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Not all guilt is true guilt — but for the scrupulous mind, this is not so obvious. False guilt differs from “conviction” in that it appears as a condemnatory feeling with little or no biblical support. We may feel “convicted” about things that are not sin, or we may feel “convicted” to go beyond God’s requirements in things like confessing, making sure we get all details correct, or charity. What we need to remember is that the act of going beyond God’s requirements is the basic definition of fanaticism, so the “more is always better” approach is not always safe. False guilt is often very subjective, but an overly condemning conscience can be reeducated by the Word of God and stern self-discipline. Your best response to false guilt is to develop a strong understanding of righteousness by faith as expressed in the New Testament and to prove your faith by refusing to engage with guilty feelings. Although it can give you a temporary sense of relief to “obey” the false convictions, you are only feeding something that will turn into fanaticism. You must begin to discipline yourself to ignore guilty feelings that have no biblical basis.
Inflated Sense of Responsibility
Just as gymnasts develop muscular flexibility, we need to develop mental flexibility. Having a control addiction means we struggle with mental inflexibility and have a hard time giving up control. The desire to control all aspects of our lives, our environments, our schedules, and our destinies are symptoms of mental rigidity. This comes through no fault of our own. For many of us, mental inflexibility can be caused by feelings of fear. “Control” is an attempt to find a sense of safety as we try to create a completely predictable environment. The matter of mental flexibility and trust can be learned through Scripture. In fact, we can see the entire Bible as a guidebook for how to trust. The Biblical vocabulary we grow up hearing in church helps us learn healthy release: “surrender,” “trust,” “dependence,” “submission,” etc. We need to challenge our control addictions by recognizing the Biblical message of letting go in humble, childlike dependence on a Higher Power. To work on this area of your spirituality, you can begin learning to respond to your obsessions and compulsions with intentional release. Work on “letting go,” letting disturbing thoughts pass in and out without responding to them. Remember that God is the one who sanctifies you; you’ve tried really hard to make these issues go away, and you haven’t been able to do it in your own power. Now, try giving responsibility over to the Lord and let Him handle this!
Chronic intolerance of doubt means we have mental rigidity in relation to our knowledge of things. It is an intense craving for certainty. Typically, when we have gone through our ruminations, we find a sense of relief — but it is only temporary. The cure for intolerance of doubt is not more reassurance. We do not need more or better answers, we need to lean into uncertainty. Our best response is to gain a deep understanding of what it means to bow before divine mystery and embrace our human limitations. 1 Corinthians 13:12 reminds us that we each have partial, not full, knowledge. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” There is nothing “un-Christian” about admitting we aren’t sure about lots of things in life and spirituality. This may be difficult in the face of “super-Christians” who seem sure of everything and harp continually on the need to “be absolutely sure you are saved.” For anxious Christians, this is unhelpful at best and damaging at worst. As a Christian, you can learn to say “I don’t know” about the obsessive ruminations that you can’t solve, even the things that feel like you need to solve them. God recognizes how hard you’ve been trying to figure these topics out, and He understands the unique wiring of your brain. With a loving image of God’s character, you can let go of your scramble to reassure yourself of the answers and can instead rest in His provision for you. Each time that you feel compelled to figure out more answers, respond by giving God the responsibility to prevent disaster or provide truth. Comfort yourself by remembering that it is ok to not know all the answers.
One of the great cognitive distortions of religious OCD is “emotional reasoning.” This is a mode of thinking that says, “because something feels true, it is true.” This mode of thinking is as old as the Bible’s patriarchs and can cause just as much distress now as it did back then. Emotional reasoning turns feelings into reality. We worship our emotions because we allow them to dictate what is true rather than the Word of God. If we feel guilty or forsaken or evil, we react as though this is true — leading us into a cycle of rumination and compulsion. This thinking pattern leads us to look inward for truth rather than upward. We analyze ourselves and our feelings to see if “something is wrong with me.” We feel guilty, so we look for sin. We feel confused, so we check to see if we can still feel God’s presence. We feel unsettled, so we look inward to make sure we’re saved. Such an emotionally-driven spiritual experience can lead obsession-prone individuals into an imbalanced form of religiosity that quickly becomes oppressive. (And yes, we feel guilty admitting that we’re being choked by our spirituality, but it’s true. Imbalanced forms of faith are deeply distressing and are not what God wants us to experience.) Emotional reasoning can be combated by studying what Scripture says about truth versus feelings, as well as committing to an all-out siege of your emotions. While it is important to honor your emotions, there is also a point where you must ignore them. The key is to look upward to Christ rather than inward to self. No matter how harshly your anxious feelings clamor for ruminative attention, you can ignore them, because feelings simply don’t tell you the Truth. God tells you the Truth: you are His. You are loved. You are safe. Not because of you and your ability to figure things out, but because of Him.
We all have religious distortions. None of us grew up at the gates of heaven—we grew up in a sinful world with sinful people and broken religious systems. We’ve never seen God face-to-face, so it’s easy to develop misconceptions through a lifetime of painful and confusing experiences. Little by little, we may develop cracks in our underlying views of God’s love, power, presence, and expectations. These misconceptions are often held at the worldview level — quiet, unexamined, hidden, and yet powerfully influential in our lives. Religious distortions can be exacerbated by certain life experiences, particularly: Trauma Involvement in a religious cult Mental health challenges like obsessive-compulsive disorder Severe doctrinal misunderstandings Religious distortions cause us to see God in an unhealthy way. We may imagine that God is like our alcoholic, abusive father or like our manipulative, emotionally neglectful mother. We may have grown up in a church that teaches us we must earn God’s favor, which leads us to see Him as picky, petty, and hard to please. We may have underlying anxiety which we transpose onto God, leading Him to be the ever-silent background figure to our anxiety, the hammer that is ready to fall upon us if we make a mistake. Almost everyone in the general population has misunderstandings about the character of God, because “now we see through a mirror darkly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). However, gaining a clearer understanding of who God is and how He relates to us can be very helpful as you learn to navigate beyond your typical OCD patterns. Begin by focusing on the New Testament stories of Jesus that give us a clear demonstration of the character of God in action, as well as the parables of Jesus. As your God-related fears surface, continue to ask yourself, “is this really how God is? Or is He more loving and beautiful than my anxious brain has allowed me to believe?”