Notes on Assurance and OCD

I have always (in one way or another) battled with the assurance. From an extremely visceral fear of going to Hell in my early childhood, to which was added a struggle with the assurance of salvation in my youth and a more profound struggle with general religious doubt in early adulthood, I’ve had to learn to navigate relatively constant assault in these areas. A bit pathological, I grant, but a pathology that Christ Himself came to heal. On the hunch that others’ peculiar struggles mirror my own, I’ll say here what has most helped this rather OCD bloke on the question of assurance. 

First, whether it be a moral, intellectual, or “am I saved?” crisis, the way of Christ is not found in the algorithmic hurricane of an OCD spiral. The person who has gone searching for evidences of election, turning over every stone in their heart in order to gather proof of their regeneracy, is almost certainly doomed to keep spiraling. OCD seeks mathematical certainty. Answers must be gone over again and again. Inevitably, a bit of data put in the “evidence I’m saved” column can be moved into the “actually this is just my deceitful heart!” column. Moreover, one can never “get behind” themselves and one’s own manifest unreliability in self-analysis. And with Hell in the balance, it makes sense that one would want to check their work! But it helps one to realize that all of this dishonors God, and refuses the comfort of the gospel. Do we really believe that He has postured Himself to be found at the end of a calculus equation? Such self-analysis and constant “making sure” is ultimately the problem itself, and that which requires the deepest repentance. It is, after all, God who saves you and not you yourself. To constantly “re-check your do-I-really-believe homework” is to treat God as one who would leave you to yourself even if you were self-deceiving. At some point, “making sure” you are saved is to fail to trust God to handle your salvation. Rather, the soul in this situation can cry to God and say, “Lord, if I am self-deceived, please reveal that to me in clarity” and then simply trust Him to do so through Scripture, friends, conscience, and sober clarity (vs. spiraling agitation). How do I know this?

Second, “He who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In Genesis, we see the nascent gestures of true religion when men begin to call upon the name of the Lord. How can I know that God will respond to my prayer to Him? Because of His promise, yes, but the promise is rooted in the “deeper magic” of who He is. He is generous and well-disposed to the sinner. He is gracious. He is not withholding but delights to save all who call upon His name. The God who refuses a cry for spiritual aid is no God of Scripture or of Christian confession. Certainly it is not the God revealed finally in the face of Jesus Christ. One might say that the entirety of Scripture is God’s attempt to persuade you that, in all moments and stages, you can call upon His name and He will save you. This does not mean you can get whatever you want from God, but it does mean you can always get salvation from God. The final defeat of doubt is not found in an equation, but in a Person. Assurance, in this sense, is always living and present because it is found in God Himself.

Adding to this, calling upon God is not just a one-time event, but an everyday occurrence, and the most nascent measure of faith. It is crucial (on this score) to note that the Christian is always “saved” and “being saved.” Just as the always-already true fact of parenthood is communicated and received through the daily presence and goodness of the parent, so is our assurance (and in one sense, our unfolding salvation) produced through the continued calling upon the name of the Lord that is the basic motion of the Christian. We constantly re-enter on one register what we already possess on another. I am saved, but I also need to be saved from my unbelief, from sin not only in its consequences but in its power. I need to be saved from wrath, but also from unbelief, anger, lust, and addiction.

One could interpret the entire apparatus of Satan as deployed to get you to project into the heart of God whatever prevents your crying out to Him for precisely this. And yet Satan is already defeated because God’s love is prior to the devil’s parasitical action. Satan can only try to get you to disbelieve in a God who is always closer to you than he. Indeed, Satan’s activity reduces to comedy for he whose vantage point is transformed by the gospel. For the person who comes to see their story as a story of salvation, the whole of life, the cosmos, and one’s experience becomes a comedy. To consciously reflect on this, as in Luther, is to laugh at one’s self and the devil. A culture reflecting on this is liable to produce a Shakespeare relative to the human drama, and to cultivate the art of the novel. We have internalized the reality of God’s own love to the extent that we imagine our own stories to be transformable by a God whose salvation is always available. The Thomists are fond of the line that the negative abyss in man calls out to the positive abyss in God’s own being. This is a metaphysical statement. Perhaps it has a historical inflection. To wit: The “savability” of any human story is precisely adequated to the power and disposition of God to save.  

Third, this means that in the battle for assurance, much depends upon cultivating a certain reading of God’s own heart. God has given us many helps to this end. One can mention all of the basics of word, sacrament, liturgy, Christian friendship, ordinary providence, etc. Most important is Christ himself. And yet without faith, a thin barrier can foreclose any comfort from these. Providence is rendered a cruel joke, my friends as people who can’t quite understand how unbelieving I really am, baptism as a promise I don’t really get to enjoy, and Christ Himself undisposed to convert just this sinner, etc. In each case, the masks of God are treated not as sites of divine presence, but as totems of His absence. Faith sees the opposite. It sees a saving God whose salvific reach comprehends all of reality and all of my life, and which can be received on its face in simple faith. 

The OCD soul cannot be forced to have faith, and on this side of glory, one can always interpretively reduce the whole cosmos (and God) to a pathological horror. But consider which picture is fitting of God. What the OCD soul can do, through God’s own gracious persuasion, is to repent of projecting upon God a picture of Him that is unworthy, and which prevents the enjoyment of the gospel. Indeed, perhaps all repentance is most basically this, a new movement toward God that receives Him as the Savior of our whole selves. Assurance, then, is finally found only in walking by faith in a living God who delights to save.

Do you doubt? Believe, calling upon the name of the Lord.


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