One of the most classic obsessions for people with religious OCD is the mind-numbing question, “have I committed the unpardonable sin?”
I speak with people every week who have a gut-wrenching fear they’ve done something so bad as to place them beyond the reach of God’s mercy. Perhaps that one sin, that one terrible thought, that deliberate act of rebellion pushed them past the point of no return.
I understand. In my own journey with religious OCD, I have also suffered these same fears. Have I committed the unpardonable sin?
There is an old adage that tells us, “if you worry about having committed the unpardonable sin, you haven’t done it.” It’s simple–almost too simple to answer the cataclysmic objections our minds produce–but it really is true.
In this article I’d like to talk a bit about our fear of having committed the unpardonable sin and how we can move past this.
Beginning with Biblical Comfort
Before we get practical and talk about “how to stop fixating on this fear,” I realize there are some people who have arrived on this page with quite a lot of anxiety. You may be reading this in a state of downright terror. Perhaps you’ve been asking yourself, “have I committed the unpardonable sin” and now you’re so shaken that you can’t sleep.
Talking about practical steps will probably not register in your mind while you’re flying high on adrenaline and religious hysteria. (Been there, done that. I know from experience, and from educational psychology, that no learning happens unless we feel safe.)
So let’s begin with some biblical comfort.
The Unpardonable Sin: What It Isn’t
The unpardonable sin is indeed an idea we find in the Bible, but people with religious OCD take it far too radically and far too personally.
The unpardonable sin is reached when we have so consistently and obstinately rejected the Holy Spirit that we no longer reach out for forgiveness. You don’t want it anymore. It is not a random “point of no return” that can sneak up on unsuspecting believers. It is not that God is waiting with a divine taser for something you do that really bugs him, at which point he zaps you, saying, “That was the last straw. You’re DONE!”
The Bible teaches that we will make mistakes and we will come again and again for forgiveness, both to God and to each other (Matthew 6:12, 1 John 1:9-10, Luke 17:3-4). The struggle with sin is so present, so ubiquitous, in our lives that John told us it’s ridiculous to think that we’re perfect. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” he wrote in 1 John 1:8.
At the same time, Jesus promised to forgive us for our past sins and empower us to overcome temptations (Jude 1:24, 1 John 1:9, Psalm 103:10-14, 1 Corinthians 10:13).
Recognizing sin in our lives should not send us into a spiral of panic and self-condemnation. Even if we struggle desperately with the same sin for quite a long time, we should not take this as evidence that we are lost. Recognizing our own sins is evidence that the Holy Spirit is active and working in our lives. We may not always feel sorry for our sins or we may not feel close and cozy with the Lord, but no yearning cry for God’s help will ever go unheeded. No faltering, stumbling sinner is ever overlooked by the Shepherd of our souls.
If we struggle, it means we are normal.
Struggle, itself, is evidence that we are in the line of duty.
Relating to Unpardonable Sin Fears in a Healthy Way
I have spoke at length about the unpardonable sin in this article. I have also found some excellent resources on the topic, including this academic paper written by Timothy Lane and Edward Welch and the immense and beautiful resources gathered by Grantley Morris, such as this article.
If you are panicked and inconsolable, read these articles and then come back.
But DO come back, because here’s the thing: we can’t just read comforting thoughts to reassure ourselves that we haven’t committed the unpardonable sin and then go on our merry way. We have to pair that comfort with some kind of lesson about how to manage our OCD. Otherwise, that’s not called “biblical comfort” anymore.
That’s called reassurance-seeking.
And if you have a clinical OCD diagnosis, you know that reassurance-seeking is a real bad habit. It’s a way of feeding the beast. That’s one of the reasons why I try to create practical articles about scrupulosity rather than a huge database of “you’re saved, I promise!” articles. I don’t want to soothe you for a moment, I want to help you find healing that lasts.
So read those links if you need to cool your emotional temperature down. But then come back, and let’s talk about what’s really happening when you’re asking the question, “have I committed the unpardonable sin?”
Have I Committed the Unpardonable Sin? Nah. God’s Got Me.
What’s really happening in my brain when I worry about having committed the unpardonable sin?
