When I Look Back

When I look back, I do not see successes.
At least, I do not see them easily.
Instead, I see a mind that second-guesses
And find that failure fits more feasibly.
When I look back, I do not see your mercies,
Or seeing them, still feel they are not true.
All good seems covered up in controversies,
In all the ways I failed and still fail you.
When I look back, I see the circumstances
That roll like waves across a wind-swept sea.
I do not see the Son, the second-chances,
The grace that still abounds for those like me.
When I look back, I must distrust the lies
That claim truth is determined by my eyes.


Photo by Will Swann on Unsplash

Sovereign Over OCD: Some Lessons Learned

OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is an anxiety disorder that affects my thoughts and actions and that attaches to what I care about. Scrupulosity, as I mentioned in part one, is a religious form of OCD. In my experience, OCD most often latched onto my relationships. I noticed it in romantic relationships as it convinced me God didn’t want me to date the people I wanted to date. I noticed it in my friendships as it convinced me God wanted me to step away from certain people or to cancel certain plans. I noticed it in my approach to community as it convinced me I needed to confess my thoughts and attitudes to anyone I might have wronged by those thoughts and attitudes. I noticed it in my work as it told me I needed to turn down jobs, stop writing, and pass on opportunities to get experience in my field. In each case, I thought I was being tested like Abraham was. I thought God was testing my faith by asking me to give up good things and trust him, to die to myself and be sanctified. And in my head, it checked out. If I was feeling conviction and if the Lord was giving me directions regarding which steps to take in response to that conviction, then I didn’t need to understand it or like it, I just needed to trust and obey. 

Initially, questioning my thoughts and feelings felt sinful. I genuinely believed I was pushing back against God’s work by looking into OCD. But as my friend explained more of what OCD is and how it can show up, my experiences began to make sense. Where I thought God was convicting me, I began to recognize anxiety. Where I thought God was directing me, I began to recognize intrusive thoughts and some bad theology. Where I’d struggled to see any fruit from the steps I was taking, I could now see why: God wasn’t actually the one behind these directions. I thought my problem was spiritual, but it turned out to be biological. And because it was biological, I began to hope. Maybe God hadn’t been closing doors all these years; maybe it was me all along. And maybe, in time, some of those doors could be opened again. 

Where was God in all of this? If he wasn’t the one leading me to take all these uncomfortable steps, why did he allow it go on for so long, especially when it caused so much hurt for me and for others? Admittedly, while I know the answer to the first question (he was here all along), I don’t fully know the answer to the second question. But I believe he is sovereign, even over my OCD and over the timing of this season, and I believe he allowed me to wander, to wrestle, and to fall how and when I did. And I believe the season wasn’t wasted. 

So what’s my proof this season wasn’t wasted? What did God do in this time, and what has he been doing since? More than I know. But here are a few things I think I can discern.

God taught me that I can be okay in silence and solitude. While the reasons for withdrawing from people weren’t healthy, the lesson learned there was needed. For years, I’d grown used to busyness. I thought I knew how to rest, but really I was only ceasing from my normal work to engage in recreation. As I felt compelled to step away from friends and family and to just be by myself with the Lord, I found that God was present there and that I could find rest apart from the things I used to distract myself with. 

God taught me that his provision doesn’t depend on my effort. I backed out of job opportunities, turned down classes where I could get teaching experience, stopped using my talents, stepped away from friendships, rejected someone I wanted to pursue a relationship with, and initiated conversations that could have created further division and discomfort. In spite of all of this, the Lord has provided for me. He’s given me friends who were faithful even when I was difficult. He’s given me teaching opportunities even when I thought the doors might not open again. He’s sustained me. He’s restored friendships and opportunities I was afraid were lost. As I’ve begun to work through this season and to explore how my mind and heart work, I’ve been met with an immense amount of grace. God’s proven himself faithful and good over and over again, providing for my needs and giving good gifts along the way.

