Morning friend,

We spend a lot of time figuring out how to handle the destructive person in our life but what if the destructive person is in our own head? This week’s question examines an extreme form of anxiety called Scrupulosity, but we all battle with internal lies about who we are, our value and worth, and being able to truly rely on God’s love and grace.

This week’s question: I am seeing a counselor and I am on medication to deal with anxiety and depression, https://holisticdental.org/xanax-treat-anxiety/. However, my counselor mentioned that I’m dealing with scrupulosity as part of my depression (there is OCD and anxiety that runs in my family). Granted she and I are dealing with this in counseling, but do you have any practical Biblical applications on dealing with this issue?

P.S. I seem to pick out all the tricky verses of the Bible and apply them to myself. I can’t seem to sleep at night because I wake up thinking about this every morning at 2 a.m. Any practical suggestions would be appreciated, especially since sleep is vital to a depressed person.

Answer: For those who aren’t sure what scrupulosity is, let me first give a brief definition. Scrupulosity is a religious form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that was first described hundreds of years ago by the Catholic Church.

In scrupulosity there is a preoccupation to the point of obsessing that one is not doing enough to make God happy, or that one has committed a sin by thought, word, or deed, and that God is displeased. Persons suffering with scrupulosity feel tremendous anxiety and guilt because they doubt their own faith and doubt whether God truly forgives them. Then they feel more guilt and anxiety because of their doubt and lack of trust in God. In this process they may develop rituals they must do that help them feel less anxious. But before long, the anxiety builds again and a new ritual or compulsion is needed to calm down.

It becomes a vicious circle of obsessive thought and compulsive behavior and scripture verses alone are usually insufficient to break into the obsessive thought patterns and ritualized compulsions of a person with this problem.

It is believed that Saint Loyola suffered with scrupulosity as well as Martin Luther and even John Bunyan. In his book Grace Abounding, Bunyan vividly describes his preoccupation with blasphemous thoughts. Martin Luther was plagued with doubts and fears so much so that he wanted to go to confession several times a day.

Although scrupulosity is fairly uncommon, you are in good company. Loyola, Bunyan and Luther were all godly men, greatly used by God in spite of their doubts and fears.

You asked for practical, biblical steps to address this issue. First, educate yourself on this disorder. People of all faiths and no faith suffer from scrupulosity. I’d encourage you to read Doubting Disease by Joseph W. Ciarrocchi. This problem has spiritual implications and does involve spiritual warfare (as Satan knows our weak spots), but it is not a statement about your value to God, his love for you, or whether or not you are the lone exception to John 3:16.

You need to find a different explanation to yourself for what you’re experiencing other than God must be disappointed in you for not getting your act together.

Second, study all you can on God’s grace. You need to bathe yourself in grace. Your relationship with God is not up to you, it’s up to God and he takes total responsibility for our salvation and sanctification. That doesn’t mean we don’t play a part, but that when we mess up, we fess up and receive his grace.

Here are just a few scriptures I’d like you to ponder.

 

Then I realized that my heart was bitter and I was all torn up inside. I was so foolish and ignorant – I must have seemed like a senseless animal to you.

Yet I still belong to you

You hold my right hand. Psalm 73:23, 24

 

Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again. God will make this happen, for he who calls you is faithful.1 Thessalonians 5:23, 24

 

For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Philippians 2:13

 

The Lord always keeps his promises; he is gracious in all he does.

The Lord helps the fallen and lifts those bent beneath their loads. Psalm 145:13, 14

 

God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary. Hebrews 6:18-20

 

Third, you must learn to acknowledge your obsessive thoughts and anxious and guilt feelings, but you must NOT give in to them by doing something you think will appease God.

If you are going to live by faith in God’s grace, then you will need to trust him to do what he says he will do. If it’s up to you to be good enough, sorry enough, spiritual enough, faithful enough, you will always fail and you will continue to spin in circles and have more sleepless nights.

