What do you think of when you hear the term “OCD?” Do you think of compulsive hand washing? Do you imagine people with meticulously organized closets?
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is the tenth leading cause for disability by any disease, either physical or mental. It affects an estimated 2% of adults in the US, but it doesn’t always involve symptoms you can see.
One of the more hidden forms of OCD occurs when underlying obsessive-compulsive tendencies hijack your faith life. This is called scrupulosity. It is a recognized and treatable “theme” within obsessive-compulsive disorder. Does it sound unusual? Let me tell you about my own battle with scrupulosity.
The Need for Control
Growing up, my family was loving but a bit chaotic and unpredictable. My parents had constant struggles with their health that took up much of their attention, and my older brother was violently hyperactive. I was a sensitive, nervous child, and I often retreated into my bedroom (or closet) when my home environment became too overwhelming.
At the age of 12, I attended a Christian summer camp. With so many wiggly pre-teens to handle, the camp staff kept us strictly in line. We were expected to stand at attention at roll call and keep our cabins as neat as the military. Our schedules were firmly regulated. Misbehaving campers were expected to do pushups.
Surprisingly, I thrived.
Having a sense of control and predictability made me feel safe.… My mind would forever link “faith” with “control.”
Having a sense of control and predictability made me feel safe. It allowed me to come out of my shell and make friends. I didn’t need to spend so much time managing my anxiety, because someone else was working hard to create a controlled environment. When the evening campfire speaker asked us to give our hearts to Jesus, I stood up. Jesus was presented to me in a safe, tightly controlled environment. I wanted this.
My mind would forever link “faith” with “control.”
As I left camp to reenter my unpredictable home landscape, the burden fell upon me to create the controlled environment that made me feel safe. My little mind didn’t understand it at the time, but I was slowly building neural pathways that overemphasized the importance of me being responsible and in control.
OCD, that little genetic predisposition that often lies dormant until activated by some environmental nudge, had suddenly flipped a switch.
Debilitating Religious OCD
By the time I reached my twenties, my spiritual obsessions and compulsions had deepened significantly. I could not open my Bible unless my hands were clean. I strictly regulated the length and content of my daily devotionals. I avoided people and places that I felt would spiritually contaminate me. I ruminated for hours every day on important spiritual themes—sometimes because I desired to be closer to God, but sometimes because I craved the feeling of safety I knew I would get if I could figure everything out.
And in those moments when I couldn’t figure everything out—when I came face to face with God’s mystery—I would crash into panic. Facing the natural unknowns of the spiritual world felt like walking back into my unpredictable childhood home. I didn’t want that. I wanted certainty and control. I wanted to manipulate my environment—and yes, even God Himself—to gain those feelings of safety. I spiraled into depression and anxiety, and my struggle became harder and harder to hide.
I could not open my Bible unless my hands were clean.
My faith had become more than a relationship with God. It had become an oppressive tool for managing my anxiety. And it was backfiring on me.
Valid Spirituality Vs. Obsessive-Compulsive Spirituality
After receiving a dual diagnosis of severe clinical depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, I attended a 10-day recovery program that brought my depression levels back down to baseline. But while the program helped me address a number of causal factors in my depression—such as exercise, nutritional imbalances, and sleep patterns—it did not help me make much progress in dealing with my OCD. This was the largest contributing factor to my depression, and I realized I would need to find long-term strategies to avoid going down the rabbit hole again.
I joined an online support group for scrupulosity and became an avid participant. In the beginning, I received a lot of advice, but soon I began giving advice of my own. At the time, I had just started a PhD in Religion from Andrews University in Michigan, and the Word of God was fresh in my mind. As people in my support group raised their religious concerns, I was able to help them understand why God didn’t expect them to fulfill their compulsions. I formed friendships with others in the group, and soon these online friends began tagging me to answer their questions. Then, people I didn’t know started tagging me to ask for help. It wasn’t long before I was spending a few hours every day just answering people’s questions.
But while the program helped me address a number of causal factors in my depression— such as exercise, nutritional imbalances, and sleep patterns —it did not help me make much progress in dealing with my OCD. This was the largest contributing factor to my depression…
The more I supported others, the more I saw the pattern behind religious OCD. That’s when I decided to become a scrupulosity coach. I quit my former ministry position and started a website called scrupulosity.com. Soon I was inundated with emails from Christians of every denomination imaginable, Muslims, Hindus, and even irreligious people with obsessive moral standards.
I teach them all the same thing. Religious OCD operates on just six core patterns—for example, control addictions, false guilt, and an intolerance of uncertainty. If we have a biological predisposition to obsessive-compulsive patterns, it may be a little more difficult for us to fix these thought patterns than it is for others—but it’s possible. I take my clients to the Word of God and show them the Biblical reasons why they are allowed to let go of control, false guilt, and toxic certainty. When I work with someone who is scrupulous, I do not teach them how to be less spiritual, but how to separate between valid spirituality and obsessive-compulsive spirituality.
I was able to help them understand why God didn’t expect them to fulfill their compulsions… I do not teach them how to be less spiritual, but how to separate between valid spirituality and obsessive-compulsive spirituality.
Overwhelmingly, I find myself talking about the Biblical message of righteousness by faith. Over and over again.
Perhaps this is why God led me to become a scrupulosity coach. The more I share this beautiful teaching with others, the more it sinks down into my own heart.
Where I Am Today
My journey of healing and trusting isn’t over. I’ve learned to manage my OCD quite well, but it can still pop up during times of stress. Thankfully, when I start to get stuck in my head, I know how to recognize what’s happening, release control to God, and climb back out. Through it all, my relationship with God has deepened. I realize that God wants me to have a sense of security, but it will come by looking to Him rather than to my own compulsive urges. The great truths of righteousness by faith have been a potent healer of my anxiety—like a type of specialized CBT for the OCD mind. Ultimately, the most important thing any of us need to know is how to hang our souls by faith on the merits of Jesus. OCD has taught me to do this—not because OCD is naturally trusting, but because naked trust in Christ is the only thing that brings relief from OCD’s anxiety.
God wants me to have a sense of security, but it will come by looking to Him rather than to my own compulsive urges.
I’m a living example that the path back to mental and emotional wellness passes through the cross. To me, the line between mental health and redemption is so blurred that I can sometimes hardly tell the difference. But I know that one day, after the “redemption of the purchased possession,” I will cast my crown at the feet of Jesus and thank Him for my OCD.
John has severe obsessions about whether his “born again” moment was truly authentic. He spends several hours per day praying and rededicating his life to God to make sure he got it “just right.” Susan is obsessed about the possibility of being demonically possessed. She’s so nervous about spiritual powers “getting inside” that she must pray before every bite of food. When she thinks about anything negative, she must compulsively blow air out the side of her mouth to “eject” the unwanted thought. Billy struggles with moral contamination. He is hyperaware of his inner thought life, and if he happens to make a purchase when his thoughts are not 100% pure, he feels that the product he purchased in that moment are morally contaminated by his thoughts. Billy has stockpiled an immense amount of goods in his home that he cannot use because he believes it would be sinful. Rachel gets unwanted intrusive thoughts telling her she is going to hell or urging her to sell her soul to the devil. She has rigorously cleansed her life of anything impure and has even attended a deliverance ministry for them to cast out evil spirits. It did not help. Rachel is now on disability because she spends most of her day fighting against these unwanted thoughts.
Blog Post by: Jamie Eckert, Scrupulosity Coach at scrupulosity.com