God’s showed me that he cares about my desires in a way I didn’t know was possible. I’d heard Psalm 37:4 before: “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” I always read that verse as if it came with an asterisk, though. Sure, it was true. It’s the word of God, after all. But I didn’t really believe it was true for me. Or at least not in this season. My desires to write, to teach, to pursue a relationship, to talk to my friends—each of these desires seemed to be required of me at some point in my experience. I could affirm that they were good things, that they weren’t sinful things, that they could glorify God. But I believed God had called me to give them up. As I worked with a mentor, I realized I had a misunderstanding of self-sacrifice. I was “dying to the wrong things,” to quote Peter Scazzero (read Emotionally Healthy Spirituality for more on this idea). And as I began to grow in my understanding of God’s goodness, I began to take steps back toward those things I’d left behind, and I watched God restore the things I’d laid aside and lost. He has granted the desires of my heart, and he continues to do so, drawing me ever deeper into gratitude and delight in him.

God taught me to think differently about faith and sovereignty. I used to think walking by faith meant getting clear directions from God and then following those directions in spite of what you saw or felt or thought. I’m learning, however, that walking by faith is more like exercising wisdom and trusting God with the unknowns of life. It’s not necessarily about receiving some specific divine guidance as much as learning to walk in faith that he’s at work in and around you, guiding your steps as you seek to honor him in your decisions and redeeming your mistakes when you misstep or fail. Similarly, I used to think of sovereignty as more of a conceptual thing related to decisions and directions and wills. I’m learning that sovereignty encompasses everything, our good decisions and our bad, our joyful seasons and our seasons of suffering. The “all things” in Romans 8:28 really does mean all things, even those things that feel so beyond our control.

In short, this journey has been one of adjustments, some major and some minor. I’m rethinking my assumptions, examining my thoughts and feelings, and pursuing growth on many fronts, and I think I’m finding some success. I’m new to all of this. I’m very much still learning how to walk. But I’m seeing fruit in this season that I believe has grown from the soil of difficult seasons. I’m seeing God at work, and I’m finding peace and joy as I try to join him in that work. I’m making progress, by his grace, and learning to trust in his sovereign care for me.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Untitled, March 25, 2021

I fear you are a disappointed Father,
For I am just an ever-failing son.
My life should be a blessing, not a bother.
I should be held together, not undone.

O Lord, correct my misconceptions of you
And all my misconceptions of myself.
Help me to truly know you and to love you
And in so doing know and love myself.


Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

I remember feeling off the morning I originally posted this poem. I went for a run to try to shake the feeling, but it wouldn’t fade. I thought I needed to take the poem down, so I did, then I didn’t post on the blog again until July 22, 2022, over a year later.

Shortly after I started posting again, I started thinking about finding this poem and sharing it. Now that I know it was OCD leading me to take it down initially, I feel free to share it. And as I read it now, I see two things of interest. First, I see a snapshot of my mind and heart in the early stages of an OCD flareup. I’d already hurt and confused some friends, and I was struggling to make sense of life in the midst of a difficult and busy season. While this was not written during the worst of my experiences, the first stanza here captures my thoughts and feelings during the struggle pretty well.

Second, I see a prayer that I believe God has answered, one that he’s continuing to answer as I continue to learn and grow in my walk with him. While things would get worse before they got better, God used the journey to reveal some underlying issues that needed to be addressed. He was at work through the entire season, and through the processing and work done with a mentor, he’s taught me more about himself and about myself. I believe I now can recognize many of the misconceptions about God and about myself that I lived with for years, and I now believe I can better know and love him and myself. I think God’s answered this prayer in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I wrote it.

When I read this poem, I see evidence of God’s grace. He saw me at my worst. He heard my prayer. He delivered me. This is the story told by all who know him, the story presented in the Bible and echoing on for all eternity. The Lord saves. Blessed be his name.

