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How to Give Up Control: The Final Frontier in OCD Recovery 

 February 9, 2021

By  Jaimie Eckert

One of the things I’ve struggled with the most in overcoming my own scrupulosity is learning how to give up control. I would even go so far as to say it’s one of the last and greatest strongholds for anyone trying to get rid of religious OCD

We don’t usually think of “control” as a problem we have.

Yes, we’ve got anxiety.

Yes, we can’t stop praying/confessing/ruminating.

Yes, we feel guilty all. the. time.

But control? How is that even an issue? We can ask ourselves these kinds of questions:

  • Do I struggle to stop certain actions when I know I’ve done enough?
  • Do I get flustered when my plans are changed suddenly?
  • Do I dislike surprises or have a hard time being spontaneous?
  • Do I get frustrated by small things that are out of my control, like being interrupted by a child or having a family member take food from my plate?
  • Do I have a hard time believing in what God has promised to do FOR me?
  • Do I tend to rely so much on my own works that I have a difficult time finding a sense of comfort in God’s provision?

If you’ve answered yes to some of these questions, it may be helpful to talk about how to give up control.

Preaching to the Choir About How to Give Up Control

Here at scrupulosity.com, I’ve made it no secret that all the resources I create are born out of my own personal struggle with religious OCD. Over the years, I’ve learned quite well…

How to limit my ruminative tendencies…

How to ignore myself when my emotional reasoning wants to take over…

How to sit with my doubts and not try to figure out the things that God has not revealed…

But I’d say the last and most difficult frontier to conquer is the battle with control. It’s something I still struggle with, and I still search for better ways to convince my mind to do what it doesn’t like to do.

how to let go of control when you have OCD

But despite the intense fear and dislike of this ultimate release of responsibility, I’m convinced that we cannot conquer OCD unless we learn how to give up control. Behind every compulsion is a deep-rooted addiction to being in control.

Why do we strive so hard to pray right, believe hard enough, or confess every last sin? Because we want to control our eternal destiny. We want to control the quality of our spiritual lives. We want to control what gets written in the heavenly record. And because these are all good things, it’s that much harder to release our unhealthy control addictions.

Why It’s So Hard for People with OCD to Give Up Control

When we have scrupulosity, the things we try to control are totally legitimate. We aren’t “control freaks” out to micromanage our friends and family just because it feels good to be the boss. No, we don’t try to control for fun, but for fear.

Controlling is a way of managing our own anxiety because it gives us the upper hand over reality.

Control is the matrix, the web, where obsessions and compulsions find their home. In our obsessions, we attempt to predict possible future scenarios so we can prevent disaster. In our compulsions, we attempt to wrangle what we believe to be present danger and control it in our favor.

It’s all about control. Us obsessives, we find our home here. (Head over to Made of Millions where I shared the story of how my OCD sprang into being, and you’ll see it was all about control as a means of organizing a chaotic life.)

One of the reasons it’s hard for us to learn how to give up control is because we were actually made for it. In the beginning, God created us and gave us “dominion.”

let go of control and trust in God: the path to freedom from scrupulosity

“Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Genesis 1:28


Human beings are created for self-determinism, not for a puppet-like, fatalistic existence. We weren’t made to be God’s robots. We have, naturally, the inborn desire to shape, control, and mold our surroundings.

Anywhere you go in the world, you will see how human cultures have shaped their world. They’ve taken wild vines and taught them to grow in beautiful shapes. They’ve caught wild horses and tamed them for useful service. They’ve harnessed the power of water and wind to serve human needs.

This inborn, God-given desire to create, control, and subdue nature is a powerful thing. But when this good thing gets pumped full of steroids (aka OCD), it gets out of hand.

That’s where the difficulty comes in.

When we get addicted to alcohol, we can cut it off cold turkey and never taste liquor again. When we get addicted to smoking, we can throw out all our cigarette packs. But control addictions are kind of like eating addictions — we can’t exactly quit eating for the rest of our lives, nor can we escape the reality of self-determinism. What we need to do is learn how to reduce our dependency, even when we feel hungry for more.

