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 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.
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.”
“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.
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).
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”)
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!