Scrupulosity

I never actually committed to hang out that night. I never said I couldn’t hang out either, though, so the plan proceeded. Leading up to the day, I was nervous but hopeful. Maybe I could go. Maybe I wouldn’t get the feeling. Then the day arrived, and I started to feel it: conviction. I was wrestling all day, wondering whether it was the hangout being targeted or something else, and I couldn’t quite make up my mind. As the time to leave grew closer, I was struggling, feeling like I should probably reach out and cancel but not wanting to let my friends down. But I was torn. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin,” right (Romans 14:23)? That’s what Paul said. And I definitely didn’t have faith that this was an okay move. 

Then it happened. The time to leave arrived, and I stood up and started heading to meet my friends. And surprisingly, I felt peace. 

That was a turning point for me. Until then, I’d assumed that if I felt convicted about something, then I needed to step away. To proceed, I thought, would be to act against the guidance of the Holy Spirit and would be blatant sin against God. But if I acted in spite of my feelings in this instance and felt not condemnation but peace, maybe my perception was off. Maybe I wasn’t interpreting these feelings and thoughts correctly. 

I say the turning point was there, but I’d noticed some indicators that something was off prior to this point. Conviction often seemed to point in some pretty odd directions, some of which seemed like they’d lead to discomfort and harm that seemed out of line with the way the Lord appeared to work.

For example, I felt the need to confess things to people regularly. I felt conviction when I pursued romantic relationships, and I felt compelled to share my convictions along with my conclusion that God must not want me to pursue such a relationship. I felt convicted about my thoughts toward people, and I believed God wanted me to confess those thoughts to those individuals. In many cases, the things I felt compelled to confess weren’t things that really needed to be confessed. I’d see someone, think of a thought I’d had about them that wasn’t right, and feel compelled to tell them what I’d thought, even if it seemed like doing so would lead to discomfort for them. Internal attitudes and intrusive thoughts—things I needed to work through with the Lord and with trusted friends—suddenly became the object of my obsessions, and I felt I needed to share them, no matter how uncomfortable the sharing might make me or those around me. 

I also noticed that there were instances when the conviction would fade if I held off on acting long enough, if I just kept postponing the step the conviction seemed to be leading me to take. In some cases, where I thought the confession would offend or confuse someone, I held off, and I noticed the strength of the compulsion eventually faded. 

With these observations and this newfound evidence that peace might come by acting in spite of the conviction, I began to wonder if maybe something was off internally, if maybe my thoughts and emotions weren’t as in tune with the Lord as I’d previously assumed. Initially, questioning these thoughts and feelings felt wrong. I’d met with counselors, talked with trusted friends, prayed—nothing seemed to change. So wasn’t I sinning by questioning where I’d already received an answer? 

But by this point, my life had been in a state of near-constant tension for months. I’d had a difficult couple of semesters that led to a summer where I no longer had the major distractions of school, so all the feelings and thoughts I’d been avoiding could be felt more fully. I’d also decided that I needed to stop running from the Lord and trust his leading, so I started trying to face the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and then act on them. If I felt off, I’d investigate it. If I felt like I got clarity on the step I needed to take, I’d try to take it, no matter the cost to my comfort, my image, or to my relationships. Again, this was the Lord leading me, right? “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD ” (Isaiah 55:8). Wasn’t this true? Furthermore, “whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17). These passages meant I had to trust the Lord no matter how little I understood his leading, right?  

The problem was that the conviction rarely lifted. I’d feel convicted, get an idea of what I needed to do, then wrestle with the decision until I finally gave in and acted. Then I’d feel some relief, but it was short-lived. Sometimes I’d still feel off and would feel the need to act again before I’d feel some peace. I’d assume I hadn’t done it right the first time, so I would feel like I was still in sin until I took the right step in the right way. Other times, I’d feel okay until something new pricked my conscience, stripping me of my peace until I acted on that new conviction. And on and on it went.

