Scrupulous: A New Book from BCC Press

The newest offering from BCC Press, Taylor Kerby’s memoir Scrupulous: My Obsessive Compulsion for God treats issues that resonate with me on a very personal level. Rather than a typical marketing post, I want to share the foreword that I wrote for the book. Like Taylor Kerby, I struggled for much of my life with the anxiety disorder known as scrupulosity, which affects people from strong religious backgrounds. As an adult, I have discovered that many members of the Church suffer from this disorder without realizing it because it looks and feels a lot like the things we learned to call morality and repentance. We have made this book part of our year-end sale, and we hope that it will help start important conversations that many Latter-day Saints need to have.


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I was in fifth grade the first time I committed a grievous sin and lost my eternal salvation. It happened at school. I was using an encyclopedia from a classroom set, and, with no thought at all for my soul, I drew a mustache on a picture of Winston Churchill (I remember it as Churchill, but, really, it could have been anyone). I immediately felt the force of my sin, so I tried to erase it, which ended up erasing some of the picture, too.

That night was the first of many nights that I spent in spir­itual agony. I had destroyed property—school property even. I had violated the terms of my baptism and sinned wantonly and recklessly. And there was nothing I could do to make up for it. The entire encyclopedia—the entire set of encyclopedias—was ruined, and I deserved to be excommunicated from the church and thrown into jail.

After a night of terror, I knew what I had to do. When I got to school the next day, I grabbed the encyclopedia from the shelf, opened it to the page I had destroyed, and walked it over to the teacher to confess my sin. The relief was immediate and wonderful. I felt like Dante emerging from hell and beholding, once again, the stars.

Over the next 20 years, I would repeat these steps thousands of times: a perceived sin, a period of torturous guilt, a confes­sion, a wave of relief. Rinse and repeat ad infinitum. I wore out teachers, parents, and, later, bishops who had to listen to me detail every sexual thought I had or every stray look or gesture that—when viewed through the logic of my compulsions—made me unfit for divine love or human companionship.

For most of this time, I was quite sure that I was the only person in the world who experienced these feelings, and it became a source of twisted pride (when it was not a source of twisted agony) that my conscience was so highly developed that I felt guilty for things that most people didn’t even think about. I may have been miserable, but at least I was unique. Learning that this was not true—that I was not unique at all—became the key to ending the cycle of misery that my life had become.

The first person like me that I ever met had been dead for more than 300 years: John Bunyan, the seventeenth-cen­tury English preacher and Protestant dissenter who wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the bestselling books of the 18th and 19th centuries. I was in a graduate seminar in my doctoral pro­gram in English literature when I read Bunyan’s lesser-known work, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners—the book that changed my life.

Grace Abounding is one of the world’s most famous exam­ples of a spiritual autobiography. It is also—for those who know about such things—the record of an intense and intimate strug­gle with scrupulosity. Throughout the book, Bunyan becomes convinced, over and over again, that he has either lost his sal­vation or that he was never elected to salvation to begin with. Every time he discovers a new reason to fear for his soul, he spends hours reading the Bible until he finds a verse that resolves his concern—and the wave of relief that I knew so well washes over him.

Finally, Bunyan manages to convince himself that the only possible way that he could lose his salvation would be to deny the Christ. He feels relief for a time, but then—unable to stop in the same way that Dostoyevsky was unable not to think of a white bear once he thought about thinking of a white bear—he thinks the words, “I deny Him.” And then he suffers the agony of the damned until he can convince himself that God could forgive him of even the greatest sin.

I understood exactly what was going on in Bunyan’s mind. It had been going on in my mind for years. I had felt the same way, for the same reason. I understood the pattern of thought, the nagging doubt, the fabricated sin, the very real anguish, and the compulsion to create a ritual to be clean of it. Bunyan was like me. There were at least two of us in the world’s history, and that itself gave me hope.

I became obsessed with Bunyan (no surprise there), and I read everything I could about Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. This led me to the chapter on Bunyan in the book The Doubting Disease by Joseph W. Ciarrocchi—a psychologist and former Catholic Priest who has spent much of his life studying religious scrupulosity. Drawing on both modern psychology and 1,500 years of Catholic tradition of the “scrupulous conscience,” Ciarrocci explained me to myself with all of the clinical search terms I would need to learn that I suffered from a well-known form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that shaped itself around religious belief.

