing from scrupulosity is unraveling these paradigms. God does not hate us. In fact, He loves us more than any earthly father or mother ever could. As we re-orient ourselves to God in this way, He will become a safe place instead of a dangerous one.
This healthy picture of God’s love for us and our position as His children will open a way for us to grow spiritually and learn how to overcome our religious OCD. Then, we can begin to take big steps forward in healing!
Where are you in your experience? Which paradigm resonates with you the most?
Best wishes on the journey,