Are you afraid of going to hell? Are you concerned that despite having confessed past sins, they are still haunting your conscience? You may be having problems with scrupulosity. If you were to simply consult the dictionary concerning scrupulosity, you would see it defined as “exacting; careful or rigorous” – or something similar. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? We can be scrupulous about trying to do God’s will or living a moral life, which might mean simply that we are very careful and exacting about doing something that is very important. No problem, right?
Catholics are both blessed and cursed with a sense of the gravity of their sinfulness. We believe in Purgatory, so it is part of our spirituality that fasting and praying both for our sake and for others can affect the nature of the afterlife. We have confession, which implies that we should present ourselves to a priest and be discerning about what we confess. We have a sense about the difference between mortal and venial sin, so it follows that sometimes we worry about the difference between the two and whether we are guilty of one or the other. Protestants tend to not be plagued with any of these worries. They are not plagued with them because they usually don’t find that these worries are legitimate. But since we as Catholics know that they are legitimate, we can’t escape so easily. (This is not the place to prove that all these are legitimate concerns.)
It is good to be discerning about these very important dimensions of our relationship with God, but bad to allow discernment to transform into scrupulosity, which can be defined as an unhealthy or superstitious anxiety about the state of our soul. That is how we might define it. Why?
When we take concern about doing God’s will and transform it into obsession about doing that will, we take the Christian adventure of joy and freedom and fall back into an oppressive slavery. St. Paul actually says in Galatians, “It was for freedom that you were set free (Galatians 5:1).” In other words, Jesus set us free so that we could be free. Huh? It may sound circular, but we need to take the word of God seriously. Jesus did not break the chains of sin and death so that we could bind ourselves up again with chains of scrupulosity about our sin.
Did you know that one of the primary names for Satan in Holy Scripture is the Accuser? Revelation 12:10 refers to the fact that “The accuser of our brethren has been cast out, who night and day accused them before God.” In the Book of Job, Satan appears to God as an accuser who delights in discovering that good people do bad things. For many reasons, the voice of the Accuser can be very strong in our spiritual lives. We may have had overly-demanding parents or we may have been largely ignored, so we strive (too much) for the perfectionism of being noticed. No matter what the reason is, the voice of the accuser can be an insidious and destructive poison in the spiritual life. It is a good thing to sin, feel appropriate guilt and remorse, and then repent of that sin. It is a bad thing to wallow in self-pity and blame for being human enough to sin. Guilt is an appropriate emotion telling us that something that we have DONE is bad. Shame is an inappropriate emotion that tells us that what we ARE is something bad. Christ came to acquit, not to condemn. So when you hear the voice of the Accuser, you are playing right into the hands of the enemy. When it comes to the spiritual life, Satan often becomes a vicious prosecuting attorney and we too easily shrink back from our own defense. We forget that Mary, the angels and Christ Himself desire to act as attorneys for the DEFENSE. But will we let them?
There is a fundamental difference between someone standing in front of you encouraging you forward, and someone behind you beating you forward. Guess for yourselves which one of these is God and which one is Satan.
There is often a strange psychology I have observed both before and after we commit a sin. Before we sin, it seems that sometimes God stands as accuser and enemy and Satan stands as friend. Before we sin, it is God who says, “Don’t do that. You may regret it,” and it is Satan who says, “Go ahead! It will be fine! It will feel good!” Then after we sin, they strangely trade places. After we sin, it is Satan who stands as our accuser saying, “I can’t believe you did that. You are a terrible person.” And it is God who says, “It will be o.k. Repent and turn to me.” Do we really want to listen to a voice that kicks us when we are down? Do you really think that voice is God’s?
Being overly scrupulous can often mask a kind of secret pride. We may think to ourselves that perhaps other people are forgiven for their sins, but that God will not forgive me. First of all, who are you that you are somehow resistant to God’s forgiving and healing grace? Are you really that awful? Is your soul made of some kind of spiritual Teflon? Hardly. When it comes to basic sinfulness, you are no different than your brothers and sisters around the world. Think about it this way. If Jesus says that someone is innocent, do you think you have the right to say that she is guilty? I would hope not. Well, in confession Jesus declares you innocent. You no longer have the right to proclaim yourself guilty. The Letter to the Romans 8 tells us that no one can condemn us if Jesus is the one who acquits—that includes YOU about even YOUR OWN sinfulness!
In the Book of Revelation, we see the saints have donned robes washed white in the Blood of the Lamb. For some of us, we need to just shut up, stop complaining, and put on the robe. It doesn’t belong to us by right. We didn’t make it. We don’t deserve it. But it is ours if it is given to us by the God who holds everything in the palm of his hand.
Finally, take a look at a crucifix the next time you are feeling horrible about your sinfulness. He was nailed there so that you wouldn’t go through the trouble to nail yourself there. Don’t insult Him or His sacrifice. Take your white robe, kiss your sin goodbye, and shut up.