Zelophehad’s Daughters

Scrupulosity

Posted by Lynnette

It was a Catholic friend who first introduced me to the term “scrupulosity,” a condition in which one is overly obsessed with personal sin. The topic came up because of my friend’s observation that I had some tendencies in that direction. I didn’t disagree. But I must confess that on some level I actually took the observation as a compliment.  I secretly believed that it was an indication of a virtuous life. I must be a truly moral person, I thought, to be so acutely aware of my constant failings—and to be so unwilling to cut myself any slack for them.

And I considered myself in good company. Martin Luther, the story goes, would pause while celebrating the mass and rush to confession upon remembering some un-confesssed sin. I was taking a class on Luther that semester, and finding that his thoughts resonated with me deeply.  He writes passionately of how difficult it is to believe in God’s mercy in the face of the despair caused by awareness of one’s sinfulness. Even when I questioned some of his theological conclusions, his internal battles made a great deal of sense to me.

The idea that scrupulosity could actually be a problem was challenging, a notion I found difficult to assimilate. I’d always assumed that we were supposed to be closely concerned, even obsessed, with the sin in our lives; how else could we repent and become better people? I’d heard endless dire warnings about what happened to those who failed to attend to the sin in their lives, who didn’t focus enough energy on closely following the commandments to the letter.  But I’d never seriously considered that there might be danger in the other direction.

Yet when I looked at the situation, I had to admit that scrupulosity was not in fact bringing me closer to God. Rather, it was driving me away.  It was predicated on the notion that if I worked hard enough, did enough “right,” then I could get in the club, so to speak.  I, too, could have a relationship with God.  In other words, it fundamentally arose from anxiety:  anxiety that I wouldn’t measure up, that God would overlook or condemn me. And the practice fueled the anxiety—because if I wasn’t good enough, I assumed that the relationship was over.

I also sometimes found myself exhibiting what I might call pathological integrity.  I had little use for grace in my personal religious life, because it was fundamentally un-just.  I was not going to let someone else suffer for my sins.  I would instead go to hell, I figured, where I would at least have the comfort of knowing that I, unlike other less virtuous souls, had not compromised my principles: those who sin have to pay, and those who don’t earn their way to heaven shouldn’t be there.

Paul tells us that without charity, all that we do is nothing.  That stops me short, when I really think about it, because I suspect that this is at the core of what is misguided about scrupulosity. Yes, it is important to be aware of sin.  But to live an externally “virtuous” life or to obsess about sin without the context of charity is to commit oneself to a rigid and bleak existence: one without spontaneity, without joy, without love.  Scrupulosity is not, as I once supposed, a sort of misunderstood virtue.  It is actually toxic to the spiritual life.

11 Responses to “Scrupulosity”

  1. 1.

    Theres of Lisieux and Ignatius de Loyola suffered from scrupulosity. In her Autobiography of a Soul she describes the psychological pain this caused her. In Catholic thought scrupulosity is in contradiction of the providential goodness of God.

  2. 2.

    Excellent post. It’s a great example of the tensions between grace and works, justice and mercy, that are such a part of the journey of faith. I’ve been a duty-bound person my whole life and am just coming to understand how much grace there is, that I don’t have to earn God’s love, and that when I can choose to do things to connect with Him rather than prove to Him that I’m worth saving, it really makes a difference in my spirituality and emotional health. But it’s a process to learn to dance that tension in that direction when duty has been your life’s focus!

  3. 3.

    “…..how difficult it is to believe in God’s mercy in the face of the despair caused by awareness of one’s sinfulness.”

    That’s interesting, because my response has been precisely the opposite. I realized early on that I am such a complete mess, God’s mercy is my only hope.

    Lynnette, how do you think we should teach certain scripture passages in our canon that tend to promote scrupulosity, for example, the story of the stripling warrior who “obeyed every word of command with exactness”? It is easy for me to see this teaching doing lots of damage in the hands of the wrong teacher.

    Also, bringing it all around to gender (this is ZD, after all), my sense is that this tendency toward scrupulosity plagues women far more frequently than it does men. Do you think this is correct, and if so, do you have any guesses as to why?

  4. 4.

    I think this tendency can be particularly toxic when someone tries to be good enough in order to be healed of some perceieved weakness. I have heard many stories of individuals who thought if they just prayed more, read their scriptures more, and attended the temple more than they could be healed of their same-sex attraction. Or if they prayed and read their scritpures enough then they would be able to find someone to marry, or be able to conceive a child. There are stories in our canon of scriptures and conference talks that suggest that God works this way. However, those individuals are often left in despair when their efforts don’t yield the results that others have received.