The knowledge that I had a treatable disorder eventually led to my getting treatment for the disorder. I spent years in ther­apy, and, to this day, I take anti-anxiety medication regularly. I didn’t get rid of scrupulosity, but I learned how to manage it. It no longer defines my life. It was a long road that started with the realization that I was not alone—that I suffered from a know­able, treatable disorder and not a normal reaction to sin.

In my travels, I have come to realize that Mormonism has all of the conditions necessary to turn naturally occurring anx­iety into religious scrupulosity: a strict moral code enforced by strong cultural norms, a penchant for magical thinking about God and salvation, a highly regulated repentance process, and a vaguely defined confession ritual. And I have now met dozens of Latter-day Saints who suffer, or who have suffered, from this disease. And all of us thought that we were the only ones.

This is why Taylor Kerby’s book is so important. If I had read this book when I was 15 or 16, my life would have been very different. I could have avoided a decade or more of loneliness and spiritual agony, and I would not have had to take graduate classes in Puritan literature to understand myself and know that I was not alone in the world.

I predict that Scrupulous will become an important resource for Latter-day Saints and others who struggle with a crippling anxiety disorder. It will give parents, teachers, counselors, and ecclesiastical leaders the tools they need to minister to people who are suffering tremendously. And it will help us all shift our conversations away from sin and repentance and towards mental disorder and treatment. This shift is essential, as it is impossible to break free from the chains of scrupulosity by simply repenting more and trying not to sin.

Scrupulous: My Obsessive Compulsion for God by Taylor Kerby is an abounding grace to those of us who are tired of being the chief of sinners.

Michael Austin
Evansville, Indiana
November 2021

As a sneak preview, here are the appendices from Scrupulous: My Obsessive Compulsion for God, including helpful scriptures, talks, and resources for those who struggle with scrupulosity and suggestions for church leaders working with those who suffer.

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I have a couple decades worth of torturous bishop’s interviews and very earnest, pained journal entries around this topic. Part of my solution has been to leave the church entirely. I determined that as long as an exaltation checklist existed then I would be susceptible to this thinking. The toll on my mental and physical health wasn’t worth it. It was easier for me to leave than to try and keep wrangling with the demanding, lawyer God checking every jot and tittle of my life, thought, and conduct. The teaching of the Atonement didn’t offer any comfort. Because if there’s a sacrifice that cleanses me of my sins, then there’s someone who demands that sacrifice. That kind of God being taught in that kind of priesthood infrastructure wrecked me. Years later I’m still neck deep in the process of re-wiring/dismantling the inner governor the church gave me.

  2. lastlemming says:

    I would add Moroni 10:5 to the list of scriptures to be extra careful with.

    And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

    For years, I interpreted that as meaning that literally everything was knowable if only I was worthy of the Holy Ghost’s guidance. So when bad things happened through no fault of mine, I still felt guilty because I had not been worthy of having the Holy Ghost tip me off so that I could prevent the event from happening. The more helpful interpretation is that whatever it is that you know, it is through the power of the Holy Ghost that you know it.

  3. A beautiful (and painfully honest) testimony, Michael; thank you for sharing it. I look forward to reading Kerby’s book. But a line in your final sentence–“an abounding grace to those of us who are tired of being the chief of sinners”–brings a question to my mind, as I suppose anyone aware of my idiosyncratic Mormon-Lutheran Christianity might anticipate. It is simply this: while the cycle you describe (as presumably Kerby does too) is obviously a damaging one, and not at all, as you write, “a normal reaction to sin,” is considering oneself “the chief of sinners” really the trigger to the process which one must escape?

