Growing up, I was taught the importance of making right choices before God. I learned God communicates through thoughts and feelings of peace. But as a Chrisitan with OCD, I took these teachings to an extreme. I would pray over the smallest choices to avoid making mistakes. I would constantly assess feelings of peace, and ask God things repetitively. I would flip flop between choices the moment any bit of anxiety crept in. I would distress so much over what I was feeling, that any glimpses of peace faded into anxiety pretty quickly.
Now you can only imagine this fear based mindset around God when I got engaged. I prayed over and over again, asking God if my partner was “the one.” I constantly assessed my feelings to see if God had given peace. I looked for signs from God to dictate my choice. My anxiety was at an all time high. But what I didn’t know at the time was that I was experiencing ROCD and something called scrupulosity.
ROCD and Spirituality Thoughts
ROCD is obsessing on fears surrounding one’s romantic relationship; obsessions can revolve around relationship rightness, feelings of love, and breaking up. It is not uncommon for people who have ROCD to experience intense anxiety in other aspects of life, such as religion. Scrupulosity is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that is characterized by obsessive concerns over moral or religious issues, such as guilt, sin, and morality.
People with scrupulosity may become preoccupied with the idea that they have committed a sin, violated a religious commandment, or failed to live up to their moral or ethical standards. They may constantly seek reassurance from others, perform religious rituals or other behaviors to reduce their anxiety, and avoid situations or activities that they perceive as morally questionable or sinful.
Anxiety loves hopping from topic to topic. For instance, one day you might be feeling head over heels for your partner but anxious over your standing with God. On another day, it might be completely reversed. And for some, you’ll be experiencing both ROCD and scrupulosity at the same time. What this looks like is seeking validation from God on the rightness of your relationship and worrying that you’ll displease Him if you make the “wrong” choice.
While not everyone experiences anxiety in the same way, there are some thoughts that are common amongst people who struggle with scrupulosity and ROCD:
- Does God approve of this union?
- Is my partner spiritual enough?
- What if God is trying to warn me through my anxiety?
- If I don’t feel at peace in this relationship, God must not approve.
- If I ignore this anxiety, I won’t be following God’s will.
- If God hasn’t given me a clear answer, then it must not be right.
Because we are taught that God speaks through thoughts and feelings, it can be very easy to give a lot of weight to these thoughts and feelings. And the more we seek to answer these questions, the more uncertain we tend to feel around romantic relationships.
Our Nervous System & God’s Voice
It can be easy to confuse God’s voice with a nervous system response. Nervous system responses happen when our brain senses danger. Making a choice you have never made before (entering the unknown) is perceived like a threat to your brain. When your nervous system is activated, you may experience stomach dropping, chest tightening, and lots of thoughts in your head. These are key indicators that your nervous system is entering fight or flight mode, aka protection mode.
If you are religious, you likely have been taught that God communicates through feelings and thoughts. But our nervous system also communicates with feelings and thoughts. Since it feels so big and important, it can be easy to label any scary thought or feeling as God. But fear is not God telling you something, this is your HUMAN brain and body communicating danger (as it is designed to do when facing the unknown).
God speaks to us with peace and love. But that can be soft in comparison to the noise and chaos of a dysregulated nervous system. As we learn how to regulate our nervous system and feel safe, we can begin to more easily access that peace.
God Speaks with Peace
2 Timothy 1:7 says,“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind”. Fear does not come from God. Fear comes from us as flawed human beings trying to survive in this mortal earth.
When you notice that your mind is chaotic, and loud, and lots of “what ifs,” that is not God.
Now, you may be thinking, “OK, but if I’m not feeling peace, then it’s not God’s will”. But peace is so quiet that it can often feel impossible to access for the anxious mind.
- God didn’t give you fear
- Just because you’re experiencing fear, it doesn’t mean what you’re doing is contrary to God’s will
And we see TONS of examples of this in the scriptures.
My favorite is Peter walking on Water. All the disciples were on the boat and they saw Christ coming. And they’re troubled and said it’s a spirit and cried out in fear. When the disciples saw Jesus walking on water, they did not feel peace. They felt fear. Then he comforts them. He says, “be of good cheer. It is I. Be not afraid”
“Peter answered him saying, Lord, if it be thou, bid me to come out unto the water. And he said Come. And when Peter was come down from the ship, he walked on the water to go to Jesus.”
The disciples have this initial reaction, they’re scared, and then Peter says, Lord, let me come to you. And then he walked on water. He did this incredible miracle through Christ. “But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid. And beginning to sink, he cried, saying Lord save me. And immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him and said unto him o thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” And again we see, Peter experienced fear even in the presence of Christ. Christ didn’t give him that fear. He had fear because he was looking at the storm. He had fear because he was looking at the things that seemed so scary and terrifying to him. Peter’s fear and doubts arose as part of his human nature and his realization of his own vulnerability.
This reminds me so much of the vulnerability that arises in taking steps forward in a relationship. We see the boisterous wind of divorce and heartbroken relationships around us, and naturally we feel fear. It isn’t about God trying to communicate something to us. This fear is about being human and trying to keep ourselves safe from feeling hurt.
Thoughts and feelings of inspiration do not operate with fear, confusion, frustration and overwhelm. They are soft, gentle, and loving in nature. Most of all, they are gracious. They allow for your own error and humanness. God knows that we are flawed, and He works with it. There is no “if you don’t follow this you will be miserable for the rest of your life.” That is the voice of fear, y’all. Learn to distinguish fear from God. Otherwise fear will try to maintain its importance and presence in your life by pretending to be God.
Choosing Faith in the Midst of Uncertainty
We often look for God to guarantee a perfectly happy future. And we want that guarantee before we take that leap of faith. But so often, the leap of faith needs to come first. We have to be willing to act out of faith and trust God will take care of us without necessarily getting that absolute guarantee of what our future will turn out.
Ultimately, that’s what faith is. Faith isn’t this absolute knowing. If we knew everything, we wouldn’t even need to be here on Earth to learn because we would be like God! But we’re not. We’re human. And we have been asked to have faith. That means choosing to trust and believe, without knowing everything.
You may have desires to take steps forward in a relationship and it is so natural for that to bring up fear. But I believe that through our relationship with Christ, we can have faith and hope. We can have the courage to make relationship choices; not without fear, but in the midst of it.