Well, if you’ve been doing CBT exercises with your therapist or have read some good Christian CBT books like this one or this one, you might be able to identify some of the cognitive distortions in this obsession.
- Emotional reasoning
- All-or-nothing thinking
Catastrophizing the Unpardonable Sin
Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion in which we engage in pessimistic fortune-telling. We, in our limited human knowledge, attempt to see into the future. But because our brains are already hyped up on fear chemicals, we give ourselves a consistently awful prediction. A catastrophic one.
I’ve committed the unpardonable sin! I’m dooooomed!
The reality is that you don’t have any way of knowing your eternal destiny. Nobody does. You can trust and have faith, but you can’t know.
It irks me, as a person with OCD, to hear preachers harangue their audience about being 100% sure of their salvation. “If you don’t KNOW with complete certainty that you’re saved, come down to the altar before it’s too late!” They cry out.
That’s a little odd, though. Technically, nobody can get into a space capsule, fly up into heaven, enter the pearly gates, and approach the Book of Life. We can’t open those pages and flip through it (perhaps it’s arranged alphabetically, I don’t know) until we find our own name.
“Aha, my name is there,” we would say. “Now I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Now I KNOW I am saved.”
We can’t do that. So technically, nobody knows they’re saved, they simply believe it.
And that’s totally okay. We believe it because God said it, and that’s all He expects from us. Trust. But sometimes we need to remind ourselves that we don’t know as much as we think we do. What makes us think that we can accurately predict our own eternal destiny and say, “Yikes! I have struggled badly with sin, and I have such anxious feelings and such bad thoughts, I am SURE that I have committed the unpardonable sin. I just KNOW I’m doomed!”
Dr. Neil Nedley writes that there are only two possible outcomes to our catastrophized worries.
A. The feared thing doesn’t come true, in which case undue worry has created misery over something that did not come to pass.
B. The worst scenario does come true, in which case undue worry has caused you to suffer the catastrophic experience multiple times in your mind, rather than just once.
Dr. Neil Nedley, The Lost Art of Thinking
My panic about whether I’ve committed the unpardonable sin doesn’t have any influence on the outcome. I am only stirring up thunderstorms in my own mind, causing myself undue misery.
Emotional Reasoning: I Must Be Lost Because I FEEL Lost!
Religious OCD gives us big, bad emotions. Bad emotions are part of everybody’s lives. But the problem is that we believe these emotions to be reliable indicators of reality.
I feel lost, therefore I must be lost. I feel like I’ve committed the unpardonable sin, therefore I must have actually done it. I feel rejected by God, therefore He must hate me.
Sometimes, though, our feelings are dead wrong. This is when we have to throw our weight fully onto God’s Truth rather than our changeable emotions.
It is at this point that the intersect between CBT and ERP can become a little messy, so let me comment briefly here from my own personal experience.
The books will tell you to overcome emotional reasoning by examining the evidence. For example, I might say, “I feel like a big, fat failure. I guess I AM a failure.” A proper response, according to CBT, would be to examine the evidence, making my feelings subservient to rational thought. Thus, I would review my life rationally and realize, yes, I have failed in some areas, but I’ve also been quite successful in other ways. I can admit that I’m having some yucky feelings today that make me feel like a failure, but I’m not a total flop of a person.
For someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, though, examining the evidence can easily become a compulsion. We get a nasty feeling like we’ve been rejected by God or we couldn’t care less about Him. We worry, have I committed the unpardonable sin? and we spin ourselves into confusion trying to figure that out.
Examining the data for the unpardonable sin would probably look like several hours of googling.
I know, that just screams “compulsive behavior!”
A non-OCD person can examine the evidence in a few minutes and work on regulating their emotions. A person will OCD can examine for hours, days, or even weeks.
So we need to be aware of the existence of this thing called emotional reasoning, but our way of dealing with it might look a little different from what you read in a typical self-help CBT book.
My recommendation is to:
- Recognize the emotion that’s driving your obsession about committing the unpardonable sin.
- Label that emotion (is it fear? uncertainty? ickiness? lethargy?)
