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. 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?