What if I imagine committing a sin that God will not forgive? What if my behavior and thoughts are not morally pure all of the time? What if I am not saved even though I have given my life to Christ and I try to live a holy life? What if God is angry at me, but I really can’t think of a sin that I am willfully committing? What if I have not obeyed every one of the Ten Commandments perfectly? What if my devotional life isn’t regular, punctual, and devout every day?
Many Christians have these thoughts occasionally. Sometimes, however, there are people who are not in denial of their sin, rather, they think of a sin, know this sin is wrong, but cannot get rid of the image of acting out this sin. These are people who insist that even a hurtful thought cannot be forgiven. These are people who understand grace, but have thoughts about God’s wrath that run over and over again in their minds. These people may spend mental energy throughout the day going over and over the Ten Commandments and obsessing over the fact that they might have broken one of the commandments. They may be in horrible angst because they overslept and missed their devotional time or they didn’t say the Lord’s Prayer a certain number of times a day. They are plagued by these worries to the point of constantly confessing, seeking assurance from pastors, and engaging in excessive ritualized praying.
It takes discernment to discover if this is a mental health issue, a spiritual issue, or an issue that needs inner healing. There is a line between denying sin and needing to repent and repenting and not being able to release the real or imagined sin. At some point, these people may avoid spiritual practices and church activities altogether or begin exhaustive study of the Word.
As a pastoral counselor, I sometimes walk alongside clients who see sin where there really isn’t any sin. These individuals appear to need a guarantee or proof that they have not engaged in a thought or behavior that they deem would not be pleasing to God. Burdened by questions, their souls have no rest. Instead of joy, they feel doubt, guilt, and self-condemnation. Some examples from the history of the church demonstrate a disorder we now call “scrupulosity.”
St. Ignatius of Loyola, Founder of the Jesuits, had difficulty walking in areas where there was straw on the ground. He feared that if two pieces of straw formed a cross, and he stepped on them, then this would be terribly disrespectful to God. More than 450 years ago Ignatius penned this prayer:
“Show me, Lord, where I can obtain help: and if I have to follow a little dog to obtain the cure I need, I am ready to do just that.”
Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, was tormented by urges to curse God and Jesus. When Luther was in prayer, he was obsessed with seeing “the devil’s behind.” In his Commentary of the Epistle to the Galatians (1535), he penned these words:
“When I was a monk I tried ever so hard to live up to the strict rules of my order. I used to make a list of my sins, and I was always on the way to confession, and whatever penances were enjoined upon me I performed religiously. In spite of it all, my conscience was always in a fever of doubt. The more I sought to help my poor stricken conscience the worse it got. The more I paid attention to the regulations the more I transgressed them…”
These were deeply religious men, but religious practices do not cause scrupulosity. Scrupulosity is a diagnosis under the umbrella of Obsessive Compulsive Behavior. This includes unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that people use to calm their anxiety.
Is scrupulosity treatable? Yes. There are two primary tools used by counselors: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). CBT challenges the thinking errors that are common to Obsessive Compulsive Behavior. Clients are taught how to tolerate anxiety, uncertainty, and distressing thoughts that others would just accept by faith. ERP encourages these frightening and anxiety producing thoughts while refusing to use the rituals normally employed to produce a sense of serenity. Sometimes the person may be prescribed a medication called a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) to take away the intensity of the need to engage in compulsions or obsessions.
Maybe you know someone who expresses concerns about their faith that seem excessive. God can give them the peace that passes all understanding.
1. Understand that it was at great risk that this concern was shared.
2. Listen with empathy. In this case, reassurance will not help. It only feeds anxiety.
3. Gently share what you have learned from this article and suggest that help is available. Pastors often keep a list of trusted Christian counselors who can be of assistance.
4. For more information, check out these resources:
The Doubting Disease: Help for Scrupulosity and Religious Compulsions by Joseph Ciarrocchi.
Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood by Jennifer Traig
Kathy Milans is the lead member of the Soul Care Collective Steering Committee.