- Remind yourself firmly that emotions are unreliable indicators of truth, and choose not to give this topic your attention. Instead, move to a task that can help you deal with the feeling rather than the obsession. Instead of googling about the unpardonable sin, respond to the fact that you’re feeling anxious. Make a hot cup of tea. Go for a nature walk. Take a nap. Talk to a friend. This is a moment to give your brain a hug, it’s not the time to try dancing on hot coals to persuade God to save you (hint: you’re already safe in Christ).
It is often helpful to work through a good exegesis of the unpardonable sin (see the links at the beginning of this article). In this way, you can answer all your questions and put your mind at rest. But do this ONCE. Ever afterwards, your OCD mind will bring up new objections, new “what if” questions, new feelings of doom and despair. When that occurs, follow the three steps above.
All-or-Nothing Thinking: I’m Either Perfect or I’m Hell-Bound; There Is Nothing In Between!
All-or-nothing thinking (also called “polarized thinking” or “black-and-white thinking”) is our tendency to have only two categories. There is no gray area, no in-between space.
When we feel great, have a superb devotional time, speak sweetly with our family members, and drive like a saint on the morning commute, we definitely feel good and Christian-y.
But on days when we wake up anxious, skip our Bible reading because we’re nervous about reading something that might trigger us, yell at the kids and act like (ahem) not a saint on the drive to work, we don’t think in terms of gray area. It’s straight to hell, straight to condemnation.
Somehow, our brains struggle to process the fact that life exists in stages of gradation. There is such a thing as a good Christian having a bad day.
Dr. Nedley writes,
All-or-nothing thinkers are also very often perfectionists. If they can’t do something well, they’d rather not do it at all; if a situation doesn’t go perfectly, they feel like an abject failure…
There is nothing wrong with pursuing perfection. We must be reasonable in our expectations, however. While we should always strive for, hope for, and desire the best, it is unrealistic to believe that we and everything we do will be met with smashing success.
The reality is that much of life happens in that messy gray area between black and white. Most things in life have a middle ground. Life is really much more like a light with a dimmer switch than one limited to “on” and “off” options. The light may be on, but there are degrees of brightness.
Dr. Neil Nedley, The Lost Art of Thinking
How does this apply to our question, “have I committed the unpardonable sin?”
Very often, members in our group coaching sessions share about their fears of the unpardonable sin. And often, as I listen to their stories, I hear some kind of personal or spiritual failure that sets these fears in motion. They may fall into a sin they hadn’t expected. They may say a terrible phrase they deeply regret. Then, unable to operate in the gray area between absolute perfection and abject failure, they assume it’s game over. Thoughts of the unpardonable sin rush in and threaten to overwhelm.
How to Be Free from Obsessions About the Unpardonable Sin
If you have obsessively asked yourself “have I committed the unpardonable sin,” you probably are getting tired of it.
How can we move past it?
I’ve already shared that I think it can be helpful to research this topic from a biblical perspective–but once, and once only. Do it thoroughly, but don’t let your research drag on. You’ll know you’ve saturated the topic when you are no longer finding any new information but are just reading the same ideas over and over again.
The next step is to challenge yourself to think with different patterns. I would suggest reading up on the three cognitive distortions I’ve mentioned above. Let me give you a few application statements to make this practical. Then I’ll share a Bible verse that I think gives one last helpful concept.
Above, we looked at three cognitive distortions that play into our fixation with the unpardonable sin. They were:
- Emotional Reasoning
- All-or-Nothing Thinking
Here are some statements that can help you challenge these distorted thought patterns. If there are any statements that really resonate with you, you may wish to write them down.
Anti-Catastrophizing Statements about the Unpardonable Sin
- I do not have the power to predict the future, so I will trust God to do what’s best with my eternal destiny.
- I don’t need to predict catastrophic outcomes in my spiritual life. I can trust God “to will and to do” His good pleasure in me.
- I will not worry about the unpardonable sin forever. One day this will get better, and my relationship with God will be filled with peace.
- (For a taste of ERP) Even if I did commit the unpardonable sin, I can still trust God. Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him. I can handle whatever happens.
Anti-Emotional Reasoning Statements about the Unpardonable Sin
- Just because I feel like I’ve committed the unpardonable sin doesn’t mean that I have.
- Sometimes good Christians feel far away from God. That’s ok.