When I had enough data to reasonably doubt my thoughts and feelings, I decided to stop acting on them until I figured out what was true and what was false. I still went to work, still did my job at the church, still took steps forward in the program at school (though with some fear and doubt as to whether I was right to do so), but I stopped acting on the feelings and thoughts like I had been doing. And eventually, those emotions and thoughts settled down a bit. I still felt those tugs, but my decision to stop acting on them kept them from taking over. But I still wasn’t sure what to do. To look into OCD, something I’d begun to suspect could be a culprit, still felt like running from the Lord, so I remained in a state of pause until the emotional weight of some unresolved situations grew too heavy. 

You see, in the course of this wrestling, I’d walked away from some of my closest friendships and had left some wounds in the process. I’d not talked to some of my best friends in months, and while I wanted to reconnect, I didn’t know if I could. If the Lord had led me away, could I simply go back? Would the Lord allow that? Would they? 

I’d also stopped writing. Writing was a major part of who I was, and I missed it. But I thought I’d been led to stop. I remember posting a poem one morning and feeling what I thought was conviction shortly after. So I took the post down, edited it a bit, and reposted it, only to feel convicted yet again. I went for a run, trying to settle my emotions, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t supposed to post that poem for some reason. I eventually took it down, and I didn’t post again for over a year. I believed God had told me to stop writing, and I wasn’t sure I was allowed to go back, so I didn’t. I didn’t feel free to make that decision.

If the first turning point was me deciding to hang out with friends in spite of how I felt, the second was opening up about my questions and emotions to a friend who could speak both to my spiritual needs and to my emotional and psychological needs. He was able to confirm that I had OCD and that I was coming out of a flare up of those symptoms. He was further able to help me start sorting through my thoughts and emotions along with the beliefs underlying them all, giving some explanations for what I was experiencing and connecting some dots that allowed me to see where the issues lie. I started meeting with him a couple of months ago, and through those weekly meetings, I’ve begun to put things back together in my life. 

In short, he helped me realize that I was struggling with scrupulosity, which is basically a religious variation of OCD. Instead of my obsessions and compulsions being tied to matters of cleanliness or assurance (though I experience some of those as well), mine are tied to matters of sinfulness and obedience. At some point, I started interpreting anxiety as conviction and intrusive thoughts as the directing of the Lord. In my mind, if I felt convicted about something and the Lord told me to take a step, then my response was a matter of faith and obedience. Did I trust the Lord enough to obey even when I couldn’t see or understand his reasoning? Was I content to live in sin by ignoring the feelings and thoughts that I perceived to be from him?

When I learned that the Lord wasn’t the one I’d been listening to but that OCD had essentially taken over my thoughts and actions, I began to sort through my experiences with the help of a mentor, sifting through my thoughts and emotions to determine why I thought what I thought, felt what I felt, and did what I did. It’s been slow progress, and it’s not over, but it’s progress nonetheless. And that brings me to where I am now. I’m finding my footing, sorting out my experiences, learning about how my mind works, and growing in my understanding of God and of myself in relation to him. By his grace, I’m learning a lot, and I’m feeling freedom and hope in fresh, new ways. If you’re interested in reading about some of the things I’m seeing, keep an eye out for part two of this story!


Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Writing Again

Hey, y’all!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, and I’m hoping to have some new content soon. But before I get back to normal posts again, I wanted to give some explanation as to why I stopped writing in the first place and what my life has looked like over the last couple of years. 

In short, I’ve been diagnosed with OCD, specifically a form of OCD called scrupulosity. As I’ve come to understand how OCD works, I’ve been able to make sense of a number of pieces of my story that have otherwise felt burdensome and confusing. With the help of some good friends, and by the grace of God, I’ve begun to make some good progress in life. I’ve felt more freedom and peace in recent months than I can remember feeling in years, and I’m seeing God do some really neat things in and around me. But it’s taken a long time to get to this point. 

