Have you ever doubted your OCD diagnosis? Have you wondered if maybe you don’t have scrupulosity and are just using the psychological label of OCD as an excuse to sin?
If so, you’re not alone. It’s basically a rite of passage in the OCD recovery community to doubt our diagnosis at some point. This is, after all, “the doubting disease.”
Let me tell you about Eli (not his real name). He’s just one of many people who fear using OCD as an excuse to sin.
Eli was diagnosed with religious OCD in his early 20’s. With therapy, medication, and intensive ERP, he was able to get most of his intrusive thoughts under control. However, he still struggled with obsessions about giving things up. He worried about idolatry and felt compelled to give up anything that brought him even the slightest pleasure: his new puppy, the nice truck he used for work, and hunting trips with his brother. He even stopped permitting himself to put salad dressing on his salads.
At some level, Eli knew these were signs of OCD’s extremism and imbalanced spirituality. When he found himself operating out of his “sound mind” rather than his “OCD mind,” he could easily step back and see these concerns as invalid. But at other times, when sucked into the OCD spiral again, it was harder to discern reality. When Eli felt those awful, condemning feelings creep up on him, he couldn’t help but wonder if this really was the Holy Spirit trying to convict him. Maybe he did need to give up these innocent things, perhaps to prove his love and loyalty to God.
It was in those times of doubt and darkness that Eli wondered if he was using OCD as an excuse to sin. He knew the right thing to do with OCD’s compulsive behavior was to resist the compulsion, ignore it, and try to move on. But a nagging worry in the back of his mind said, “if this is the Holy Spirit convicting you, aren’t you resisting the Spirit by ignoring these impressions?”
And so, Eli found himself chained to OCD’s demands, unable to escape his compulsions.
Doubting the OCD Diagnosis
As I mentioned, most people with OCD will doubt their diagnosis at some point.
I have. And probably you have, too.
Isn’t that just the way OCD works? OCD’s key buzzwords are, “how do you know?” “What if…?” “Yes, but….!”
Like the annoying, looping music of an ice cream truck parked too long outside your house, OCD’s obsessions loop in our minds. There is always another “yes, but…” to the discussion.
(This, by the way, is why argument-focused talk therapy backfires on people with OCD. You’ll never win an argument with OCD. Never!)
We shouldn’t be surprised when the chronic “yes, but…” shows up in unexpected places. OCD is a shapeshifter. Just give it time, and it’ll present doubts about the nuttiest things (and the clearest things) you never thought it were possible to doubt.
Doubting your own diagnosis is just par for the course. What’s important is that we learn to identify the pattern of OCD so that we won’t be surprised when the whack-a-mole pops up somewhere else. It’s always some variation of chronic doubt, false guilt, emotional reasoning, and so on.
But what bothers most people at this stage is not that we are doubting the OCD diagnosis, but rather what it could mean for our eternal salvation if we get this point wrong. If we accept the diagnosis as true when in reality we are just wallowing in our own sin, that feels like an end-of-the-world, spiritually catastrophic scenario.
So let’s talk about that.
What if you ARE using your diagnosis of OCD as an excuse to sin?
Using Your OCD as an Excuse to Sin
Let me first share a very informal statistic. More of an observation, really, since good-quality statistics require very strict research guidelines to produce, and I’m just sharing what I’ve observed in a coaching setting.
I think it’s possible to use your OCD as an excuse to sin, but from what I have observed, this is extremely rare within the scrupulosity recovery community.
Let’s talk numbers for a moment.
Currently, we have around 14,000 subscribers on this blog. I get copious amounts of emails from readers, which gives me a glimpse into so many personal scrupulosity struggles. I also have worked face-to-face with over 400 clients and group coaching members in the last few years. So, I’d say I’ve had a very blessed opportunity to get a birds eye view of what’s going on in the world of scrupulosity–what’s “typical,” so to speak.
I’ll restrict myself to speaking only about the clients or group members I’ve interacted with personally, since this usually gives me much better insight into their case than what I can deduce from emails alone. And I’ll round down to the number 400.
Of those 400 people I’ve worked with who have accepted the diagnosis of religious OCD, there have been just two whom I felt like were using OCD as an excuse to sin or slack off in known obedience to Christ.
If my estimates are correct (and do keep in mind, I’m not the Holy Spirit, so these two individuals might fare better in God’s eyes than I surmised, and as I stated in my disclaimer, this isn’t a formal statistic), then that’s a rate of only half a percent (0.05%) of misusing the OCD label.
But What If That’s ME?
Someone, as they read this, is thinking frantically, “what if that’s ME? What if I’M the half percent?”
People with OCD tend to be very black-and-white thinkers, and we also tend to be over-personalizers (both count as cognitive distortions that make us miserably anxious). If I was to tell you that 100% of people I’ve worked with are perfectly legit, that might make you feel a bit of reassurance (at least temporarily). But once we introduce a small fraction of potential for error, the OCD brain clings to it and over-personalizes the information.
That must be me!
The reality is that you should feel comforted knowing that most people struggle with doubt and uncertainty as they come to terms with their OCD diagnosis. You should feel some reassurance knowing that the vast majority (99.5%) of those pursuing scrupulosity recovery are doing so on good spiritual grounds.
But if it scares you to think that this isn’t a black-and-white issue that guarantees it’s impossible for you to make a mistake, please use this as an opportunity to analyze the underlying thought patterns you’re bringing to the table.
Can you exist in a universe where things aren’t always black-and-white?
Can you trust God when you’re “doing your best,” even if you aren’t 100% sure you’re doing everything right?
Do you trust His guiding hand in your life, to give you everything you need for eternal security, or are you looking inward for your own salvation?
