Some Thoughts on the Scrupulous Self

Sarah White
Monday, June 13th 2022

I have struggled with assurance for pretty much the whole of my Christian life. When I became a Presbyterian, I took comfort in the belief that, as Westminster Confession, Chapter XIV puts it, “The grace of faith […] is the work of the Spirit of Christ” in my soul, not my work; and that a lack of subjective assurance doesn’t mean I’m not saved. The means of grace—the Word, sacraments, and prayer—have proven over and over again to be a remedy for preoccupation with self. Things are much better these days, thankfully, than when I was a relatively new and isolated believer.

Still, I resonate with “When Belief Is Agony,” Susannah Black’s recent article on what she terms religious “scrupulosity”—a term perhaps more familiar in Roman Catholic contexts, but not unknown territory for Protestants. The exhaustion of the circling thoughts, the feeling that I can’t live at peace in a world where others don’t know Jesus; the nagging fear that my salvation somehow didn’t “take,” and how can I ever feel sure that it did?—none of it is foreign to me. If you’re one who feels a painful jolt of recognition here, or mercifully can’t relate but are simply curious, I encourage you to read Black’s thoughts. They describe the condition better than just about anything I’ve encountered on the subject; and I won’t try to rehash my own experience too much here.

After long feeling stuck in a self-enclosed, deceptively real-seeming inner world, Black describes her gradual freedom this way: “The frantic buzzing that I had felt, like a bee trapped in a windowpane, exhausting itself and battering its body as it seeks to be free, was quieted, and I was able to use my moral energy as it should be used.” Here are three things that are helping to quiet my own internal “buzzing.”

First, corporate worship is non-optional. Scrupulous souls know this well, and we might even be good at putting our bodies in church one Sunday after another—which is more than half the battle!—yet, once there, we’re all too skilled at undermining ourselves. If we carry a sense that everything is too “enchanted,” as Black puts it—that trifling details of life, down to the subtle turnings of our thoughts, carry too much meaning that somehow demands to be reckoned with—we must challenge ourselves to find the greater “enchantment,” the truest reality, in what’s taking place around us in worship, not primarily inside our heads. Sometimes this means resolutely shutting our internal monologue in an imaginary box and repeatedly directing our attention back to the tangible realities sitting beside us, issuing from the pulpit, and visible at the Lord’s Table or baptismal font. God gives us the sacraments, in particular, because He knows we’re weak: in order to “represent[] the substance of his promises, to confirm and fortify us, and to deliver us from all doubt and uncertainty.”[1] It’s poor gratitude to squander the gift with “yes, but what ifs,” like “Am I really present in this moment? Is this ‘real’? How can I know for sure?” God doesn’t call me to listen to myself on Sunday morning, but to hear His word and hide it in my heart (Psalm 119:11). He doesn’t tell me to nurse my apprehensions, but to eat His flesh and drink His blood (John 6:53–54). He doesn’t command me to be consumed with myself, but to comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:3–4).

In these moments, I have to do something that feels inexplicably risky—to believe that my doubts aren’t credible, but that what’s concretely happening around me is. To decide that, no, I actually don’t have to attend to the twinges of conscience that stab my mind almost physically—that I can ignore them and yet be safe. Yes, they’re “real”—but then, why shouldn’t the hymns and the bread and the pastoral benediction not be at least as real, and much more relevant? As Christians who affirm the Fall’s pervasive effects, including on our perceptions, we need to be firm with ourselves here. After all, nobody’s faith is strong enough, on its own, to be acceptable. We scrupulous types aren’t special because we feel compelled to fret about that fact more than others who struggle differently. It’s only through the merits of Christ that our worship is acceptable to the Father, regardless of temperament. (And, yes, there’s such a thing as “going through the motions” in church, but I’d venture to say that for many of us, it doesn’t need to be the top concern.)

Second, it should go without saying, but I find that I can’t be reminded of it often enough: just read the Bible, every day if you can. Even when I’ve gone through stretches where I’ve struggled to trust that what I’m reading is indeed true, making it part of my daily routine helps ensure that God’s Word is sinking in and shaping my thought patterns and conscience over time. Don’t commit to an ambitious plan if that’s only going to lead to failure and self-condemnation. Just read a Psalm a day if that’s what you can do: many are prayers about feeling stuck in one’s own apprehensions, until the remembrance of God’s faithfulness breaks through (see Psalm 77, just to start with). You aren’t doing this alone, either, even if it feels that way: as a believer, you are always reading in fellowship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Finally, I think we too quickly disregard the fact that we’re being tempted from without. Each of us is locked in a lifelong spiritual battle, and we need to put on and trust the weapons (like those I’ve mentioned above) that God gives us for that battle: “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:10–11). Lies and accusations are some of the strategies Satan uses that the scrupulous are especially susceptible to. Remember, God isn’t our accuser. Christ is our Advocate and has sent us a Comforter (John 14:16–17). If we try to fight the spiritual battle in our own strength, we’ll surely fail. But remember that Jesus has already defeated the very same enemy who attacks our souls, and seek His strength against tempting lies and deceptions, one day and hour at a time. He’ll faithfully supply it.

In a recent podcast episode, Rosaria Butterfield shared an exhortation that I think can apply to every Christian’s daily warfare:

“You need to remember something: if you are a Christian, then every time you repent of your sin, read your Bible, worship the Lord, share in the fellowship of the saints—every time you do that—you are showing to your Adversary, who is Satan, who would love to crush you right now, that you are a child of God […] [In doing these things] you are destroying Satan’s kingdom […] and no, he doesn’t want you to know that, so there’s a lot of bluffing going on.”

What a comfort this is when we’re tempted to entangle ourselves in a self-searching pietism. So much of what feels crushingly plausible about self-scrutiny really is just “bluffing” and ought to be matter-of-factly dismissed as such. And when we simply, sincerely partake of the means of grace, these things—the ordinary things Christians do—testify not just to our own hearts and to fellow believers, but to our Accuser, that we belong to Christ forever. This is what it means when James says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7b).

The questions that nag at the scrupulous conscience might not be bad ones, but that doesn’t mean they’re the right ones to be asking. And, anyway, they’re ultimately just not very interesting. When they prick at our awareness, we need to take this as a cue to look to God’s Word instead, treasuring His unbreakable promises and His unchanging character. For something much more interesting than yourself, look at Paul’s prayer in the first chapter of Ephesians: that we might know “what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:18–23). His riches and power are so much greater than our poverty and frailty that they can’t be meaningfully compared. Even at their strongest, our apprehensions of these truths are feeble. Rather than taking that as a counsel to despair, maybe it’s an invitation to practice delighting in the hope to which we’re called—something we’ll be mastering for eternity.

So, for my dear brothers and sisters who struggle with scrupulosity—we are free to get over ourselves. That’s not just another command to belabor ourselves with, but a joyful privilege, and ultimately a blessed relief. It’s not a problem to be solved in a moment of angst, but a chance to look to Christ one moment, one Sunday, one season at a time. And you’re not alone.

Sarah White is a writer and editor living in western Pennsylvania with her husband and Basset Hound.

[1] John Calvin, “Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper,” in Treatises on the Sacraments: Tracts by John Calvin, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Christian Heritage, 2002), 166.

Photo of Sarah White
Sarah White
Sarah White (M.Div., Yale Divinity School), lives in western Pennsylvania with her family.
Monday, June 13th 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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