Mental Health, OCD, and God

Theologies of Law Exacerbated the Scrupulosity I was Already Primed For

Zack Verham / 12.7.20

Hi, my name is Zack. I’m a severely anxious person with obsessive-compulsive tendencies. By default, I assume I’m surrounded by potential catastrophes just waiting to happen, and I use compulsive rituals to thwart those outcomes. Whether it was assuming that I would fail every college exam unless I studied for exactly ten hours to the minute, or obsessively washing my hands when I was younger to thwart the very real threat of a family member’s life-threatening food allergies, or ritualistically checking that all of my oven burners were off dozens of times every night to prevent the absolutely certain outcome of my house burning down, the fabric of who I am is tied up with anxious and obsessive-compulsive thought processes.

When my neurochemistry mixes with Christianity, I experience OCD manifested in a particular form called “Scrupulosity.”

I’ve often prayed ritualistic scripts over and over to ensure (within the illogical logic of OCD) that I was a “good” Christian. I had to prevent God from finding a loophole in my prayer language which would ruin my life. For example, I feared that if I didn’t pray for my grandparents “perfectly,” God would find a gotcha and they would die. I thought that if I didn’t hold perfect prayer sessions for individuals and communities who hadn’t heard the gospel, God would find another gotcha and somewhere in the world some people would end up in Hell as a direct result of my failures. I thought that if I didn’t read the Bible daily for at least fifteen minutes in a continuous session which concluded with an immediate life application, it didn’t count and I was a lukewarm Christian that God would spit out on Judgment Day.

I know this sounds like irrational nonsense, and the logical part of my brain understood that it flew against everything I knew about God, but logical arguments didn’t work. The underlying machinery of my mind was primed to assume the worst possible outcome, and this meant that my experiential projection of God was tinted by an anxious mind. I can only speak for myself, but from a lifetime of experience, the objective state of “God,” which is dissociated from my anxiety, is frankly a non-starter for me. Even within the realm of divinely-appointed miracle, a brain which objectively experienced God-as-God wouldn’t be mine. My perception of God will always be constructed by faulty wiring.

It was only a few years ago, after a long season of daily panic attacks, that I was finally able to find the counseling and medication that made things manageable. Not perfect, but manageable. I write this not as someone who has a clear-cut, triumphant testimony of completely vanquishing my demons, but as a work in progress who still has a lot of screwy bits and pieces held together by duct tape, crossed fingers, and a prayer or two.

At the same time that things were becoming more bearable, I also transitioned from one faith tradition into another. For a multitude of reasons, I left what I now consider to be fundamentalist communities and merged into an entirely different thread of the Christian tradition. The concrete (and overwhelmingly important) counseling and medication were pivotal. This is unequivocally true. However, I think the management of my anxiety was also embedded within a religious shift which modified my internal perception of the divine.

While I know that my experience certainly isn’t universal, fundamentalist Christianity encouraged my obsession with both personal purity before God and the experience of fully-realized sanctification in the present. My scrupulous mind was racked with anxiety over my inability to “keep my thoughts captive,” which for an obsessive-compulsive person is an extremely cruel sentence of judgment. Every “sinful” thought that popped into my head was a threat to my sanctification which brought out rituals of repeated, scripted prayers to assuage my guilt before God. Trying to avoid those thoughts only made them louder and the rituals more necessary, eventually careening me into an endless cycle of repeating the same meaningless words over and over. My prayers were not to God, but instead to the altar of my short-circuiting mental wiring. for the best mental health suggestions, they can check this site for advice.

I was constantly instilled with fear that the entire world was destined for Hell. Every friendship and relationship was tinged with the anxiety that I was directly sending them to torment because of my inability to get past the anxiety which crippled my ability to evangelize. I strove to commit significant chunks of time praying for unreached people groups, but when I would inevitably fail to maintain perfect, uninterrupted attention to my prayers for the duration of the arbitrary (but significantly long) time limit I set for myself, I would be crushed by guilt as a failed Christian who offered no utility to the Church as it sought to fulfill the Great Commission.

These communities certainly wouldn’t have publicized themselves as damnation-driven morality police, and I don’t even necessarily claim that they were, either. But practically, its a moot point — my fallen and broken mind internalized the theologies I learned and constructed a faith which fed my OCD with plenty of opportunities to catastrophize both personal and global purity before God. Practically, I was experiencing the neural-short circuiting that caused me to obsessively wash my hands or check the oven burners at night, but I applied them to the divine.