- Feelings come and feelings go and feelings are deceiving. Trust alone in the word of God, it’s something worth believing! (based on words by Martin Luther and sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”)
- The worse I feel, the closer God is. I can trust Him to carry me even when I think He’s not there.
Anti-All-or-Nothing Statements about the Unpardonable Sin
- Good Christians make mistakes. This doesn’t push me out of God’s love.
- I can accept myself as a work in progress. God isn’t angry with me when I make mistakes, and I shouldn’t be, either.
- Sanctification is the work of a lifetime, not a moment. When I see sin in my life, I can receive that as evidence that God’s Spirit is at work to reveal sin and guide me.
- I might not be perfect, but I’m covered by the white robe of Christ’s righteousness. Even when I make mistakes, I’m still ok. Jesus will pick me up and show me how to do better next time.
An Important Bible Text
I’d like to finish my thoughts by sharing one important Bible text. You might be confused at first and wonder how it’s related to our question, “have I committed the unpardonable sin.” But hear me out, and I think you’ll see how it relates.
Here’s the verse:
The fear of man brings a snare,Proverbs 29:25
But whoever trusts in the Lord shall be safe.
Fearing man is guaranteed to get us into trouble. If we fear others, it turns our eyes away from God’s power. You might have heard of the book, When People are Big and God Is Small? It’s the same concept. We get so caught up fearing other people–their thoughts, reactions, or feelings towards us–that our whole life begins to orbit around them.
We give in to peer pressure. We live under social anxiety. We react out of our fear of man.
Of course, the word “man” can be universalized to mean “people,” or “humanity.” We fear parents, siblings, children, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, colleagues, bosses, neighbors, strangers…
Oh, wait. I’m human, too. I’m included in the conglomerate humanity represented by this little word, “man.” I, too, am formed of the same dust, descended from the same original parents.
Can “the fear of man” also include living in reactive fear of myself?
Part of the complexity of the unpardonable sin issue is that it makes us live in chronic fear of ourselves and what we might do wrong. We’re always afraid of slipping up, doing that one little thing that might push us over the edge.
It’s almost like a merge between religious OCD and harm OCD. We’re afraid of being a bad person, someone who could sin so terribly that we’d be beyond God’s reach. I’ve talked to people who struggle with harm-based intrusive thoughts. They say “my thoughts were so terrible I was sure I would need to be locked up.”
And we say, “my sins and thoughts and motives are so terrible, I’m sure I’ve committed the unpardonable sin.”
The fear of man (including being inordinately afraid of ourselves, our propensity to sin, and our long record as sinners in need of God’s grace) brings a snare.
But whoever trusts in the Lord will be safe.
This is the ultimate answer to our concerns about the unpardonable sin. Trust.
Finding more answers through endless googling is not what our heart needs. We need to release the fear that’s built up against ourselves–that ever-present urge to look at self and recoil in horror. Yikes! I’m such a bad person. Surely I’ve committed the unpardonable sin!
The fear of man brings a snare. But whoever trusts in the Lord will be safe.
Safe–yes, even safe from that greatly-feared idea of the unpardonable sin. You will be safe. How? By looking away from yourself and trusting in God.
You may ask, “Jaimie, have I committed the unpardonable sin?”
I say to you, no.
No a thousand times over, no with assurance, no with a loud electric megaphone.
You are safe in God’s care. Your feelings may deceive you into compulsive research and fearful behaviors, but at the end of the day, you must let go of all these crutches. The answer is to trust. To challenge unhealthy thought patterns. And to stop focusing so much on your own weaknesses that it develops into “the fear of man.”
Don’t be discouraged. It will get better.
Keep trusting. Keep looking up.
God will never let anything take you out of His care.
Best wishes on the journey,
So many good quotes here, might as well just highlight the whole article. I've been down this road a few times, thankfully God has brought me through each one. Of course, I didn't know at the time that I had this disorder. Ugh. Question: can these strategies be applied to other forms of religious OCD? Such as: I "might" have caused (fill in the blank). I'm a retired nurse, so you can imagine…
I also really appreciate your observation about being 100% "sure" of salvation coming from the pulpit. That's been a struggle, which is now well-defined. Thanks for that also. OCD-ers define "knowing" differently that those without the challenge.
