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.
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.
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,