As Sarah sat in the pew, she tried to focus on the sermon. But instead of feeling a sense of peace, she felt a growing sense of panic. The pastor was preaching about assurance of salvation, and Sarah’s mind was flooded with salvation doubts. What if she wasn’t really saved? What if she had missed something important? What if she was going to hell?
These thoughts were all too familiar to Sarah. She had struggled with salvation doubts for years, and they seemed to be getting worse. No matter how much she prayed or read the Bible, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t really saved.
If you’re like Sarah, you know how it feels to have chronic doubts about your salvation. You may have been told that these doubts are a sign of weak faith, lack of trust, or even a demonic presence. But actually, unshakeable salvation doubts can be a symptom of religious OCD.
Salvation Doubts: A Possible Sign of Religious OCD
Religious OCD, also known as scrupulosity, is a subtype of OCD that involves obsessions and compulsions related to religion. People with religious OCD may be obsessed with thoughts about sin, salvation, and punishment. They may feel an overwhelming sense of guilt or shame, even for minor or imagined transgressions. And they may engage in compulsive behaviors, such as excessive prayer, confession, or avoidance of religious activities.
If you have salvation doubts that don’t seem to go away, it’s possible that this may be due to religious OCD. This can be a challenging and isolating experience, but it’s important to know that you’re not alone. Many people with religious OCD struggle with the same doubts and fears.
I have been amazed, time and time again, at how isolating this disorder can be. We hide our doubts because they make us feel like “bad Christians.” But so many people who attend our scrupulosity group coaching sessions on Zoom have told me afterwards, “Jaimie, I feel like something inside me has already been healed. Just knowing that I’m not the only person in the world who feels this way makes me hope that this is actually something I can overcome.”
Please remember that you are not alone in having salvation doubts. I know these thoughts can nearly drive you to despair, but there are many others who understand the agony of what you’re going through.
Truths that Help us Overcome Chronic Salvation Doubts
If you struggle with chronic salvation doubts, I would first of all like to direct you to some of my best articles on this topic. Please start by reading any of the following posts that would be relevant to your situation:
- If you struggle with salvation doubts at all, you definitely want to read my article, “Why You Never Feel Assurance of Salvation.”
- If you struggle to receive God’s love, check out the article “Does God Love Me? Why We Doubt His Love.”
- If you think your wild and raging emotions might be exacerbating your salvation doubts, check out my post, “OCD and Intrusive Emotions.”
- If your salvation doubts center around the unpardonable sin, please see “Have I Committed the Unpardonable Sin?“
- And if you struggle with a general lack of ease around God and just can’t get comfortable in His presence, see my article, “God Hates Me: Uncovering the Hidden Root of Scrupulosity.”
But beyond these articles, I have a few more thoughts for those struggling with chronic salvation doubts. Here are three traps to avoid as you seek to find lasting peace and security.
The Misdiagnosis Trap
An incredibly high percentage of people with religious OCD are misdiagnosed. You might doubt your salvation for years…maybe even decades…before you or someone else helps you recognize that this is not normal. Pastors, priests, Bible professors, parents, spouses, and friends can all tell you the wrong thing.
I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories of people being completely misunderstood as they seek to navigate the turbulent waters of scrupulosity. Sometimes they are told to simply “have more faith” or “pray harder.” Some are taken to deliverance ministries to get the “demon of disbelief” cast out of them (till this day I have still not met anyone with a genuine OCD diagnosis who benefited even marginally from deliverance ministries.) Sometimes a well-meaning pastor will tell them that they must be suffering from spiritual warfare and they need to simply fight against the thoughts or declare the name of Jesus over themselves (which invariably makes things worse).
Studies show that it takes an average of 14-17 years for a person to be accurately diagnosed with OCD. That’s a really long time.
I was blessed because I received a diagnosis about 6 years after onset. I’ve worked with a few people who reach out for help within a year or even a few months of onset of symptoms. But these are exceptions. Most of the people I work with battled with OCD for many years before finally being able to label it for what it is. This represents a major barrier to recovery–simply naming the beast.
When our salvation doubts are misdiagnosed and misunderstood by religious leaders, it can be very difficult for us. What’s actually happening is that an anxiety disorder (OCD) is hijacking our spiritual life, and this anxiety disorder is being mislabeled as a spiritual problem. Hence, we are told to pray harder, believe more, and fight against the negative thoughts. We are told that demons are bothering us (which tends to just freak us out rather than help us). We are told that if we keep up the fight of faith, we will surely have complete victory over our salvation doubts.
But we fight and fight and pray and believe, and it doesn’t work.
Because we’ve misdiagnosed the problem.
You don’t need to give up the fight. You just need to fight smart, not hard. Fight this thing for what it is–an anxiety disorder masquerading as a spiritual weakness.
The Feelings Trap
When doubts about our faith creep in, it can feel like we’re drowning in a sea of uncertainty. We question everything we’ve ever believed, and the very foundation of our spiritual identity feels shaken. We wonder, “was I ever saved at all? If so, why do I have all these doubts and questions and negative feelings?”
But here’s the truth: our doubts are not reality. They are just thoughts, and they do not define who we are as believers. Feeling lost and feeling insecure does not negate our experience with God, either present or past.
Most people who struggle with salvation doubts have a two part problem: a thought problem, and a feeling problem.
The thoughts are those pesky doubts that keep circling like buzzards. You can’t get rid of them, no matter how many apologetic debates you listen to about the resurrection, about the existence of God, or about whatever questions are bothering you the most.
You can’t eliminate these thoughts. There is always another “yes, but…” or “what if?” that ruins your carefully constructed conclusions.
