Confusing Doubt and Fear With God Speaking
When Susan* began therapy for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), she had a lot of questions pertaining to her faith. In fact, she often thought she was dealing regularly with inherent spiritual problems, when, in reality, much of her concerns were just problems that related to spiritual practices (see An Introduction To The Over-Active Conscience).
Naturally, clients who suffer with scrupulous, over-analytical, and hypervigilant thoughts are very likely to confuse negative feelings/thoughts with what God is actually saying.
My client admitted that she was scrupulous (i.e., unnecessarily vigilant in spiritual practices). She felt like she had to pray until she felt a certain way- usually an esoteric “peace.” With Bible reading, until she felt like she “understood” it perfectly, she couldn’t move on. She knew her relationship to prayer and Bible reading were in a bad place. In fact, her current compulsions and avoidances kept her from praying and reading the Bible to avoid getting completely overwhelmed (and distracting her throughout her day and in her relationships)– which was completely contrary to what she wanted.
I asked, “What would happen if you said a quick prayer for 3 minutes, and when the timer goes off, you stop praying?”
She shifted in her seat; the discomfort was palpable. Here, at the beginning of therapy, it was as if she were trying to defend the very compulsions that were taking her away from what she believed. “But….isn’t that un-Biblical?”
I gained clarification, “How so?”
“Well, aren’t we supposed to pray without ceasing?” (See 1 Thessalonians 5:17.) Indeed, we are. “So how can I stop at 3 minutes when I feel like that’s wrong?”
The Great Dissonance
Susan admitted that she knew it couldn’t be correct for her to always be in prayer every moment, bowing her head, closing her eyes, and shutting out the world. There was something wrong with that picture. But her brain couldn’t let go of the feeling that she must pray constantly.
This is a great example of the dissonance and tension felt by those experiencing severe doubt: A person may possess clarity and logic to know that what they feel doesn’t seem right, and yet the feelings seem to SCREAM: “you need to change something!!” What do we do?!
Just Because You Feel/Think A Certain Way Doesn’t Mean It Is A Certain Way
For Susan, we had to both address her reactions to uncomfortable feelings and “level-set” what she actually believed about prayer. I worked hard on my end to guard against spending too much time on “what-ifs” and uncertainty that her brain demanded answers to- she had to learn to tolerate those. I often give the following articles as an educational starting point in doing exposures faith-congruently.
Our Two Initial Keys: The Cognitive and the Behavioral
We began to address two key things to start:
- Compulsive behaviors (and mental rituals) that reinforced her fear. Her continued fear-based reactions taught her brain to notice feelings more and more rather than trusting God. So we started to address them practically and strategically, so we added these to a hierarchy and started “picking them off” one-by-one.
- Distorted beliefs about what she actually needed to do. We began to monitor her thoughts and perceptions when she felt doubt/fear/uncertainty/discomfort and tangibly arrest the process of rumination/worry. Together we practiced skills to be in the present moment- and even if she felt or thought differently in the “hot mess” of distress.
I am so proud of her!! She learned to keep steering her focus back to her valued beliefs, not the doubt about these beliefs. Those of you in recovery for OCD, and particularly with the subtype of “Scrupulosity,” will understand how hard this is to do.
But What About The Spiritual?
You may ask, “What about the spiritual?” Why do I say the two key things to start were cognitive and behavioral? What about Ephesians 6:12?!
So what about it?
Wasn’t it a spiritual intervention when she could go home and want to read the Bible, getting back her consistency daily? Isn’t it a spiritual intervention when she could be open with friends and family and gain support, but also teach them when not to help her compulse (reassurance)? Is a sermon more effective when spoken or when lived? What about her experiencing God in a whole new light that stripped the demands of her human compulsivity and freed her to taste and see the real God of the universe (Psalm 34:8)??
It was precisely so the client could walk faithfully that we pursued the steps outlined above (and more). I’m not here to pick a fight with those who say they got over a problem through prayer, Bible reading, and community alone. But for those that’s not the answer and your step of faith is to do some therapy or take medication, I am here to speak directly, strongly, assertively, from my experience and from the many stories of those who suffer:
Just because a problem deals with a spiritual issue doesn’t mean it must be exclusively a spiritual problem, addressed through exclusively spiritual means.
I don’t find a lot of Christians who argue this point when talking about PTSD. For many, it’s an easier logical jump to accept that because of a trauma, a person’s brain and body responds differently. Let’s be patient and support the person. Let’s not over-spiritualize it. Let’s not make the error of the early church heresy of Gnosticism: “if it’s not about higher, spiritual knowledge, it’s not important.” Phooey. We are to love with our body, mind, and spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23). So if someone is suffering, let’s slow down to listen, observe, ask questions, and hold back from snap judgments.
Susan is the finest example of a woman walking closely with Jesus. I praise God that He has allowed me to walk with her and be impacted by her beautiful life. I am better for it. And so are those around her.
The Main Point
Doubt, fear, uncertainty- all of these can throw us off the “scent” of following God. It’s so easy to misinterpret big feelings for big directions. Don’t. It will happen, so be patient with yourself, but learn not to do this- your faith and mind and body will each be stronger for it.
Coming up next: “Part 2 of 2: How Does God Speak?” This is a simple consideration to anchor your focus on Jesus by practical examples of how He does speak. Stay up-to-date with all articles by joining now!