Learning Faith from Chronic Doubt

If there’s a theme that’s emerged over and over throughout my faith journey, it’s finding faith in the face of doubt.

I mean that quite literally, as someone who is hardwired to doubt. No, really. Several years ago, I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, sometimes known as “the doubting disease.” You might know OCD as the disorder that makes people do strange things like wash their hands repeatedly or check and re-check the locks, but every obsessive-compulsive behavior is fueled by a single, doubt-filled question: What if?

Memoirist Fletcher Wortmann calls OCD “the pathological intolerance of risk.” After all, there’s always the possibility that you didn’t get all the germs off your hands, or that the lock broke in the amount of time it took you to turn it and walk away, so you wash or check just one more time—then again, and again, and again, and again—you know, just to be sure.

In my life, I’ve experienced OCD around issues of faith. This is actually quite common. OCD tends to target things that carry significant importance to those who suffer from it, and faith is a driving force in many people’s lives. The desire to be right with God, to be holy, to be savedthese are deep motivators. And, due to their very nature as questions of faith, they are shrouded in uncertainty.

For someone with OCD, the uncertainty is amplified. What other people wouldn’t think twice about, OCD sufferers agonize over. As a young Mormon missionary, I spent months tormented by an inconsistent use of “you” pronouns in the Book of Mormon. Martin Luther, who was almost certainly an OCD sufferer, spent so many tortured hours confessing minor and imagined sins that Staupitz, his spiritual mentor, cried in frustration, “Look here, if you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive!”

But for all the agony, I have found that there are gifts to be discovered in the experience of OCD, particularly for people of faith. One such gift is that it takes a common human experience—the search for certainty—and magnifies it to the bajillionth degree so that we can dig around a little and see what’s really going on.

Intellectually, most people understand that uncertainty is an inescapable part of a life of faith. But uncertainty is uncomfortable. So instead of facing it, we drive it out. We draw the lines sharp and clear and declare our way the only way, insulating ourselves against those who have different perspectives. We fight culture wars. We fight real wars. We tear each other to shreds so we don’t have to face the idea that we might not have it all exactly right—just like OCD sufferers wash their hands over and over again in an attempt to be sure they’ve gotten rid of every last germ.

That’s not faith. It’s fear.

My OCD is well-managed now thanks to excellent therapy and a toolkit of self-care skills I have integrated into my life (though to a certain extent it will probably always be there, hanging like a cloud at the corners of my consciousness). The only way to get better from OCD is to become comfortable with ambiguity. Because as soon as you engage in your compulsive behavior, you reinforce the doubt and plunge yourself back into the desperate cycle of doubt/searching for certainty, doubt/searching for certainty, doubt/searching for certainty—a search that can never be fully satisfied.

To heal, you have to learn to feel the fear and let it be. To stop seeking control. To acknowledge that while there might be germs left on your hands, you’re certain to miss out on everything else if you spend the rest of your life at that sink.

You have to take a deep breath, turn off the water, and step into the unknown.

Call me crazy, but that sounds a lot like faith.

Perhaps faith is not to replace the ambiguity of doubt with the false god of artificial certainty, but rather to step into the darkness to discover the God who meets you there.

And in my experience, the God who shows up in darkness is different than the god I knew before. In the light, I can play by the rules and learn the answers and more or less fend for myself. In the darkness, all I can hope for is a God full of grace and mercy, because I can’t see two feet in front of me and I’m certain to stumble and fall.

Above all, perhaps faith is risk—a great and terrible gamble that there is more to life than we can see with our eyes or feel with our hands, that all of this is bigger and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine.

I know. It’s terrifying.

But as someone who has seen that terror up close and magnified to the bajillionth degree, I say it’s a risk worth taking.

One comment on “Learning Faith from Chronic Doubt

  1. Wow! Well said Katie. I use the terms mystery and holding my faith and unbelief in balance. Thanks for articulating this so well.

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