In my childhood and teen years I developed a disorder that involves persistent or sticky thoughts about morality and religiosity. It is driven by intense anxiety and fear in our relationship with God and moves us to engage in compulsive behaviors to calm the anxiety. This is called scrupulosity or religious OCD.
It is a suffocating way to live. I would go to sleep every night for years going over my day – thinking through what I had said and done, trying to figure out who I needed to apologize to or what I needed to clarify to family and friends the next day. I didn’t feel safe in relationships with others unless I knew we were okay, and they didn’t think I had failed in some way or sinned against them.
My compulsive behaviors were: evaluating myself at the end of the day, apologizing and clarifying, seeking reassurance, confessing sin and struggle, and spending time in the word and prayer filled with self-deprecation and shame. I would feel anxiety about my anxiety because Christ came to give us an abundant life and somehow I didn’t know how to do that.
I truly enjoyed a lot of what I did in my spiritual community – the Lord had worked a genuine love for his word and for his people. But there was an underlying restlessness and even oppressiveness in the way I experienced my relationship with the Lord. How can you have peace if you are never quite sure if you are pleasing the Lord and your over-scrupulous conscience condemns you constantly? You don’t know how to have peace with God and so somehow spiritual authority becomes a sort of mediator between you and God… if they are happy with you, God must be happy. If they are not, God must not be either. I didn’t realize how often I was living under their conscience, not my own.
Even though I knew God is good and holy, I didn’t truly enjoy safety with him. I was in a constant quest to grow, to be better, to be godly. Some friends would joke that I was a “saint.” Others would call me “pastor Aylin.” I think they thought I was close to God but I don’t think they realized how much anxiety drove my desire to be close to God, and how often, if I was really honest (with myself and others), God felt impersonal.
I often gave in to self righteousness because, functionally, my standing with God and others depended on myself and my ability to be in relationship with them. I felt superior to others because of how much Reformed theology I knew, and for how much I upheld truth and valued sound doctrine. A pastor I respected once told me I was one of the most serious minded young people he knew – I loved that. My confidence came in large part from what spiritual authority and others I respected, thought about me. I was mature, older people trusted me – what more could I want?
I didn’t quite understand, though, at what cost it all came and how I was on a constant treadmill trying to be enough. Shame (“I am not good enough”) and anxiety (“my good standing with God and people depend on me”) were deeply ingrained. They were well worn paths I traveled on the road to what I thought was Christ-likeness.
Our Father hates oppression and his heart is for the oppressed. He heard my cries and the groans of the Spirit within me, and he came to my rescue. In my next post, I will share more about how he has been doing that.