But there is also a feelings problem. These nagging salvation doubts strike the foundation of your security in Christ, and this can be emotionally devastating. You may weep or isolate or rage. You may feel depressed. You may actually get clinically depressed (I did). Having the chronic doubts of religious OCD profoundly wears on the emotions.
The trap here is that we begin to believe that these negative emotions actually tell us something about our standing with God. Here are some examples of negative self-talk that I’ve heard in relation to the emotions trap:
- “If I was truly saved, God wouldn’t let me feel so abandoned and hopeless.”
- “If I can feel so numb and negative towards the work Christ has done for me, it must mean that I’m a reprobate.”
- “I thought I was growing in Christ, but I guess not. Look how dejected I am. Real Christians are happy and joyful, aren’t they? Maybe I never knew Christ in the first place.”
Have you ever allowed your emotions to take over to such an extent? Have you listened to them as if they were gospel truth? If so, you might be stuck in the emotions trap.
The good news is that feelings are fake news.
Pay very little heed. Your security in Christ is not based on your thoughts or feelings. It is rooted in the unchanging love of God, who has created you, called you, and saved you through His grace.
The I-Can-Fix-This Trap
The third trap I’d like you to beware of if you struggle with salvation doubts is the belief that you can “fix” your doubts if you work on them hard enough.
This, my friend, is an invitation for OCD overload.
Remember the basic mechanism for how the obsessive-compulsive brain works. And yes, there is plenty of research showing that our brains are functionally and structurally different from non-OCD brains. Essentially, the main issue in our brains is that the gas pedal is stuck in the “on” position and the brake pedal is not working.
But, this is not always a terrible thing.
Many individuals with OCD are extremely high performers. We can channel the constant operational movement of our brains and throw it at real-life problems. I can tell you that my obsessive tendencies are actually useful when I write research papers. When others are leaving the library, I’m still chugging away, letting my brain ride out its natural, obsessive enthusiasm for the topic. And I can tell you about many clients I’ve worked with who likewise have adaptive features to their obsessiveness.
We have way more thoughts in a given day than the average person. And we can keep up focus on ONE singular topic for a really long time. This can be a good thing in some contexts.
But when we speak about obsessive-compulsive disorder, that means our natural tendencies have become maladaptive and harmful to us.
Unfortunately, OCD’s “I-can-fix-this” attitude is a trap. Your brain offers you an obsessional bid, promising that if you take the bait and ruminate long enough, you’ll surely be able to reach a satisfactory conclusion. You take the bid and enter the rumination cycle, full of hope and determination. But you emerge days later, exhausted and confused. You’ve failed to reach the glorious, promised conclusion. OCD has lied to you, once again.
It won’t ever give you the calm, peaceful “ahhh” feeling you’re hoping to find at the end of the tunnel.
(There is no end of the tunnel, by the way. Ruminational cycles only offer a carrot on a stick, and you can never bite it.)
You’d think that our salvation doubts and questions would be solvable. We do, after all, have a Bible, and all the truth that’s necessary for salvation is packaged into this awe-inspiring codex of 66 books. Why can’t we just lock ourselves in our closets for a few days and find the answers we crave?
My friend, this is the trap. There is no failure in the Bible. There is no failure in God. It is a failure in our obsessive-compulsive brains, which can manufacture a new labyrinth for our mind every day of the week.
That’s why we have to lay down our “fix it” attitude and pick up the spirit of trust. The ONLY way forward out of the maze of religious OCD is to lean hard into blind trust–believing without seeing or being able to “fix” our present doubts and confusion.
Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”John 20:29
Salvation doubts ain’t easy.
I honestly wouldn’t wish this on anyone, and I truly sympathize with your struggle.
But there’s a way forward. We need, first of all, to beware of mislabeling our issue as a purely spiritual problem. This will prevent us from having a holistic view of the spiritual-biological mishmash that is affecting us. And yes, there are real brain issues that need attention. While it is theoretically possible that God could heal you miraculously through prayer and anointing oil, let me also say it’s theoretically possible for God to heal your broken leg with prayer and anointing oil and a charismatic slap on the forehead. But most of us go to the emergency room for a broken leg, right? So why wouldn’t we treat OCD as a medical issue, too?
Diagnosing the problem correctly will help us manage it in the healthiest way.
The second way to begin overcoming our salvation doubts is to beware of the feelings trap. Our brains will constantly manufacture warning messages that tell us there’s “something wrong” with us or with our standing with God. Most of these warning messages are dead wrong. We feel guilty and lost when we are totally fine.
Recognizing this is an opportunity for us to elevate our personal hermeneutics above the level of feelings. We can train ourselves to “walk by faith and not by sight” and bit by bit stop relying on emotions as an indicator of spiritual reality.
And thirdly, we can grow through our salvation doubts by watching out for the “I-can-fix-this” trap.
Self-dependency is the arch-nemesis of all true spirituality, and nowhere is this more visible than in OCD recovery. The more we depend on self to fix and tinker, the worse our situation will become. Yes, letting go of control feels like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute–but the crazy thing is that letting go is safest thing for us to do.
Stop trying to tinker around with your salvation doubts, and I think you’ll find that they fade in importance, giving way to a deep and abiding trust in what God is doing in your life on your behalf.
Don’t give up. You’ll get through your salvation doubts. You’ll come out the other side stronger and wiser and more intimately connected to God. You’ll develop the conviction that your salvation does not depend on your ability to understand it. Even if you have to reach this conclusion by crawling through the trenches of doubt, despair, and emotional agony, you’ll still get there.
Nobody ever said the Christian life is easy. Everyone has their unique struggles, and apparently, this one is yours and mine. Let’s be faithful and keep going, no matter the difficulty.
Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise.Hebrews 10:35-36
Best wishes on the journey,