I LOVE your articles! You really help me get outside of my head! It makes me recognize my thoughts and feelings as just that…thoughts and feelings. I've given them attachment for so long and when I get a physical sensation after I have whatever dark, creepy mental image or phrase. I've fallen into the trap of overanalyzing every thought and action to see if it actually meant anything rather than just recognizing that they're insignificant. I definitely think based on emotional reasoning. I probably fall into the trap of every form of cognitive distortion patterns. It's emotionally exhausting, but reading your articles really ground me and make me feel motivated and hopeful that God's still got me even when I don't feel Him at times. It's so comforting and relieving to know that He's there even when those thoughts and sensations creep in.
I meant to say I forget to treat them as insignificant whenever those thoughts and feelings creep in.
I realize you deal with this question from a psychological state, which is probably necessary especially with OCD. It’s not my field of expertise so I will lay low on that.
There were a couple things in the article that I would like to make reference to …You can take it for what its worth.
One of your first comments you made was to the effect of …. If you think you have committed or are worried you have committed the unpardonable sin ….You haven’t!…. That statement is absolutely 100% true. Knowing a little about this…. that is the first thing I tell people who think or wonder if they have.
First – as a born again Christian it is impossible to commit such a sin, no matter what you have done or how far out of fellowship you have strayed. …. it’s just not possible.
Even as a natural person of body and soul (no spirit) the unforgivable/unpardonable sin is not something you can do accidently. Committing that sin is done with the full knowledge of your action and your faculties. It is 180 degrees out of phase with God and your willingness to do so is with a specific lifetime commitment….and end time annihilation.
Those Pharisees of Jhn 8:12-59 had committed such and act, and there are hints of what they did if you read that section….And if you don’t get it, that’s ok.
I served in that realm for a time before God rescued me. I knew of those within the satanic organization who had made that commitment. And although it’s absurd to believe that those Pharisees, who were supposed to be religious leaders of their time had committed themselves to the other side, we have to keep in mind the Babylonian influence and 400 years without a man of God, before Jesus came on the scene.
I won’t go into specifics about this except for the following scripture to delineate between the two seed.
Mat 12:31 Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy the Spirit (= God) shall not be forgiven unto men.
It is not that God is unwilling to forgive the unpardonable sin …He can’t. There are two seeds as we know from Gen 3:15. The seed of the devil and the seed which we are born again of.
When we are born again, we receive the spiritual seed of God almighty which is incorruptible and unalterable (1Pe 1:23) …you cannot lose that… no matter what you do….similar, but not similar to your earthly Dad’s seed in you…. And two spiritual seed cannot occupy the same body. (This is not possession …that’s different and not permanent)
I am feeling like God wants me to confess something to mom that I may have been dishonest in my actions where I was waiting for my daughter to pick me up to go to my home town to visit and and I have had a house fire so I’m staying with mom til I get me a place, and mom called her sister to come take us well my daughter said no let’s just you and I go ok, so mom said well I will call Mae and tell her then we won’t go but she didn’t and my daughter don’t like this aunt so I feel anxiety that there will be words said and I ask mom did u tell Mae to not come no I will go see her, I knew that wouldn’t happen she she comes I fear that there will be words said it makes me feel bad,mits complicated, cause aunt Mae wil feel bad cause my daughter won’t talk to her,!do I say anything which I don’t want to I hate confrontation and it will hurt her a;nd know how I am feeling.that I do keep her from coming over the same t8me and she protects her sister, . Sorry very complicated history.if this don’t make sense let me know, prayers pls. And info you can give me.
THINK YOU FOR THIS ARTICLE. I HAVE LIVED W. THIS SICKNESS OF THE UNPARDONABLE SIN ALL MY LIFE. I BELIEVE IT IS A COUPLE OF CHURCHES GROWING UP GAVE ME THESE FEELINGS, PLUS MY HOMELIFE. NOW I AM ROMAN CATHOLIC, BUT SOMETIMES STILL SUFFER. I ALSO FEAR OF BEING DEMON POSSESD BECAUSE OF MY EPILEPSY, IT IS NOW UNDER CONTROL BUT THE FEAR IS STILL THERE. I DO SIN AND REGRET IT BUT ENJOYREADING CHRISTIAN NOVELS. IM CURIOUS ARE YOU ROMAN CATHOLIC.