How to Give Up Control According to the Bible

I used to think that giving up control meant surrender.

But a search through Scripture convinced me that this is not the case. Go ahead — do a word search, and you will not find a single verse telling us to surrender to God.

Perhaps we get the idea from old hymns like “I Surrender All,” but we are never told  that we must surrender to God. The word “surrender” is only used in Scripture when recounting ancient military battles.

God asks for trust, not surrender

I believe this is because the word “surrender” is, fundamentally, a military term. And it’s not what God is looking for when He asks us to give up control.

What God wants is trust, not surrender.

Trust is a relational “giving up,” whereas surrender comes after a battle and requires a winner and a loser. God doesn’t ask for surrender because He’s not fighting with us. He’s wooing us. Thus, He asks us to trust.

Trust is the answer to our fear of giving up control. We fear letting go because we are scared of what might happen. But if we fully believe in the loving character of the one who gently takes the reins in His hands, we will be enabled to lay down our fears.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.”

1 John 4:18

I know that our obsessive-compulsive tendencies make chronic anxiety and fear a real thing. I don’t think our struggles with fear are sinful, but this verse does point us to the fact that the answer to our fears lies in a deeper and still deeper understanding of God’s character of love. The more we learn to trust, the easier it is to let go of the things we’ve been controlling. 

“It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man.”

Psalm 118:8

Why does the Bible say it is “better” to trust in God rather than in man (i.e. ourselves)?

It isn’t “better” as far as initial ease and comfort, because for those of us with scrupulosity, it’s a battle to let go of control. But it’s “better” in the sense that it provides better solutions to life’s problems and is ultimately a more sustainable model than self-dependency.

Self will fail us. Christ never will.

Self is unpredictable and unmanageable. Christ takes us into hand and repairs us.

Self misconstrues the truth and creates fanatical “convictions.” Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.

Our safety lies in turning over our unmanageable self into His care, trusting that “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it” (Philippians 1:6).

how to let go of control: understanding the Fathers love

Practical Action Steps

So what does this actually look like?

We’re convinced that we need to turn over control to God. We need to lean on Him in utter trust. But how?

Here are a few practical action steps for how to give up control.

  1. Read passages in the Bible that emphasize God’s parental love. As we seek to relate to God as His “child” rather than a harassed employee on the verge of being eternally fired, our trust will grow. Those of us with scrupulosity tend to get stuck reading scary passages (which were probably intended for more hardheaded readers) and we skip over the passages about God’s paternal tenderness. If you have experienced abuse, childhood emotional neglect, or religious trauma, this is even more important, as your view of God’s character may be somewhat skewed. Pay special attention to the gospels, seeking to recognize God’s attributes of love.
  2. Challenge your catastrophizing thoughts. Much of our obsessive-compulsive control is based on catastrophic ideas of horrible things that might happen in our spiritual lives. Challenge these thoughts by asking yourself, “what do I really believe about who God is? Do I believe He throws me to the dogs and waits to see if I’ll get my spiritual life figured out on my own, or do I believe He is actively at work IN me to bring about the end result that pleases Him?” Catastrophic spiritual fears (I’ll apostatize, I’ll be lost, I’ll be deluded, I’ll get possessed) are all based on the idea that we must fend for ourselves. Challenge these thoughts by clinging to a biblical view of God’s character.
  3. Accept your humanity. We are not all-knowing and all-powerful — only God is. Sometimes, trying to control every detail of our lives (i.e. our anxious, compulsive prayers to prevent harm from coming to a loved one) are nothing more than veiled attempts to manipulate or stand in the place of God. Instead, accept your humanity. Accept that things happen in life that we don’t always like, but that God is using all things to work out His perfect will. Stare straight in the face of the thing you try hardest to prevent and embrace the idea that you might not be able to stop that fear from coming true. But you’ll definitely be able to walk through that trial if it comes, because Christ is with you.
  4. Ban control-based language from your vocabulary. The words we use in our own self-talk can be powerful. Here are some examples of control-based phrases that get us stuck:
    • “I must…!” (replace with: “I’d prefer…”
    • “He/she/they must…” (replace with: “I’d prefer…”
    • “I can’t stand this…” (replace with: “this is very uncomfortable, but I can stand it. I will get through this.”)
    • “I can’t stop until…” (replace with: “I can stop this compulsion even though it feels very uncomfortable.”)