With OCD and scrupulosity, behavior therapy has been shown fairly effective. That means that you work to change your behaviors by tolerating the bad thoughts or feelings and refusing to give into the compulsive ritual that you’ve used to feel better. That will actually make you feel worse temporarily – for about 20 minutes. But if you stick with it, you will find that you didn’t die and you will begin to feel okay. Grace won. Love won, not fear.

Let me give you an example. Next time you feel guilty about something and then feel you must do something to make it right, don’t. Perhaps you remember that you weren’t 100% honest with your waiter at the restaurant. You told him your meal was good, and it was only okay. You’re tempted now to head back there to confess your sin to the waiter and you are beating yourself up and feeling very guilty for lying. Don’t go back to the restaurant. You will feel anxious for a while and then it will pass.

Instead of defining what you are experiencing as a conscious problem or even a sin problem, define it as scrupulosity and you are no longer going to let it RULE your life. Instead the love of Christ is going to control you, not guilt, anxiety, shame or fear. I’d encourage you to continue your work with your Christian counselor on developing some graduated behavioral exercises for you to practice based on your particular issues that will help you break free from your compulsions.

Lastly, stay away from those tricky verses. Scholar’s debate and debate on those obscure passages. Don’t weary yourself by trying to figure them out. Instead look at the whole counsel of God and when you look at the big picture of scripture, it shouts love and grace. Jesus was full of grace and truth. He is your cornerstone. Not your own thoughts, feelings or efforts to be good enough. Put your eyes on Christ, the author and finisher of your faith and stop examining yourself with a microscope.

Friend, you may not suffer from scrupulosity, but what do you do when those negative thoughts or accusing thoughts pop up in your head?

20 Comments

  1. Connie on February 10, 2021 at 11:57 am

    I started by praying, “Lord, I’m Your sheep, and You say that I hear Your voice, so from here on, I trust that You will answer me. I don’t know how, or when, but You will.” Then when the verses or thoughts would come up, I ask Him what He thinks in this matter, and I would let it rest until I got an answer that had peace with it. Memorizing verses is good, but they are not magic. The power of God is what does it. Knowing Him. The answer can come in a still small voice, a remembered song or verse (of His choosing), a story, a dream… talk with Him, talk with Him…

    Think if this is how you would want your children to see their relationship with you?

    Many churches make the mistake of preaching on random verses instead of in the context of the full message of the Word, the essence of God who is Love.

    It seems to me that Martin Luther came to a place where when the devil harassed him, he threw a pillow and said, “Oh, it’s only you!” and went back to sleep.

    Dave Orisson has many many wonderful blogs about grace. https://gracefortheheart.org

    • Kristi on February 10, 2021 at 12:14 pm

      Connie, thank you for what you added here! You and Leslie are both wise women! This is very thought-provoking!

    • Lizzie on February 10, 2021 at 3:16 pm

      Not sure this will help, but I can say for myself that I berate, fail to forgive, and tally myself like no one’s business. And it’s internal so it all seems so necessary and “real”. I like Connie’s post because it short circuits the inner loop with the truth: God can speak for himself. He doesn’t need my inner rant to do His work.

      In that same way, a couple tools I use to stop extreme looping are:

      1) Reminding myself that Jesus died a horrible death for the very fact that I am unable to live righteously enough. And if there had been even a single thing humans could do to be “good enough”, God would have seen it / known it and He could’ve waited until we “figured it out” and Jesus would’ve been spared. So, when I loop, I tell myself I am diminishing Jesus’s sacrifice. (To clarify, this is not about being conformed to Jesus or about my “walk”, this is about short circuiting the inner voice that keeps track and berates me on the minutiae of normal living and so takes my eyes away from God’s freely given grace.)

