How Scrupulosity Thrives in the Church

Last week I wrote about how scrupulosity—if left undiagnosed and untreated—can hide in the church, smoldering unseen and unaddressed. It can also thrive in the church due to distortions and messages, both good and bad. There are so many aspects of this, so this list is by no means exhaustive, but here are just a few illustrations from my own story of things that have fueled my scrupulosity.

1. Emphasis on Sin

Scrupulosity is often falsely viewed as an issue of sin or lack of faith, as I’ve noticed in Reformed circles. Not only does this inhibit a diagnosis as I talk about in my previous post, but it also exacerbates the struggle. I can’t stress this enough! Those with scrupulosity are already prone to think in negative, self-condemnatory terms. We’re already torn up over guilt and shame, thinking our struggle is the result of sin or a lack of faith. We already feel impatient with ourselves over our seeming inability to stop obsessing. So any messages that confirm these thoughts only perpetuate the cycle. This emphasis on sin has encouraged the default in my brain to view myself as a sinner and nothing more. Sin is absolutely our biggest problem—large enough for Christ to die for it—so I’m not minimizing it. Yet that is not all God says about us, his beloved children.

Mental illness is another issue the church could grow in discussing, which is a whole other topic, but this lack of understanding and discussion around mental illness only fuels shame for those who have received psychiatric diagnoses.

2. Intolerance of Doubt

In the church, there seems to be an intolerance of doubt. We don’t really talk about it. Sometimes we talk about doubt as synonymous with complaining or grumbling, or we exclude it to those who are on the precipice of leaving the faith. Instead, I believe we need a robust conversation about doubt in the life of the believer. Doubt is not the antithesis of faith, or else the father in Mark would never have been able to say, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Those with OCD are already intolerant of doubt; they want absolute certainty. So when we share messages like “faith means certainty,” we’re confirming to strugglers that they do, in fact, need to declare with complete certainty where they stand and what they believe.

When we call other Christians to nail their stakes in the ground, we tell scrupulous people that they need ultimate certainty, instead of encouraging them to engage with God in their uncertainty. We are not allowing for the nuance, ambiguity, and doubt that comes with Christian faith. On the spectrum of belief, we all land different places at different times. Those of weaker, more tender faith are not lesser Christians than those with robust, unwavering faith.

3. Oversimplification of the Christian Life

In the church, there can also be an oversimplification of what the Christian life looks like. Either it’s one of the above points—an over-emphasis on sin to the neglect of our identity as God’s children and as sufferers, or a failure to see doubt as a normal part of faith—or it’s a distortion of what sanctification should look like.

Ed Welch says sanctification “is like a slow, clumsy walk rather than a light switch that we turn from off to on.” Yet how often do we feel that we do not measure up, or that we’re somehow falling behind? Justification is immediate while sanctification is lifelong, and yet we confuse this. We set standards of growth for ourselves as God’s children that God himself does not hold us to. Those with scrupulosity are especially sensitive to this, perhaps, but spiritual comparison is hard for many.

There’s also an oversimplification of suffering. It’s common to ask what lessons we’ve learned through trials. I think this is absolutely a valid question, but we need to be careful not to rush people to this conclusion too quickly. Asking questions like “What has God taught you?” or “What have you learned through [a particular suffering]?” creates a sense that every suffering must produce quantifiable, visible, and often immediate fruit. The truth is we may not see the fruit for years; and even if we do, it’s impossible to discern the why behind God allowing certain sufferings in our lives.

Phrases like “Just confess your sins,” “Don’t worry about that,” or “Just trust the Lord” minimize the struggle, which is often intense and maddening. It also simplifies the solution, making it seem like a once-and-done, easy path, when instead the entirety of the Christian life is one of repeatedly finding refuge in the Lord, again and again, in the midst of suffering.

4. Emphasis on Testimonies & Assurance

In evangelical circles, we put such an emphasis on our “testimonies”—when did you become saved? As a child and teenager, this really concerned me, because my testimony was not only “boring” (i.e., didn’t include drugs, alcohol, sex, or anything “drastic”), but it was also unclear. It seems I’d always grown up believing. Was there a specific time? I obsessed about this question, and because I couldn’t find a solid answer, I began to think it must mean I hadn’t been saved at all.

Also, I think there’s a danger in putting so much focus on the past event, rather than on the present walk. It’s so easy for me to analyze my past feelings of sorrow over sin: Was my repentance sincere? Was my praying of “the sinner’s prayer” effective? What if we asked instead, Do I follow the Lord today? Do I trust Christ today for his finished work? Of course, these bring obsessive questions of their own, but they cause one to run to Jesus in the moment, versus ruminating over the past.

These wonderful stories of extraordinary faith and indescribable peace are often genuine, so I’m not discounting them. The assurance many Christians have is also a testimony to God’s grace; it can even confirm my own faith. But perhaps we also need stories from those who struggle to believe, whose Christian life is more like one stumbling step after another rather than a triumphant march. Maybe God works just as much in the life of a Christian with little to no assurance as he does in the life of one who never doubts their salvation.

5. Scripture

Even Scripture can exacerbate scrupulosity (though it’s more how it’s interpreted or misused, not so much its actual message). Certain behaviors of OCD may, at first glance, seem to align with Scripture passages. For example, 2 Corinthians 10:5 tells us to take every thought captive, while 1 Thessalonians 5:17 tells us to pray without ceasing. Those of us with OCD are overly-attuned to the inner workings of our hearts (not that we always see ourselves accurately!). We take our thoughts captive, but we also torture them and drain them of every good fruit. We may believe we’re praying without ceasing, but it’s more ritualistic than relationship-oriented. Thus even Scripture—at face value and with our default interpretations—can prove unhelpful, as well as the ways that people try to comfort us with it.

There’s also an assumption that every Christian needs to have a morning “quiet time” to have a relationship with God. There have been times where the closest I can get to Scripture without panic attacks and debilitating anxiety is in listening to Christian music (which, as it’s implicitly tied to Scripture, is still a means of grace). Yet I would feel guilty, like I wasn’t a good enough Christian if I didn’t study and enjoy Scripture.

We talk about the means of grace like they’re as easy as eating a meal. They provide nourishment like a meal, but they’re not always easy. And yet I seldom hear that Scripture is hard to read, which compounds my guilt and feeds into the cycle of self-condemnation.

There are so many other things, whether misinterpretations of basic Christian ideas or completely unbiblical messages, that can make OCD worse. I know none of these come from a place of ill-intent (actually, usually they come from a place of care and concern), and I’m not calling out any specific church or person. These are just areas where I think the church in general needs to grow in nuance.

What other harmful messages or distortions have you encountered in Christian culture? I’d love to know in the comments!

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