Does this mean that fundamentalism caused my OCD? Of course not. And it certainly doesn’t mean that my experience translates to anyone else’s. I’m not interested in a larger systematic commentary for pharisaic holier-than-thou finger-wagging. But I do think that my experiences in those communities were warped by my own neurobiology in ways that I only recognize with the blessing of hindsight and healing. Theologies of Law exacerbated the scrupulosity I was already primed for.

The faith communities I grew up in certainly didn’t offer a balm for my neurotic, anxiety-driven mind, which was caught between impossible ethical demands on one side, and the fear of my friends’ spending eternity in conscious torture on the other. I would have claimed that the god I grew up with was loving and kind, but beneath the surface, in the silences of my self-speak, that god was cruel and ever-demanding. That god demanded the sacrifice of perfect, uninterrupted prayers to keep the world from falling apart. That god existed only for me, borne out of the ways that my unique neurochemical makeup took the theologies of my previous faith communities and silently twisted them into something anti-Christ and anti-Gospel.

I don’t have a nice bow to wrap this post up with. Like I said earlier, I’m in a much healthier place now. Not a perfect place, but my anxiety is at a manageable level now, with less frequent flare-ups. I don’t know if I can tease out specifically what has helped me to manage my unhealthy tendencies — whether it’s social support, or medication, or counseling, or changing life circumstances. But I believe that part of it has been hearing the Gospel within a faith community that acknowledges the supremacy of Christ over all things, which includes my ability to conceive of Him correctly.

Over the past few months, the indie rock musician Julien Baker has become a bit of a patron saint for me. She writes about the how mental health influences the perception and experience of the Christian faith in ways that I haven’t known how to verbalize for most of my life.

In her song “Happy to Be Here,” she writes:

If I could do what I want
I’d become an electrician
I’d climb inside my ears
And I’d rearrange the wires in my brain

I know I should be being optimistic but I’m doubtful I can change
Grit my teeth and try to act deserving
When I know there’s nowhere I can hide
From your humiliating grace

Because if you swear that it’s true
Then I have to believe
What I hear evangelicals say on TV
And if there’s enough left after everyone else
Then why, then why, then why
Then why not me?

I can now only read the Bible in short bursts, and I pray simple, inconsistent prayers. But if the Gospel is true, and some form of “sanctification” exists within this in-between period before Christ’s return, I have to believe that it involves re-learning how to read the Bible, and how to pray, and how to do those things knowing that the God of the Bible has made it abundantly clear that there’s nothing for my brain wiring to catastrophize.

I can say that the most catastrophic event in history already happened on Golgotha, and that Christ has everything under control, but I know the contradictions and tendencies of my own mind all too well. If I go too long without hearing the Gospel preached and re-preached to me, I’ll be back to checking the spiritual oven burners the following day. But I think I’m ok with sitting in that contradiction.

I’ll close with my favorite Julien Baker line, from her song “Rejoice”:

But I think there’s a god and he hears either way
I rejoice, and complain
I never know what to say.

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7 responses to “Mental Health, OCD, and God”

  1. Amanda McMillen says:

    so beautiful Zack, thank you for sharing this.
    “I know this sounds like irrational nonsense, and the logical part of my brain understood that it flew against everything I knew about God, but logical arguments didn’t work.” I’m with you – compulsive behaviors seem very rational to me. instead it’s God, who doesn’t work in our “if x then y” manner, who seems highly (and frustratingly) irrational. thanks for bringing so much of this element of human nature (and God nature) to the surface for us to read.

  2. Bill says:

    Thank you Zack, that was very helpful.

  3. Jane Grizzle says:

    Zack, as a fellow sufferer of OCD, your words here are beautiful and so hopeful. Thank you, thank you for sharing.

  4. David says:

    One of the best descriptions of my scrupulosity of all time.

  5. David Janus says:

    Hey Zack, I hope you read this. My life for the last, I don’t know, 13 years or so, was critically ruined because of hyper scrupulosity in the manner in which you PERFECTLY described above. I went to a great place called Rogers Behavioral Health (life-saver) and EBT really helped (exposure-based therapy). BUT!!! The one thing Rogers or any pych person cannot fix is your understanding or misunderstanding of the gospel. I really want to share this article with you because it helped me tremendously and I came to it because I studied ancient Greek in college. It’s all about “Metanoeo,” or the greek word in the Bible that is translated in English as “repent.” The slight mistranslation of this Greek word causes brought about your and my OCD. The understanding of the error, I believe, will help anyone with crippling, paralyzing scrupulosity. It changes everything. Here’s the article:

  6. david says:

    Microdosing with LSD will shock your self-awareness

  7. […] previously written about the unremitting demands for piety I experienced in college which fed my scrupulosity and […]

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