      2) I limit my exposure to (well meaning, I’m sure) Christians who tend to expound on their “spiritual disciplines” (ex: memes on social media that say I’m not being thankful enough; friends who want to share their latest faith project). There are many practices that are great ideas (like keeping a prayer journal) that just hearing about is enough for me to start measuring myself and then berating myself for all the ways I fall short (like missing a day or forgetting to write down a person who needs prayer.) I do better if I hear it in a sermon or read about it in a more neutral resource. And then, if it gets away from me and becomes a tool for self flagellation, I go back to 1, above. (Again, because it’s not about prayer journals, it’s about short circuiting my looping thought patterns and remembering to trust that God is big enough to handle this world and my crazy thoughts and He is a God of love, grace and mercy as shown by Jesus’s sacrifice.)

      • Candice on March 9, 2021 at 2:42 pm

        There are SO MANY good responses here. Although I never knew there was a name for this, I struggled mightily with it for years. By the grace of God and HIS deliverance I am now walking in victory over it most of the time, although I do still have episodes periodically.

        Others have said this much better than I can so I won’t repeat what’s been said. But I do agree that the main thing is to throw yourself completely on the mercy of Christ and put no reliance whatsoever on your own works. One thing I sometimes remind myself of is this…

        Faith is not a continual grasping for mercy, but an acceptance of mercy that has already been shown.

        Dear sister, His sacrifice is enough. Much love to you all. ❤️

  2. JoAnn on February 10, 2021 at 12:24 pm

    When negative thoughts come up in my head, I sit quietly with them for just a minute, and sometimes a memory of a past experience will come up to show me where that came from. Then I ask the Lord what He wants me to know about that. I open my heart to let Him speak His truth to me. It’s very freeing, and His speaking has often healed wounds in my heart.

  3. Maria on February 10, 2021 at 12:35 pm

    I know how tormenting this can be.

    The key to liberty is to understand that our rightiousness lies within our spirit when we have asked Jesus to come in to our hearts. We are one with Jesus in our spirit and it is holy, because He is there united with us. The spirit can not sin because it is born of God.

    I am my spirit. I am not my thoughts, not even my speach or my doings Romans 7:15-17. It is not I who do it, it is sin in me. I am rightious in my spirit all the time 24/7. Glory to God! Glory for ever to Jesus our Saviour, The Holy Spirit our Helper and to God our Loving Father!!

    Please, Father let Your Holy Spirit reveal this to us all! 🙏🏽🙏🏽🙏🏽

    God has made us rightious in Christ. This was done even before we were born. Jesus bore all the sins of the world, not only ours but the whole world’s, and God is faithful and just to forgive us from ALL ALL ALL ALL ALLLLLLL sins! 1 Joh 1:9-2:1.

    Not only this -He also has given us a new self in our spirit who can not sin!!! We are forever right with God in our spirit. In fact we are children of God with the same nature as Him- holyness. We are saints to God. It all says in the Bible.

  4. Aly on February 10, 2021 at 3:49 pm

    It is sad how many Christian churches that want to teach & preach Christianity yet do not teach, justification, salvation & sanctification.

  5. CBPP on February 10, 2021 at 10:48 pm

    To this dear distraught sister and anyone who suffers with repetitive thoughts that keep your mind on the Circular Gerbil Wheel ( ACG) of reciting hurts, lies about yourself or others, or fears that never seems to stop. Leslie has given excellent counsel on how to address it spiritually and emotionally.

    But I would like to add from my experience and training that you can help your mind get off the wheel by supporting proper brain function of the section of the brain called the Anterior Cingulate Gyrus (ACG). Your ACG might be caught in this endless loop due to a deficiency of a neurotransmitter GABA ( Gamma-aminobutyric acid) and Vitamin B6 in a form that your body can absorb and utilize. Without this, the ACG becomes overactive causing anxiety, depression, and trouble falling asleep because you can not shut off your thinking. More about this can be found in the research of Dr. Daniel Amen, a Christian psychiatrist who has many books and YouTube videos to help you. His associate, Dr. Earl Henslin, has an easy-to-read book, This is your Brain on Joy, which will help you connect with your brain and body and improve your relationships.

