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

Ingesting the Bible

I believe reading the Bible is important, but I don’t always devote the time to read it well. Granted, I’ve gotten better over the years, generally improving as I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work for me. But I still feel like I could be doing more.

Ideally, I spend some time in the early morning reading through a couple of chapters, underlining things that stand out and making notes. This helps me process what I’m reading, working it into my mind and heart. And while this is good, I sometimes abbreviate the process for time. I’ll just read one chapter, moving quickly through it without making any marks on the page. I’ll try to find a thought to keep chewing on as I go, but I’m often not really focused. I’m checking my Bible reading off of my daily to do list rather than truly seeking communion with the Lord of hosts.

Sometimes schedules can’t be helped. While the uncertainties of life and the irregularity of schedules make the prioritization of time with the Lord all the more important, these realities can also lead us to get creative with our approach to Scripture. I’ve found two approaches to be particularly helpful.

  1. Scripture memory
    Some friends from college used to memorize Scripture while they worked out, reciting verses between reps. Seeing them internalize the Bible encouraged me to pursue Scripture memory more intentionally, something I hadn’t done consistently since high school. While I’m still not good at it, I’ve found that memorization is a profoundly meaningful discipline. No matter where I am, I can think through a memorized passage of Scripture, repeating it in my mind and chewing on its meaning and implications. The more you go over a passage, the more you see in the text. You’ll spot connections you hadn’t noticed before, find encouragement you didn’t realize you needed, and be challenged to trust in all circumstances. Memorization can be a daunting exercise, but it doesn’t have to be. Chances are you’ve already got some lines of Scripture committed to memory simply by way of repeatedly coming across them over the years. Pick a favorite passage and read over it often, working it into your mind and heart as you do.
  2. Listening
    I’ve recently been enjoying the Dwell Bible app. Dwell collects passages of Scripture on various subjects into playlists of varying lengths, making it easy to spend some focused time on a specific biblical theme or story. It also offers listening plans for working through larger sections of Scripture. By allowing you to jump into any chapter in the Bible, Dwell makes consuming the Bible easy. I usually put a few playlists or passages on a queue to listen to as I fall asleep, allowing me to focus on the Bible at the end of the day. I tend to get more from physically reading the Bible than from listening to the Bible, but I’ve still found listening to be a tremendous help to my spiritual life.

The Lord is faithful to use his Word in our lives, whether we approach it through the physical page, the memorized passage, or the audible playlist. In each case, as we turn our attention to the Bible, we meet the truth and are changed. So don’t beat yourself up if you can’t seem to maintain the consistency you’d like in your devotional readings. Keep pursuing faithfulness, adjusting your schedule as you can to make time for what is of utmost importance. And don’t be afraid to incorporate some fresh ways of ingesting the Bible into your daily life.


Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash

Tension

Life has been strange lately.

Over the last number of months, I’ve met a strange combination of events that have produced a state of tension within my soul. On one hand, I’ve faced more disappointment, disillusionment, and discouragement than I can remember facing before in life. My plans and God’s plans for me did not agree, and I wrestled long and hard (and still do) to discern what faithfulness looks like for me at this time. The season has been uncomfortable, embarrassing, and isolating.

On the other hand, I’ve seen fruit from the steady plodding of previous months and years. I received a Master of Theology, marking roughly the mid point of my pursuit of a PhD. I passed the one-thousand mile mark on an app that keeps track of my running. I’ve finished reading books I set aside months ago. I’ve made progress on some new projects I’m excited about. I’ve been encouraged. The season has brought affirmation, support, and hope.

Seeing both types of experiences in the same season confuses me a bit. One moment, I feel like I can’t do anything right; the next moment, I’m affirmed in the work I’m doing. One day, I feel lost; the next day, I feel content and secure. I feel hopeless and hopeful, lost and found, faithless and faithful. I’m learning to rely on friends while worrying that I annoy them with my needs. I’m learning to boast in my weaknesses while wishing I could grow out of them. I feel a bit like a living paradox.

During this season, some biblical passages have come to life in fresh ways. The tension between suffering and steadfastness, between death and life, at play in 2 Corinthians 4 holds new meaning as I’m stretched by the trials and joys of this time. Hebrews 12 also challenges and comforts me as I see afresh how God is disciplining me, a painful process, to produce the fruit of righteousness, a pleasant result. I’m learning to hope in and rely upon the Lord, thinking often of him as my Shepherd (Psalm 23). I’m learning to long for the Lord, realizing in new ways my need of him (Psalm 63).

As I reflect on this season, I confess that I desire its end. I want to move past this present state, to learn the lesson and be done with the trials. I don’t enjoy living in the tension. But I recognize that lessons are learned through the testing of faith, that sanctification is accomplished through the long seasons of discipline. So I pray for faithfulness, for endurance, for hope that will not put me to shame. I pray for the Lord to accomplish his work in my life and for him to sustain me on the path he’s called me to walk. And I trust that he who began the work will not fail to complete it (Philippians 1:6).


Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash

Wants

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We want but are not satisfied in gain,
And so we gain new wants to add to old.
This futile journey is an old refrain
Of wants too weak to trust the Story told.
“Our hearts are restless till they rest in thee,”
The saint once wrote, and still his words resound.
They ring from Africa across the sea,
True both on foreign and familiar ground.
For we were wrought to reckon with our ends,
To know the purpose t’ward which passion points:
Temp’ral desires call for that which transcends;
What leads to life divides marrow and joints.
O LORD, align our wanting with your will,
And turn our hearts to you and so fulfill.


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The quoted line above refers to a line from Augustine’s Confessions.