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
4 thoughts on “Scrupulosity”
Stumbling blocks come in all shapes and sizes. Crawling over them, instead of waiting for them to crumble, takes energy, time, and determination. Keep going,,, a few thoughts and prayers…
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Oh. My. Such tangled thoughts, my friend. At least our families were friends, though you and I were never close. I’m older, 79 and counting. I’d like to say “I understand your confusion.” But do any of us truly “comprehend” a different person’s thoughts and feelings? Not entirely, I fear. We are each different people. Different rearing. Different experiences. Different teachings and deeply ingrained ideas. But sometimes – different can be simply that, a different “take” on something. But it could also be unwelcome. So, I’ll just say you had a beautiful upbringing and I’m sure you know the “answers”. Personally, I sometimes “overthink” many things. My precious Mama used to say to “go with my first thought”, idea, etc. as it would most likely be correct. God bless you as you continue to mature and learn. Trust God. Trust yourself and your rearing. Love and prayers. GdMa Clara (Eastland)
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Yes, thank you so much for the encouragement!