    When your brain is functioning at its best, you will be less volatile so you can think and exercise self-control, be less depressed even when in the midst of difficult relationships, and sleep better which is necessary for good brain function. Calming your brain can help you feel more connected with God and you can think through what is going on in your life. Start with improving your diet by eating as the young men in the Book of Daniel did, avoiding heavy rich foods and alcohol and focusing on food God made.

    When I had an abusive “Christian” counselor and an emotionally destructive church leader who was a physician trying to push me to talk anti-depressants and label me with improper diagnoses, I learned how to manage my brain health with supplements, especially amino acids ( the building blocks of proteins). I have used all-natural ways to help me cope for the past 12 years to “stay well” in a 46-year marriage. It is a daily challenge to live well and stay well with a covert narcissist who lacks the capacity of feelings and empathy to have any kind of “close” relationships with me or our 4 children.

    • JoAnn on February 11, 2021 at 11:28 pm

      CBPP, that is excellent advice. Healthy brain function depends on good nutrition, and I would dd that a broad spectrum probiotic will also help brain function. More is being learned about how gut health affects brain function.

  6. Rose on February 11, 2021 at 12:30 pm

    I never knew there was a name for this type of anxious thinking. I feel somewhat relieved to learn that this is not just me feeling insecure or paranoid that Im not good enough for God. Its funny…just this morning I was reading the book of Proverbs, which refers to righteousness quite a lot. I began to wonder…am I really righteous? What exactly makes me righteous? Because my words and actions many times are far from “righteous”. Thoughts circled around in my mind over and over, as I began to convince myself that Im not righteous. I don’t fall into that category. Im not good enough…holy enough for God. Yes I believe God loves me…but to see myself as righteous? Can anyone please lend some thought to this concept of being righteous?

    • Janice D on February 11, 2021 at 6:11 pm

      I think it has to do with our hearts posture before God,Rose.Do we acknowledge our total dependency on God and humbly receive His righteousness for our salvation? The expression “ the ground at the cross is level” helps us to see that we are all equally in need of Gods forgiveness,which is available to all.When by Gods grace we are enabled to respond in a righteous manner do we become prideful or are we grateful to God in our hearts? Holiness is something that can sound so pious and “ religious “ but I don’t think God intends for it to be that way.He knows how frail we are and is patient with our weaknesses.He invites us into a loving,safe relationship with Him where we can honestly share our deepest hurts and we begin to experience healing.Reading the gospels and observing how Jesus interacted with women helped me to see His love and care.

    • R on February 11, 2021 at 10:57 pm

      JESUS is righteous. By faith, we are in union with him. When he died, he not only took our sin, he gave us his righteousness in exchange. His righteousness won’t be fully expressed in us until we get to heaven, but the Father already sees us as righteous through the blood of the Son. May the Lord give you peace…

      • JoAnn on February 11, 2021 at 11:23 pm

        R, that’s exactly right. Christ is our righteousness. And His shed blood is our only stand. We have nothing to do but accept the fact that in Him we are made righteous. I encourage you to read the book of Romans in the New Testament. Romans 5:17 tells us that we have been given the gift of righteousness. It is not earned; it is a gift.

      • Aly on February 12, 2021 at 10:15 am

        R,
        So true! Receiving what Jesus did on the cross is ours to ‘receive’… we don’t need to ADD anything to it for it to be righteous and complete. Jesus was enough💜
        When we accept and receive Christ as Savior the sanctification process begins on this side of heaven and it’s a lifetime process and posture. Having Christ as our savior and receiving His love for us , is what changes us and begins this process.
        None of it is about our goodness. It is about our brokenness and sin that departed us… and How God saves his own! He solves the problem of sin that separates us from His Holiness to rescue us back to him!
        His children (those who have received Him), are teachable, have a willing heart/posture and have gratitude, they trust Him and they embrace the true Love He freely gives.

