Latter-day Saint Life

I don’t feel joy. Is this lifestyle worth it? My realization about gospel living and OCD

If I continued increasing my level of exertion with every perceived failure, it would only lead to serious burnout.

In recent conversations with friends who are wrestling with their testimonies, I’ve noticed a common concern: They’re not feeling the joy of the gospel.

I too have struggled at times to find joy in gospel living. In the span of five years, I’ve returned home early from my mission, tried a myriad of medications to alleviate weighty mental health challenges, gone to hours of therapy, watched siblings struggle with their own mental health challenges, and most recently witnessed my older brother leave the Church. Each of these difficult experiences came to me while I was trying to do the right things.

If you’re like me, when you pour everything you have into daily scripture study, prayers, church attendance, callings, and meetings and still don’t feel joy, eventually you begin to wonder if this lifestyle is worth living.

While this exhausting struggle to feel joy could come from an array of fallen-world circumstances, in my case living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) has often been the culprit. Thankfully, after many difficult years and many dark moments, my experiences with OCD have recently led me to a gospel insight that I believe could be useful not only for other Latter-day Saints with OCD, but for anyone seeking to find the joy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In short, Heavenly Father loves my agency and wants me to use it. To understand why that realization was so important to me, we first need to talk a little about what it’s like living with OCD.

OCD and Gospel Living

The American Psychiatric Association defines obsessive this way as it relates to OCD: “Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or impulses that are experienced … as intrusive and unwanted, and that in most individuals cause marked anxiety and distress.” And they explain compulsive behaviors this way: “repetitive behaviors or mental acts that the individual feels driven to perform in response to their obsession …The behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing or reducing anxiety or distress (APA 2013, 237).”

In other words, OCD ruthlessly drives the individual to think and act in whatever way necessary to avoid failure and uncertainty. Ironically, OCD’s counsel often leads to more harm than hurt because the individual is cut off from the personal growth that comes through taking risks. We all struggle with a fear of failure and uncertainty, but those with OCD feel it to the extreme.

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In a gospel context, my OCD brain craved fool-proof methods to obtain promised blessings, and I believed that only by being perfectly obedient to those methods could I find the joy. But, as you can guess, I was often left feeling disappointed because living without error is impossible. And unfortunately for many years whenever I didn’t feel joy, I blamed my own perceived flaws. My OCD brain confronted this discomfort by compelling me to pour more energy and time into reading the scriptures, praying longer for direct guidance, serving even more people, and seeking more affirmation from Church leaders that personal sins from long ago were actually forgiven. Taking those fundamentally good principles to the extreme eventually led to burnout. Burnout brought discouragement, and discouragement ultimately hindered—not helped—me from feeling joy.

Does this sound like the joyful journey of the gospel? No, believe me, it isn’t.

If I continued living that way, increasing my level of exertion with every perceived failure, it would only lead to more serious burnouts. Eventually leaving me with one of two options: giving up on the gospel entirely or finding a new approach.

Thankfully, with the help of professionals, Church leaders, time, and the grace of God, I found a new approach. My eyes began to be opened to the freeing truth that Heavenly Father loves my agency.

▶ You may also like: The form of OCD we may misdiagnose as a faith crisis

God Loves Agency

You see, in the distorted perception of an OCD brain, to feel joy in my life required that I surrender my agency completely to God by strictly obeying His commandments.

I believed that God gave me agency when I was born, but I also believed the whole point of His plan was for me to learn to give it back to Him.

This example may help explain what I mean: I had a hard time letting go of untrue big-picture thoughts such as, “If I was spiritually in tune enough, God would tell me exactly what career to choose or who to marry.” Or smaller-picture thoughts like, “If I am spiritually in tune enough, God will tell me how to write my talk, what gospel topic to study, how long to study that topic each day, or even how to fill my free time.”

As I have recently been learning, however, trying to give our agency back to God is an absolute misperception of our Heavenly Father’s nature and plan.

Waiting for God’s direction on every decision is making a decision—we are waiting on answers to avoid doing anything wrong. Individuals with this mindset are stuck “looking forth with fear, in torment, for the fiery indignation of the wrath of God to be poured out upon them” (Moses 1:7). And when we operate out of fear, God’s love will always be obscured.

The truth is, Heavenly Father has given us our agency because He wants us to use it to find what brings us joy. The famous scripture in 2 Nephi reads, “men are, that they might have joy” not “men are, that God might make them have joy” (see 2 Nephi 2:25).

In fact, it was Satan’s adaptation of the Father’s plan that supported total surrender of agency. Think about that. Heavenly Father’s plan of happiness is the plan of agency. When we surrender our agency to anyone, we surrender the joy that comes from choosing to develop our unique personalities and interests. If we say, “I’m not going to grow unless Heavenly Father tells me where, when, and how to do it,” we are enclosing ourselves in the smallest box possible and shutting out all potential for growth.

Embracing Agency

When I accepted that Heavenly Father had endowed me with agency and encouraged me to use it, everything changed. Instead of waiting for God to reveal every path for me, I now make those decisions based on what I know about myself.


My prayers have become more about exploring who I am with Heavenly Father rather than asking Him to give me all the answers. As I communicate my decisions with Him, I reaffirm my trust in His promise that He will open and close doors for me along my path because I am using my agency to do what I feel is right and good.

Heavenly Father: A Loving Father

Some may wonder how God can command us to live a certain way, without also asking us to surrender our agency. I believe this question reflects a misperception of God’s nature and the purpose of covenants—a misperception that I’ve fallen victim to in the past. You see, God cannot make us act one way or another. This is one of the laws that He has established “for the … protection and nurturing of His children” (“The Love and Laws of God,” President Russell M. Nelson). Yet, Heavenly Father loves us. And as a loving parent who knows the key to mortal and eternal joy, He does everything He can to counsel us on how to find joy without impairing our agency.

President Nelson has said, “Because the Father and the Son love us with infinite, perfect love, and because They know we cannot see everything They see, They have given us laws that will guide and protect us. There is a strong connection between God’s love and His laws.” Keeping covenants empowers us to live freely while simultaneously providing reassurance that God will be with us and open and close doors along the way when necessary. We can move forward in life with a perfect brightness of hope that God will make all things work together for our good.

Will we be perfect at living our covenants? No, and God doesn’t expect perfection in this lifetime. Thus, He is infinitely patient with our shortcomings and has provided a way for us to both be imperfect and still feel we are capable of creating remarkable futures for ourselves. In my personal opinion, one of God’s greatest joys must be watching us using our agency to re-establish our trust in His ability to deliver. Why? Because as a loving Father, He sees us suffering less, making choices that lead to self-discovery, and developing greater trust in Him.

OCD fears failure and fears God. Agency embraces discovery and builds trust in God’s deliverance. OCD limits. Agency expands our lives into a world of possibility and joy.

So, choose the career you want, choose the way you want to live each day of your life. I believe that when you choose to live your covenants with God with trust rather than fear, evidence of His love and watchful eye over you will become more apparent. Feeling the absolute reliability of Heavenly Father’s promise to deliver, even in the face of our own uncertainties about the future, is for me the joy of the gospel.

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