Why do you feel the need to over-personalize every possible bad outcome to yourself? Can’t we turn the “what if” on its head and say, “what if everything turns out just fine?”
Is It the End of the Story?
Now, sin is a heinous thing in God’s sight, and I don’t want to speak lightly of it. But I want to talk with you about the worst case scenario, because I believe that even in a worst case scenario–even if you were accidentally sinning–you’d still be okay. God would still pursue and heal you.
Let’s just say, worst case scenario, that what you think is OCD is actually the voice of the Holy Spirit. You’re misusing the OCD label for something that actually needs to be obeyed.
Is it the end of the story? Does God wash His hands and walk away from you?
In the Bible, sins of ignorance are treated very differently from sins of intention. God knows when you’re confused. In fact, in Acts 17:30, the Apostle Paul said that in our times of ignorance, God “winked” or “overlooked” our mistakes, calling us to repentance at the time when new light makes our situation clearer.
Think also of the parable of the 100 sheep. 99 come safely into the fold with the shepherd, but one is missing. What does the shepherd do? Does He click His tongue with disapproval for that naughty little lamb and leave her to the wild beasts? No! He leaves the 99 and goes searching for her.
Don’t miss the point of this parable. The point is that when you are lost in your mistakes, there is nothing you can do to get yourself back to a place of safety. Nothing except trust the Shepherd to come for you and accept His work on your behalf.
(If you tend to be the type that hyperfixates on confessing and getting all the right thoughts and feelings when you repent, you may wish to check out the video I have below.)
My point here is that even IF you were misusing the OCD label, it’s not the end of the story.
Trust in what God is doing FOR you and IN you. He’s not done, He’s never done, He never grows weary with your slow progress and confused, fumbling steps. Rather, He bestows more gentleness on those of us who live in excessive fear and trembling.
If you’re reading this and have struggled with the issue I’ve described, I’m fairly convinced that you’re not using OCD as a false label to continue on in sin. Honestly speaking, if someone really wants to sin, they aren’t going to go through such an elaborate, complex maze of excuses to get there.
If a person wants to sin, they’ll find a way to justify themselves pretty quickly. The intricacies of religious OCD take up far too much time for the soul that is truly bent on rebellion. In those two cases I mentioned earlier, the ones whom I felt might be misusing the scrupulosity label, I didn’t detect hard rebellion. I saw two individuals who were deeply troubled in their relationship with God, hurt, disillusioned, and ready to give up. And even in their cases, I felt sure that with enough care and understanding, their relationship with God could be healed.
We’ve GOT to stop clinging to all our worst-case scenarios and over-personalized imaginations. God is not so careless and cheap that He’ll let us slip out of His grasp!
No, You’re Probably Not Using OCD as an Excuse to Sin
Remember these three points:
- It’s extremely common for people with scrupulosity to doubt their diagnosis at some point. If you had not yet doubted whether you really have OCD, I would guess you to be at a very elementary stage in your recovery process. Doubting your diagnosis is so common that overcoming this stage is almost a “rite of passage” in OCD recovery.
- Using OCD as an excuse to sin seems to be a rare phenomenon. According to my very loose and casual statistic, there’s a 99.5% chance that you’re absolutely on the right track with accepting your diagnosis. Keep going forward with ignoring your compulsions.
- Even if you happen to be in that small minority of people who use the OCD label carelessly as a cover for sin, it’s not the end of the story. God will pursue you, and He’ll probably use clearer methods to speak to you that won’t be confused with OCD’s spooky “impressions” or “signs.” Continue trusting in God’s unfailing love for you, and don’t worry about this!
I hope this brief article has helped address a question I get very commonly. Have I offered you an absolute, black-and-white guarantee that you’re not making any mistakes?
No. That’s not possible or realistic.
But I think there’s a really good chance that if you’re reading this, you’re absolutely doing exactly what you need to be doing right now. You’re working on beating religious OCD so that you can enjoy a vibrant relationship with God again. You’re ignoring those compulsions that make God look like a nit-picky taskmaster and make you look like a burdened, unhappy Christian. You’re learning to see God through new eyes, as He presents Himself in the Word, and this is helping you separate between His voice and the voice of OCD.
Does this process feel uncomfortable sometimes?
I regularly hear from clients who tell me that ignoring their religious compulsions feels disobedient and rebellious. But yet, deep down they know that it’s not God requiring them to sit in a bathtub of water all day long so they can be ritually pure. They know it’s not God telling them they have to go apologize to a colleague because of a slightly negative thought they had against him. They know it’s not God telling them they have to buy vegetables they didn’t need just because they accidentally took an extra produce bag in the grocery store.
But yes, it can feel disobedient and rebellious to resist these compulsions.
Maybe it’s because we’ve developed a long-standing habit of obeying the OCD “god voice.” Doesn’t it seem so much simpler to just keep obeying those impressions, “just in case?”
Simpler, perhaps. But it’s a bad habit to live from a place of “just in case.” It means we are too lazy to go through the hard work of parsing out the difference between God’s voice and OCD’s voice, and our default is to obey the compulsions. Done long enough, we begin to conflate God (who is good) with OCD (which is most assuredly not good). God appears like a rigorous taskmaster and we grow resentful.
Obeying everything that crosses your mental radar might seem like the best option: “better safe than sorry,” as they say. But it’s not safe at all. It’s spiritually dangerous to engage in compulsive behavior–extremism, really–that leads us to see God in a false light.
Let’s not do that!
Let’s walk by faith and ask God to walk with us in this journey of overcoming OCD. He will help us do this. Don’t be afraid of using your diagnosis of OCD as an excuse to sin. I believe God will guide you, even in ways that you don’t realize.
Keep looking up. Keep trusting. And don’t let yourself worry about those pesky seasons when you doubt your diagnosis.
Best wishes on the journey,