Today’s topic: I have scrupulosity. What are some biblical practical helps to deal with it?

Thank you sweet friends for all your prayers over the past two weeks. I did not blog last week. I cooked instead. After speaking in Illinois last weekend, I stopped by my parent’s house in Chicago and cooked 12 meals in 36 hours. My mom just had surgery and dad was exhausted taking care of her and it was just something little I could do. So I turned off my computer and turned on the stove. I got home in time for the Power of Women event on Tuesday at Cedar Crest College which was fabulous. I met some wonderful women and it was a fun filled and informative event. I need to remember to take pictures of these things to share with you.

Tonight (Monday, March 14th) I am doing a 1 hour free teleseminar on The Emotionally Destructive Relationship at 9pm EST. It’s not too late to sign up but you’ll have to call the office for the information and a phone number to call in. If you’d like to be a part of the seminar, please call the office toll free at 1-877-837-7931 before 4pm ET.

This week’s question: I am seeing a counselor and I am on medication to deal with anxiety and depression. 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.

A person suffering with scrupulosity feels 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. Honey 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, fess up and receive 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 145:13B,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 into 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 but 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 totally honest with the waiter at the restaurant and although you told him your meal was good, it really wasn’t. 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 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 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.

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  1. Anonymous on March 15, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    I don't think I've commented on your blog before (though I've been a reader for at least a year now), but this time I want to. As I read this most recent post, I stood in front of my computer and laughed, feeling a huge weight come off my shoulders, and I said out loud with relief and a huge smile on my face, "There's a name for it!"
    I have never heard of scrupulosity before, but I have struggled mightily with "shoulds", "need tos", following the rules perfectly, especially in relation to Christ and my Christian faith. I have so longed for more of Christ, and in the past year have been growing steadily in the ability to acknowledge my own failings and finding relief in His gracefulness. But I have days in which I can't seem to find my way out of the struggle to make things "right", even though I may not even know what's wrong. And this is it! I'm feeling this sense of failure before God, like I've totally let Him down, and now I know that there are practical steps to take to give this over to Him, to walk away from the condemnation and to trust Him.
    Thank you so much for your time in posting these blog entries, and know that you have been in my prayers as I have kept up with reading over these last months.
    With His joy,

  2. Anonymous on March 25, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    I too have struggled with guilt, shame, condemnation, etc. It's been very difficult receiving God's love, grace and mercy for myself. I have experienced many forms of abuse, including religious abuse from others. I accepted it, thinking it was God's view towards me. God is showing me the way out. It has been a slow process, but little by little……God is proving His love towards me. He is no respector of persons. What he does for one, He will do for all. I had to recognize that some of the Christians I was around were Modern Day Religious Pharisees. I have to be careful of the people I surround myself with. I have to have safe, loving, gracious people that can truly show me what God's love looks like. It is not easy to find them, but they are there. Also, I felt like God wanted me to purchase a book, just for "me". When I have a difficult time, I pull it out and read it to myself. It's a children's book based on my favorite parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector listed in Luke 18:9-14. The book is called "Sidney & Norman, a tale of two pigs" written by Phil Vischer, illustrated by Justin Gerard. God has a message for the messy pig Sidney…."I love you, I love you, I love you". I hope with all the other advice given, that this might also bring some relief too. I have since learned that God is not a harsh, hard, taskmaster that I once thought He was. He is revealing who He really is daily. God is Love, Love is God! He loves each one us extravagantly. He is not an abusive Father or a bully. ~hugs~ Jane

  3. Tim on May 9, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    I've struggled with this for a decade. So, I know what its all about. The symptoms have subsided with my relationship with God but have resurfaced in other areas.

    Join the_scrupe_group in Yahoo groups. Pastor Bob is great.

  4. Tim on May 9, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    Also, it may sound "Freudian," but I think it is nonetheless true from my own experience… a lot of my obsessive intellectualization stems from both avoiding closeness with others and avoiding my buried, often very negative feelings that feel "bad." That is the beauty of the Gospel. I can allow God close and be close to Him. I can let down my "defense" of intellectualization and let Him see me in my entirety, because my righteousness is in Christ and not me.

  5. Tim on May 9, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    To the person who asked this question:

    Here is one more thing I thought of. You may feel like you are going crazy. You try to cling so hard to God's Word, but verses that once seemed so powerful and comforting may wind up having almost no comforting effect on you. That is how it was with me. I would cling to particular verses so hard that, within a short time, it was like I sucked all the comfort out of them. I was using them as a mantra to assuage my anxiety and make myself feel better. It didn't work -or, it only worked in a very short term, and then I had to compulsively search for a new verse or new insight to bring me comfort. Horrible! The harder I searched, the less comfort I felt and the more detached from objective reality I would become. Eventually I would crash in exhaustion, with headaches, crying on the floor in my closet, only to start up the whole cycle again the next day.