  5. 5.

    There can also be some overlap between religious belief/practice and the unwarranted, exaggerated, or amplified guilt that is a symptom of clinical depression. I’m not suggesting that you yourself, Lynette, suffer from depression. I’m exploring the reality that Mormonism urges all of us to gauge our spirituality based on feelings as well as works, and depression or dysthymia (low grade chronic depression) would have us believe that our depressive guilt is a nudge from God or the Spirit to self punish and change direction, to do more and more of never enough. Can this mental health phenomenon be one of the underpinnings of some scrupulosity?

    Please forgive my tangled syntax. I’m off to Christmas activities so don’t have time to edit this.

  6. 6.

    “and depression or dysthymia (low grade chronic depression) would have us believe that our depressive guilt is a nudge from God or the Spirit to self punish and change direction, to do more and more of never enough.”

    My experience is that it’s only through experience that I’m coming to learn to discern the difference between God’s nudges and my harmful self-talk. I think foundational to it all is understanding the doctrine of God’s love.

    Mark, I also think what you wrote is significant. We can’t really come to understand the Atonement if we don’t understand our fall. But when you have spent your life working hard and harder and harder to avoid showing or seeing any imperfection, it’s a pretty big about-face — at least it has been for me — to try to see through a different lens.

    Scriptures like ‘every word with exactness’ have caused stress for me, but again, it’s only through experience and time that I’m coming to see that I don’t have to save myself through perfect living. I think it only adds to the problem to expect that a teacher could save me from that part of myself. It’s a direct, very personal process with God to come to let go of these kinds of misunderstandings about how God works.

    Just thought I’d share my experiences – others’ may differ, of course.

  7. 7.

    I learned the antidote to scrupulosity by watching The Dog Whisperer. Live in the moment, like dogs. They don’t judge or hold grudges. Living for a heavenly reward is missing the point. Living is the reward. Being here, now, with each other is our great blessing, if we accept it. Our good moments are our treasures and our bad moments are covered by the atonement. It’s perfect.

  8. 8.

    Also, bringing it all around to gender (this is ZD, after all), my sense is that this tendency toward scrupulosity plagues women far more frequently than it does men. Do you think this is correct, and if so, do you have any guesses as to why?

    This is all speculative, but I suspect, to the degree the intense guilt for not measuring up is gendered in our community, it’s a function of all our rhetoric about how women are naturally perfect, charitable, nurturing, and self-sacrificing. We preach this not as the ideal but as the norm. It’s crushing.

  9. 9.

    When I was raising my eight children and married to my LDS husband, now X, I believed that I could do EVERYTHING and that EVERYTHING was expected of me and if I did EVERYTHING my children would be perfect and I would be blessed. HA! After going thru a temple divorce and marrying a NOMO I now have a more realistic and humane view of life- I listen to the Spirit and do my best…and life is so much better, more relaxed and I’m happier. I don’t get hung up on the minutuea (sp) of the LDS culture and believe that God and Goddess are far less exacting than the LDS church/culture teach. I’m still raising my youngest, a 15 y/o daughter and I’m so different than when I raised the others. I enjoy life more, care less about what other think and truly, deeply listen to the Spirit.

  10. 10.

    Evidently I’m not that scrupulous, or I would have answered these comments a month ago. But thanks for the responses, everyone!

    I’ve thought a lot about that question Pepper raises about the overlap with mental illness. And at least in my own life, there’s definitely been a connection there (I have bipolar disorder). I’m still trying to articulate how exactly they interact, but I definitely think that depression and scrupulosity can feed off each other. I really want to do more theological thinking about these kinds of questions.

    And that’s a really good question, Mark, about how to teach scriptures that seem to promote this kind of thinking. I’ve had a hard time with Alma’s warning that even our thoughts will condemn us–believing that, especially if you’re not all that stable in the first place (like me), seems like a recipe for psychological disaster. The first thing that comes to mind as a potentially different approach is a passage in one of Chieko Okazaki’s books in which she says something like, if you don’t first know that God loves you, you’re not ready to worry about the rest of it. Along those lines, I think we somehow need to start with the atonement, rather than making it the band-aid at the end.

  11. 11.

    Fearing God above all will moderate us from doing sinful acts. But being scrupulous may lead to mental illness. If ever they feel that they’ve done something wrong, it may lead to dysthymia or depression. To aid the problem, a depression therapy must be undergone. As in morality, too much of something might lead to something wrong.

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