So over the next few posts, I want to share some of that story. I’ll share a bit about my experience with scrupulosity and how my mind was working when it flared up last year. I’ll share some of the beliefs I’d been operating with that I think aggravated my anxiety and OCD and contributed to the difficulty of that season. And I’ll talk some about what I think God’s been doing in and through that season. 

I’ve missed writing, and I’ve long wanted to get back to it. I may not post as frequently as I used to, but I’m hoping to find a good rhythm and to produce some better quality content in the days ahead. As always, I pray these words can serve you well as we all learn to walk with the Lord more faithfully. 

To the praise of his glory,

Joe


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Out of Character

I once saw a Chick-fil-A employee yell at customers in the drive-through line.

The employee sounded frustrated. It was around lunch time, so Chick-fil-A was busy. Employees were outside taking orders on both lines before the customers merged into one lane to wind around toward the window to pick up their orders. As is the nature of drive-through lines, the traffic was very stop-and-go, so a lot of customers were on their phones while in line, resulting in a number of customers caught off guard when the line started moving.

I heard the employee yell, “Pull forward!” as she motioned for the cars to keep moving, but her overall tone was more peeved than patient. She made a couple of other remarks that further reflected her mood, each one surprising me and, admittedly, somewhat disturbing me. Her comments and tone seemed out of character for a Chick-fil-A employee.

Experience has taught us that Chick-fil-A employees behave differently than employees elsewhere. There’s a calmness to their demeanor, a patience to their interactions, and a genuineness to their service. We know them to be held to a higher standard, and we’ve come to expect that high quality of character when we visit a Chick-fil-A. So when I saw an employee who seemed to act in a way that ran contrary to that standard, the experience struck me as wrong. Things aren’t supposed to be this way, right? Something’s off here.

You can find the same kind of experience when you pay attention to how we as Christians sometimes act online. Christians, those people who are supposed to look like Jesus in the world, the group that is supposed to reflect a different set of values and a different approach to life, sometimes act in ways that seem contrary to the way Christ acted. Rather than reflecting humility, we demonstrate arrogance. Rather than embracing lowliness, we fight for power. Rather than loving the body of believers, we slander and bite and draw dividing lines within the fold. When we consider the standard, however, we should feel the same sense of surprise as we feel when he hear a Chick-fil-A employee shout at customers. We should be a bit disturbed at the dissonance between the character of Christ and the behavior of his people.

And I think the critique should start with oneself. I am often a fearful man, doubtful of my Lord’s goodness and unfaithful to his commandments. I am often an arrogant man, desiring recognition and glory and kicking against anything that might reveal my weakness. I am often a sinful man, choosing self over God and others.

By grace, however, I’m not lost in my sin. The Lord has saved me and remade me, and he enables me to follow him. I fall short, but I find encouragement to keep walking. I fail, but I find mercy for my failures. As I see all the varied ways I fall short of the glory of God, I find fresh ways the Lord meets me with love. And I pray I will be conformed more and more to the character of Christ, that I might better reflect him day by day.


Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

Update, 3/15/21

Hey y’all,

I decided to take today’s blog post down. As I was reading the Bible this morning, I realized my treatment of a passage in the post was wrong, and I couldn’t in good conscience keep the post. I’m sorry about that. I should have been more sensitive to the Spirit in the writing process than I was committed to having something to post. I’ll work to do better from here on out.

Change and Constancy

The train is now departing.
I stand upon the platform and I wonder,
Did I choose rightly when I chose to stay?
Is this the better way?
What life would now be starting
If I had stepped aboard and joined the thunder
Of racing steel and distant storms, away
From where I stand today?

But who could say?

Life is a series of decisions,
Of written words without revisions.
I wish I never made mistakes.
I often do.
Yet on clear tracks and in collisions,
You meet our needs with good provisions.
Through all that mends and all that breaks,
You remain you.


Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

Note: A quick Google search revealed that the line “Life is a series of decisions” has been used in many other works. While I didn’t have any specific source in mind when I decided to use that line, I recognize that the wording isn’t original to me.