    This is a theological question, or perhaps a textual one, or maybe both. What are we to make of Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 1:15: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (to use the KJV; other translations are comparable)? We could dispute the accuracy of the text, or dispute the idea that anything theological was being employed in that statement, and that the final five words are merely a rhetorical flourish. More broadly, we could dissent from the idea that just because one ancient Christian expressed himself in a particular way, that we should, despite the canonization of the letter, grant any kind of normative weight to that expression (especially when we can read it today as reflecting the same “religious scrupulosity” whose harms you document well). And yet also, maybe, just maybe, Paul’s attitude towards both sin and Christ’s redemption of us from such are of a piece? That is, can one receive God’s grace if one does not wholly recognize how great the need for it is? I am reminded (as I so often am) by Jim Faulconer’s classic essay “Self-Image, Self-Love, and Salvation,” where he writes, near the conclusion: “to know of the Atonement is to know that we cannot save ourselves, which is to know that we must repent, which is to know that we are, of ourselves, nothing. If we do not remember the creator’s greatness and our won nothingness, we have not met the criteria for salvation–self-love and salvation are mutually exclusive.”

    I don’t think for a second that this is saying that the despairing cycle of religious scrupulosity is actually our theologically correct condition, the most obvious difference being that the cycle you describe incorporates an obsessive focus upon one’s own sins. A negative idol, after all, is still an idol. So if Paul’s statement betrays a sort of determined self-condemnation, then that is as much a failure to “give no thought to oneself” as would be thinking oneself sinless. So yes, I want to read the book, and I want to appreciate how many I know and love need help in escaping aspects of the scrupulosity detailed therein. But I want to hold the door open for Paul as well, though. Jesus Himself, assuming to take serious the language of Luke, said that those who strike their breasts and proclaim themselves sinners are those who will stand before God justified; it is those unwilling to own up to that fallen reality, I think (which assuredly is not the same as being trapped in a pattern of artificially confessing it again and again!), who may not be.

  4. Michael Austin says:

    Russell, this is precisely the type of theological introspection that a person who suffers from scrupulosity has to avoid. Trust me, we don’t need Paul to tell us that we just might be horribly depraved sinners beyond redemption. We live with that feeling 24/7. The line you are trying to draw here between “owning up to our fallenness” and “obsessively focusing on our own sins” is always going to collapse into “what if I am a horrible sinner and I have somehow missed a step in my redemption.” I have been all over this rabbit hole, and it doesn’t go anywhere good.

    The only way out is to stop treating it like a theological problem and start treating it like a mental illness. And it is an illness that feeds on theological speculation and demands absolute assurances, which theological speculation simply cannot provide. This is what Bunyan shows us: there are always ways around even the most iron-clad assurances of grace and salvation. There is always the possibility that one is not elect, not redeemed, not qualified, or that the assurances are wrong to begin with. And there is no way to resolve the issue by thinking about it. Trust me on this. I have spent thousands of hours trying to reason it away.

    Scrupulosity is a mental illness that can be treated with a combination of behavioral, cognitive, and chemical interventions. It is not a theological problem that can be solved by reasoning through the mechanics of sin and salvation. I simply can’t play that game when my ability to function in this world is on the line.

  5. A fair and thorough response, Michael; thank you for the correction.

  6. Michael H. says:

    I wish I’d heard about scrupulosity and means of treating it before my mission. It tortured me almost the whole time, with me believing that my relative lack of success (and lack of fulfillment of patriarchal blessing promises, to boot) was due to past and present “misdeeds.” Perhaps even worse, I came to believe that I could only feel God’s love after I felt so depressed and guilty that I had to basically prostrate myself (a pattern that I observed, over and over, in the scriptures). I’m still not entirely certain what to do with that besides just… try my best, accept that fact and the failures and come with it, and desensitize my perfectionist side.

  7. Scott Abbott says:

    A foreword worthy of a powerful book…personal, knowledgeable, and insightful

  8. Geoff - Aus says:

    When I was a boy we lived 10 minutes from the surfers paradise which has 50k of golden sand, but we never went to the beach, which was inhabited by bikinis. I have tried to understand why not. Within 2 years of joining the church my father was called as a building supervisor to Scotland where he worked 80 hours a week, because he was working for the lord. After 10 years on a mission he was employed by the church in the building programme for the rest of his working life.

    I wonder if he might have had this problem?

    My wife and I went for a stroll on the same beach today. The ocean and beach were beautiful, and the bikinis have become smaller, most with no backs, they were beautiful too.

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