        • Aly on February 12, 2021 at 10:16 am

          * correction
          (Not departed) but sin that separated us.

  7. Joules on February 12, 2021 at 12:21 pm

    Leslie, I love what you said here “If it’s up to you to be good enough, sorry enough, spiritual enough, faithful enough, you will always fail and you will continue to spin in circles and have more sleepless nights.” This is SOOO true!!! (Isaiah 64:6)

    I often have to remind myself that if I could save myself through works then Christ died for no reason! Thinking I could do something to cleanse myself of sin is actually a form of self-righteousness which is a form of pride & since God opposes the proud (James 4:6) it is important to turn away from this kind of thinking (Phil 4:8).

    Another reminder I use when I’m tempted to extract payment for sin (from myself or others) is “expecting any other payment for sin other than Christ’s death is extortion” – Christ paid the penalty for sin. Period. With that said, I do recognize there are earthly consequences to our choices, but spiritual restoration can ONLY be accomplished through Christ. This type of thinking is usually contrary to our natural human instinct so it does take practice. Luckily, with the Holy Spirit indwelling us we don’t have to do this on our own; we have the greatest Helper we could ever need!

  8. libl on February 13, 2021 at 6:44 am

    I have this, but, unfortunately had to leave off going to church because people kept feeding it. Sermon after sermon was about everything we were doing wrong as Christians, and even sermons on grace were about how bad we were at accepting grace. And, if I tried different denominations I would hear from my previous denominations that I was “turning (my) back on God” and “losing (my) salvation.”

    Scrupulously is often, I think, part personality of the individual, part long-term spiritual abuse.

    I actually felt I had to stop attending church to prove to myself that God isn’t going to hate me. It’s hard because bad things did start to happen when I made the decision, but I remind myself that I DO want to go to church, but I can’t heal where I was hurt. I have to recover and get my mindset right first.

    The really sad thing is that no one from any of the 3 churches I left has come alongside me. (Although, I am glad the 1 church has left me alone. They were the major source of deep spiritual abuse and I never want to go there or hear from them again.) And the only person who checked in on me was a man who crossed some serious boundaries and was trying to be sexual with me (with words, not deeds).

    • JoAnn on February 13, 2021 at 2:59 pm

      Wow, libl, I’m so very sorry that you have been treated so badly, and from those who call themselves christians! This is a good time to really get closer to God, to dive into the Word, and to pray for the Lord to give you one or two companions in your christian walk. Read the book of Daniel. He was able to take a stand with the Lord because he had faithful companions with whom he prayed daily. Even the apostle Paul needed his companions to go on with the Lord.
      There is a really good study Bible with footnotes to help you understand what you are reading from Bibles for America, and it’s free. Go to BfA.org. I hope that this will help you to see the truth in God’s word, not some twisted interpretation.
      God is good, and He will take care of your need for companionship, because it’s part of His plan for His people, so when we agree with Him by asking, He will do it.

      • livinginblurredlineslibl on February 13, 2021 at 4:02 pm

        I appreciate that, JoAnn, thank you! We’re kind of stuck concerning churches here because it is hard to find one that isn’t some level of messed up. I completely understand that no church is perfect, but I’m not talking about little tiffs or maybe a doctrine I don’t quite agree on, but isn’t really a huge deal. I’m talking about some pretty big deal breakers. Or, it’s just that hubby and I can’t agree. We don’t argue and we are respectful with each other, but one or the other has a serious misgiving about the churches we might choose. Maybe Christ has simply shut the door for now so we can grow as a couple and grow closer to Him without so much noise.

  9. Ruth on June 8, 2022 at 2:10 am

    Hi everybody,

    You might like “lifestream” by Wayne Jacobsen, esp the “transition” series, which is about church systems and grace. His podcast all start with the intro “getting free of religious obligations, living free in the love of the father”.

    Also very good “12 christian believes that drive you crazy” by Townsend/Cloud.

    Take care
    Ruth

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