I prayed over whether or not to reply to your message because I didn’t want to potentially cause any further anxiety for you. However, I believe that I am meant to.
Due to a few years attending a very legalistic high school many years ago my identity in Jesus Christ as my Savior was greatly distorted. As you mentioned that you are Catholic, and as I care about you, I would encourage you to watch the two films American Gospel: Christ Alone and Christ Crucified. I think you will find them both very enlightening as comforting. There are sects within or under the umbrella of Christianity that promote a works-based relationship with God rather than teaching biblical truths. These films help to teach the Truth of the Gospel, along with teaching the nature of God.
I hope you will make the time to watch them and find encouragement.
In Christ’s love,
Thanks a lot Jamie. Yes, I admit, I like fairness, impeccable behavior, perfectionalism. But all this from that race, the fear of man – not to bother them with anything, not to upset them, not to tell my point of view, to pity those who criticize me … etc.
All this pushed me to feel guilty, to let myself be carried away by negative emotions (all or nothing, you scored well), I thought I was going to do harm, that I was going to say bad words, then my thoughts went there. I had the ambition not to say them. I understood that I am human, that I have mistakes and that I can make mistakes at any time. I thank the Lord for you and I thank Him for teaching me something else in the middle of my life. I got more courage, I'm looking for work, I sent my book of poems to the publishing house to publish, I have meetings with people – we talk, we do activities .. It's like the tree of my life met with spring .. Thank you very much Jamie , I am a happy Romanian, I never thought of having a connection with people of another nationality. It's cool.
Jamie, I'm always in Awe at your writings. They're very well written and relatable. I needed this article today. Blessings to you, your family, and everyone in the Scrupulosity family.
Something I'm learning to do that may help others is to detach myself from my thoughts. I must realize I am Not my thoughts. Our brains are like a frienmy (friend & enemy). It's very beneficial in some ways, yet deceiving in others. We have to remember that just because we think bad thoughts doesn't necessarily make us bad or sinful. We don't have to believe or personally relate to the crazy thoughts that go on in our heads. We have thoughts but we are not our thoughts.
Thank you for sharing, Krys! You’re absolutely right. We don’t need to relate to the crazy thoughts passing through our minds. We have to just keep looking up and waiting on the Lord!
Thank you so much for writing this. Two years ago I was diagnosed with ocd and the last 6 months the unpardonable sin has been my biggest fear. It resulted in blasphemous thoughts, constant waves of feeling condemned, only to get a little hope again for the cycle to start over. In my history of having ocd, this obsession has been the worst and I still struggle with this everyday. I am receiving help though and I am very thankful for all the people praying for me in these difficult times.
Thank you for your blog Jaimie, it's helped me in some of my darkest moments. It's a blessing to know that we are not alone in this struggle.
For those like me who struggle with this, please seek out professional help and dare to trust in our gracious and loving Father, even when you feel condemned.
Whoever comes to Him he will NEVER cast out.
Lynn, I totally understand. I've gone through different episodes of crazy thoughts. I didn't know what was wrong with me. I discovered the various types of OCD last year and now can see it was more in likely OCD all along. Church doesn't talk about OCD and mental health. When I've gone through episodes of intrusive thoughts what has helped me most is what Jamie wrote about last week, just allow the thoughts to go by. It's disturbing at first to relax and just allow the thoughts to fly by but it eventually works. When we try to block, resist, and fight our thoughts they'll only fight back and win. Try not to relate to your thoughts. Yes, they're going on in your mind but they're not you. The way you know they're not you is because you don't want them, like them, not agree with them. When a thought fully resonate with who you really are, it doesn't affect you negatively. You're not wrestling with the thought because it's who are. But if you're afraid of the thought and feel the need to wrestle with it, it's because it's not who you truly are. It's like when someone tells a lie that diminishes your character. You won't to argue your truth because u don't relate to that lie. But if someone says something nice and true about you, you feel no need to wrestle the truth because it's who you really are. You'll never win trying to fight your thoughts. Win the fight by knowing who you are and what you truly believe. Thoughts are just thoughts. We have over 20k a day. You can get though this. I believe in you.