Conclusion

Knowing how to give up control isn’t always easy, but it’s an important step in overcoming scrupulosity.

Ultimately, let’s remember that we aren’t making a military surrender. There isn’t a winner and a loser: there are two winners when we trust God. Leaning on His wisdom and will is the best way to loosen our grip on control addictions.

As we each move forward in learning how to trust, I pray God’s blessing upon you — and a little kick in the pants to let go of control. 🙂

Best wishes on the journey!

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  1. Blessings sister, as a Christian INFP/J, I really didn’t understand that I had suffered from overthinking, over controlling, and selfish attitude, and overall Fear. I love assurance in everything that I do, and if I lose the assurance, I lose myself by wanting to control everything in my favor. Forget everybody else. It’s been 4 years since I’ve been trying to control an event in my life so that I could secure my eternity. I literally threw a lot of people under the boss for that. God has been telling me to surrender for a while but what I guess He was telling was to trust Him. But I didn’t want to. I suffered a lot these past years, suffered from DPDR, suffered from blasphemous thoughts, ultimately I gave up everything to satisfy my own selfish messed scenarios in my head. God is now breaking the wall by helping to face the things that I was fearful of. I’m so thankful for your studies, you don’t have an idea about how many people are going to this and believe that they are lost in the faith and literally give up. Praise God, my hope is to also help as many people as I can as I am trying to trust the Lord again and ultimately accept his grace and mercy. It’s tough though).

    1. Hi Daniel, glad to see another INFJ like myself! You’re right, control is something we HAVE to give up in favor of trusting God, but this means we first need to understand God’s character of love. It is impossible to give up control to someone we view as “unsafe” or dictatorial. This is why I am so thankful of the Biblical concept of “growing” in grace…the more we grow, the more we learn, the more we trust, the easier this becomes. Keep up the faith, Daniel! There is hope and peace for you!
      Jaimie

  2. Thanks for this article Jaimie. A really honest and open insight which has again hit home with me.
    For me I personally don't feel that I should pray for myself. I feel there are others in the world so much more deserving that I shouldn't waste time praying for me but for all those less fortunate. I feel guilty thinking I should take up God's time for myself. I feel guilty and ashamed of my OCD and pray that he knows it isn't a reflection of how I feel toward him.

    1. Hi, Nicki,

      Thanks for sharing so candidly. I can definitely understand how you might feel guilty praying for yourself, as this is directly related to the “false guilt” that always surfaces with scrupulosity. As I have mentioned in other articles, this false guilt feels very real (I won’t belittle its existence in the mind and the powerful, negative feelings that come with it) but despite feeling very real, the false guilt is not valid. This is probably another case where our conscience needs to be reeducated by the truths of God’s word as we work through our scrupulosity.

      When we speak of prayer, the first thing we must recognize is the purpose of prayer. Prayer is the breath of the soul, a relational reaching-out towards God. It does not always have coherent or elegant words (as we see in Jesus’ parable of the pharisee and tax collector in Luke 18). It does not always “ask” for something, as we see in the prayers of praise in the book of Psalms. Prayer is sometimes forced from agonized, lamenting lips by a soul in doubt and despair (as we see that roughly 40% of the psalms are in the category of “lament”), which is likewise acceptable to God as a relational approach. Prayer is not always a Pollyanna-type praise and selfless intercession for others, though praise and intercession are definitely valuable.