    The comfort is in knowing that the truth is the truth, even when you feel no comfort from it, even when it doesn't make your anxiety go away. It is ok to have anxiety. It is ok to let it be. It will pass like a wave in time, until the next one comes.

  6. Mrs.Books on May 15, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    I posed this question to Leslie a few months ago. Since then, I'm learning what Tim is saying and I'm doing like Leslie is saying too. When I get these thoughts that I'm not saved or I'm hopeless, or is God real, then I call it scrulpulosity. There's a really good book, in addition to the Doubting Disease, called Can Christianity Cure Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? by Dr. Ian Osborn. It puts into practice what Bunyan, Luther, and another scrupulous saint did, St. Terese of Liseux. They put into practice handing over their scruples to the Lord Jesus and leaving it there. I've been doing that–and it really helps.

    Tim, I've done that with Bible verses, too; sucked them dry of their comfort. The Holy Spirit has been so patient with me over the past 30 years. At one time, I couldn't sit in a service and hear a sermon on the Holy Spirit because of the thoughts that would pop in my mind! And I ride out the anxiety like a wave–sometimes, I even picture Jesus holding my hand as we jump the waves!

    Anyhow, I don't want to go into more detail, but it's comforting to know that I'm not the only one out there! 🙂

  7. Jean-Pierre on March 31, 2016 at 5:42 am

    Thank you for your article it was very encouraging. I suffer from religious scrupulosity and have actually broken down to tears, wondering if I’m elect, or even obsessing on whether or not my faith is real i.e. I keep analyzing myself and saying “well, you don’t really even want to go to heaven, you would prefer God not to exist at all and you don’t value Christ’s sacrifice. The usual outcome is feeling fatalistically damned and that you are just living out your days until judgment. I took SSRI’s for a while, and they do help, but for other reasons I stopped the medication.

    The most simple and best advice I ever got was “doubt your doubts”. In other words, when I get those thoughts mentioned above, I tell myself to doubt them, because in reality, my “true” faith is nothing like my “obsessive” faith.

    Yes excellent advice fro the article. If you suffer from scrupulosity, stay away from controversial doctrines, difficult passages, babies going to hell, how can God allow suffering, am I elect etc., at least for a while. These topics are good for debate, but rather tackle them when you feel you have reclaimed your mind. Focus on passages that you CAN make sense of. My wife once told me that God does not expect everybody to be expository preachers or scholars, so if you don’t understand something, don’t worry, you don’t have to be John Calvin or anybody else for that matter to love God. Great theologians in opposing doctrine camps are still discussing matters which remain unresolved. I comfort myself that if those men could not have figured it out, then I never will, as I am not nearly as schooled as those gentlemen.

    Forget about perfectionism, none of us is perfect, only Christ, so I’ve found that a good tactic against this, is for the scrupulous mind to rather embrace Christ all the more to have His perfection imputed to you. Then I don’t have to be perfect 🙂

    Lastly, I don’t like “the devil made me do it” scenario, but I think it’s important to note that the roaring lion, destroyer, accuser etc will make of use a scrupulous mind to sow fear, sorrow, anger and God forbid apostasy. Scripture is clear that he wants to lead all the world astray and away from God. Again, we can know at least for sure that Christ is not on the side of the devil, so therefore He wants to rescue you from this.

    For those who don’t suffer with this. Pray for us. Believe me when I say that the darkest times I have had in my life has been when anxiety attacks occurred as a result of scrupulosity. They are paralyzing!!!!!!! So lift us up in prayer. Remember that all of creation suffers because of the fall, so while not everybody has OCD, most people suffer from some or other affliction, mental or physical. This is precisely why Christ came, as Hebrews says, to destroy the works of the devil.

    • Leslie Vernick on April 2, 2016 at 11:41 am

      Thank you for sharing your personal experience with this. I’m sure it will be very helpful.

    • Shalom on June 29, 2020 at 7:07 am

      Wow this helps so much! I have suffered from fear, and I think I’m infecting my sister. This really helps!

  8. BJ on April 20, 2020 at 8:16 pm

    Dear Leslie,

    I finally stumbled onto a site with a ‘Christian” view. I am so grateful in reading your material. Over time, I have read many testimonies dealing with this agonizing problem, which I too suffer with, big time. I have a specific question for you though. Has it ever been scrutinized (and I’m sure it has) as to what folks’ backgrounds have brought them to this torture. Way back in 1983, my Pastor at the time told me that people who have had dads that were abusive, etc., have a more difficult time with God, especially women. So I wonder if victims of Scrupulosity have suffered some sort of childhood trauma. What picadillo resides in each subconscience perhaps.

    Thank you,

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