It has been 15 years since the Lord started me on this journey of knowing his nearness and consistent rescue when fear runs amok, and anxiety attempts to overwhelm.
I really don’t want to downplay the role that therapists and counselors have in helping with mental health disorders like OCD or religious OCD (I have received so much help from them). Medication, too, can be a saving grace because the more entrenched some of these behaviors are (they are often survival techniques), the more enfleshed in the brain they become. My story, though, highlights how much I needed the good news of who my Father is for me in Christ.
I don’t think I realized how spiritually oppressive it was to live on the treadmill of religious OCD (I didn’t even know it had a name!). Perfectionism is an abusive task master. It is painful to be have so many intrusive thoughts and to always wonder how your standing with the Lord is. It is nerve racking to live as if it mostly depends on you. I like how Mike Emlet describes on this talk how, for some people, there is this sense that “you are only as good as your last good deed.”
When we functionally live experiencing God as detached, distant or punitive, we really have no good place to stand. God made our brains to always scan for cues of safety, and in an ironic sad twist, my persistent sense was that God wasn’t emotionally safe for me.
Our Father hates oppression and his heart is for the oppressed. I am so thankful the Spirit groaned deep inside me where I didn’t have words or understanding to fully name my distress and real need (Romans 8: 26). But the Spirit knew. He translated my anguish, and my Father – guys, my Father came to my rescue. He wasn’t angry at me, nor did he shame me for not knowing his heart better or trusting him more. No, my Father was angry at the brokenness of this world. Like a mighty warrior he came for the one he had committed himself to. He fought for me, and surrounded me like a shield. His humility and his gentleness toward my story, toward my brain, and toward my soul have been a balm (Psalm 18:35).
The first thing he did was to introduce me in my mid 20’s to very intentional gospel centered writing. Through it I discovered how much the gospel was good news for me as a Christian. You see, up to that point I didn’t quite know how much I needed the gospel as a believer. I thought the gospel was a truth that new Christians believed and that we passionately shared with others so that they too could be saved. I didn’t know that I never really moved on from the gospel to “deeper things of God.”
I had huge law/gospel confusion – often living as if I was still under the covenant of the law. I knew I would experience blessing when I obeyed but if I displeased my Father, I was really scared of the consequences. As Sinclair Ferguson describes in his book, The Whole Christ, I experienced the law as an abusive husband who is constantly making demands that I can’t meet, and threatening to punish when I failed. I feared the hammer of the law – thinking God himself wielded it.
I still remember the day I realized that constant self condemnation wasn’t a sign of sound spirituality. I had become so used to thinking that the way to draw near to the Lord was to mainly come to him from my identity as a sinner, unworthy, always falling short. It was as if I thought that the only way I could be near to God (as a believer) and accepted by him was if I constantly agreed with him about how weak and sinful I was.
So the first step in my Father’s deliverance was to open my eyes to what the gospel meant for me as a Christian; it truly rocked my world. He awakened me to the gift of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension – and how it changed my life hour by hour, day to day. I was relieved to know the Lord knew that even as a believer I couldn’t live rightly for him and that is why he had given me the gospel as his power for all of life. His love for me in Christ became more real, and a place of consistent rest. I didn’t have to wonder all the time how much I pleased him, because through Christ’s death and resurrection, I had the Father’s delight. There was no more punishment for me to fear from him because Christ had taken it all on the cross.
I started making intentional connections from the gospel to my daily life. I wrestled with questions like, how do Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension make a difference when I struggle with chronic pain and fatigue; or, when I don’t know how to deal with my student’s difficult behavior; or, when I long so much for a husband and it seems like my prayers were going unanswered? The cycle of guilt and condemnation I had been in for most of my life started to break more and more as I rehearsed the gospel day after day, night after night. I started to see the sufficiency of Christ’s rescue for me.
The Lord took my obsession with my performance and slowly, slowly started to retrain me so that my obsession was with Christ’s performance on my behalf.
I had lived as if God’s nearness depended on me. That had brought intense fear and anxiety in my life. Awakened to the gospel, the Spirit of the Lord started to clear my eyes so that my blurry vision could get clearer, and I could see how my Father had been moving toward me all along. His nearness was my good – He was objectively, resoundingly for me (Psalm 56:9). Not because of how good I was or how able to obey, or how much I confessed my sin and weakness…but because of the grace of Christ.
I often say that my story is like the blind man who Jesus cured slowly. This gospel awakening was the first step in my healing journey. I needed something else and my Father, intent in rescuing me, wouldn’t stop there. There was more coming.