      One of our problems as people with scrupulosity is that we sometimes think of God in human terms. For example, the idea that we are taking up God’s time. The law of limited supply is not applicable to God’s time. A day with the Lord is as a thousand years. You, Nicki, exist before God’s loving gaze as if you were the only human being He ever created. And yes, if you were the only person ever born, Jesus would have come to earth and died just for you. When we try to conceptualize of this in human terms, our minds fail to grasp it. Humans are not like that. We have limitations on how many people we can love deeply (in fact, I read a study suggesting that humans can have deep, meaningful relationships with no more than 12 people at any one time). But God has plenty of time for you and everyone else. At a deep level, you know this, Nicki, and your comment tells me that you know that you know this. It’s the false guilt of scrupulosity that comes and overshadows your thoughts. Disregard these feelings and press closer to Jesus with your prayers. Open your darkest feelings to Him as you ask for healing. Yes, we pray for others; but don’t let feelings of self-rejection stop you from binding your soul to the Savior with personal prayer.

      God’s blessings always,

      Jaimie

      1. Thank you Jaimie. Your comments have moved me to tears (again), more so because your words give me hope that maybe my soul can be saved and God still has hope in me.

        1. Nicki, there is definitely hope. But our hope is in who we know God to be rather than our warring emotions.

          Here’s a song that might be your freedom anthem as you move beyond the scrupulosity. The lyrics are packed with good theology and I usually get a bit teary every time I hear it. But it came to mind as you shared, as I think it speaks to your struggle.

          Have a most blessed weekend,

          Jaimie

          1. Thank you for sharing this song Jaimie. I do not usually listen to Christian songs but this really struck a chord with me. I can see why it moves you to tears.

          2. I don't usually feel able to relate to the music. When I feel the anxiety rising or my mind wandering I tend to listen to pop music from my youth. It's feel good and uplifting and most times tends to help me. I will add this to my music list from now on though!

  3. Thank you for your insights and advice. This article was really helpful. Until a week ago my wife and I had never heard of Scrupulosity, but you have helped us understand it better and how to deal with it. Your point about understanding the true character of God instead of what some people have taught about Him or what our minds have imagined. We found it helpful to look at the book of First John and read it from the point of view of where we were at before the OCD (scrupulosity) started, to be a good indication of where we are at as far as salvation is concerned.

  4. This is really good. But it doesn't address the thing most of us with scrupulosity are trying to control – our love for God or our eternal destiny. In other words, "what if I don't have saving faith, and what if God doesn't ever change me or give it to me?"

    Yes, this says we want to get outside ourselves and fix ourselves, and we need to let God do that. But what if he has chosen not to? It's just very hard to accept that I have to trust God to save me if there is a possibility he won't.

    1. Hi, Kathy,

      Really great thoughts that you’re bringing to the table. I think you’ve zeroed in on one of the biggest doubts/fears in the world of scrupulosity: what if I’m not saved — and, by extension, what if God doesn’t WANT to save me.

      I believe there is extensive evidence in Scripture that God does want to save us and has provided universally for all who are willing.

      “…who desires ALL men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Tim 2:4
      “…longsuffering toward us, not willing that ANY should perish but that all should come to repentance.” 2 Pet 3:9
      “For God so loved the WORLD that He gave His only begotten Son, that WHOEVER believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the WORLD through Him might be saved.” John 3:16-17
      “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for ALL men.” Rom 5:18
      “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for ALL people…” Titus 2:11
      “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw ALL people to myself.” John 12:32

      There is a really strong line of thought in Scripture suggesting salvation is universally available, that God does not cherry-pick some for salvation while others are left behind. But you’ve brought up another thorny issue — the issue of “saving faith.” That’s another matter that can cause a lot of nervousness. “Ok,” says the person with scrupe, “I believe God is willing to save any/all of us, BUT I’ve got to have saving faith first.” And then the cycle of rumination begins anew to figure out if that saving faith is good enough.

      That’s where we again need to let go of control when we sense that trying to believe hard enough or believe right is in itself becoming a works-based activity. I very much like these verses that suggest that God Himself is supplying the right kind of faith that we need in order to be saved:

      “…God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.” Romans 12:3
      “…Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…” Hebrews 12:2
      “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” Eph 2:8

      God bless you always,
      Jaimie

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