Struggling with Scrupulosity

Taylor Kerby is the author of Scrupulous: My Obsessive Compulsion for God, the most recent book from BCC Press. He is an alumnus of Arizona State University and Claremont Graduate University and is working on a Ph.D. at Grand CanyonUniversity. Scrupulous is on sale for $7.49 (Paperback) and $5.99 (Kindle) through Christmas Day.

When I was a kid, I prayed constantly. At nearly all times there was a revolving appeal to God playing on loop in my head.

Dear Heavenly Father please forgive me for my sins in the name of Jesus Christ Amen.

This short prayer was always uttered as a single sentence, without punctuation, and repeated over and over and over again.

Dear Heavenly Father please forgive me for my sins in the name of Jesus Christ Amen.
Dear Heavenly Father please forgive me for my sins in the name of Jesus Christ Amen.
Dear Heavenly Father please forgive me for my sins in the name of Jesus Christ Amen.
Dear Heavenly Father please forgive me for my sins in the name of Jesus Christ Amen.
Dear Heavenly Father please forgive me for my sins in the name of Jesus Christ Amen.

I did not know it at the time, but as a young person I suffered from scrupulosity, a type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that is preoccupied with being a very, very good person. OCD is a disorder with two parts: obsessions (beliefs)  and compulsions (behaviors). For the person with OCD, the obsessions will spiral and create more and more anxiety until the compulsion is performed to relieve that anxiety. As a teenager, my obsessions centered around my “worthiness” and I only found relief by properly apologizing to God. Often I would have to apologize immediately even for the smallest “sins.” This sometimes resulted in having to find a place to kneel and perform the above prayer in a public space.

Sadly, this disorder can often go undiagnosed in communities of faith. Often children and teenagers with this disorder appear to be doing all of the behaviors we would want them to. Unfortunately that ultimately results in many people with scrupulosity not getting the help they need.

In my new book I discuss my experience with scrupulosity and detail the theological shifts I had to make in order to overcome this disorder. For me, these theological “shifts” were just as necessary as the therapy I also attended. As long as I had the conviction that God was just as preoccupied with my sins as I was I would not find relief.

As a youth in the church I was often communicated two powerful and conflicting narratives. The first was that we were noble and chosen. In fact, I was once at an EFY where a speaker told us that while it may be confusing to understand why multiple generations have been called “chosen,” the reason being is that each generation is a little more chosen than the last. His generation was “chosen” but ours was even more “chosen” (and I assume my children will be mega-chosen).

This conviction of our chosenness, however, was transgressed by the manner in which our leaders often spoke to us. More often than not, lessons to youth are given from a place of anxiety, with the unspoken assumption that the youth were not doing anything. We needed to read the scriptures more, police our impure thoughts more, be a little better and walk a little taller. These lessons seemed to assume that the youth (the allegedly “chosen” youth) were wholly inactive in their commitment to the church and to God. Or, if not completely inactive, were in need of a “kick in the pants” to get them up to where they needed to be. I think it is the case that youth leaders assume that the way to ensure the continued activity of their group is to keep them as out of sin as possible. I think they believed that sin was ultimately the vehicle to bring them outside the Lord’s Church. The difficulty, however, is that people like me with scrupulosity will take these admonitions seriously and create a standard for themselves that is ultimately unreachable. Additionally, I would suggest that oftentimes these lessons have the opposite of the intended effect. As shame and guilt is increased, it can become easier to not return to church at all.

Through reflection, and lots of therapy, I have come to rethink all of these assumptions. In my book, I make the case that when we are wholly focused on ourselves and our own sense of sinlessness as the primary marker of our religion we are setting up ourselves as an idol god. This is not to say that we shouldn’t have any concern about our own sin. But it is to say that no matter how hard we try, our purity will never be God. Our own goodness cannot be the thing that is worship above all other things. As a person with scrupulosity, this has brought me relief and comfort. Often I will remind myself: if I (or my worthiness) is the central focus of my worship, I am doing it wrong.

To that end, I have also come to rethink sin. One of the great truths of the Restored Gospel is that Adam and Eve actually helped the Plan of Salvation move along when they left The Garden of Eden. This restored doctrine has helped me understand that God does not intend for me to stay in my own Garden of Eden, He expects me to make mistakes and learn through experience. He does not view sin as a disqualifying factor for my return to heaven, He views sin as a vehicle for learning and development. And, He sacrificed His Son to cover any remaining lost ground.

What I have discovered, and what I detail in my book, is that I am neither wholly sinful nor wholly chosen. I am a Child of God working through a moral experience in which sin is an unavoidable reality. My commission is not to remain completely spotless (I can’t actually do that) but rather to reach outward, beyond the Idol God of Myself, in love to my brothers and sisters. In fact, the scriptures tell us that as we reach out in love to others, we are serving Jesus Christ Himself.

Now, none of this is a cure for scrupulosity. I am not a therapist and my book should not be a replacement for therapy. However, in my experience with scrupulosity this switch from focusing completely on the personal avoidance of sin as the most important marker of a member of the Restored Church towards a theology that looks beyond the self in love to others has been very, very, helpful. I have found that I cannot be a perfect person, and through therapy I have made peace with that reality. However, I have also discovered that I can be a perfect listener. Or a perfect shoulder to cry on.

It is my hope that my new book can build community among those of us suffering from this disorder. I hope that the reader with scrupulosity can know they aren’t alone. Additionally, I pray that this book can mark the beginning, not the end, of a larger conversation about scrupulosity that will enable our community to work more appropriately for those who have this disorder. And, lastly, that it will help all Latter-day Saints make a shift in their theology away from their own Idol Gods of Personal Goodness towards the God who is Father to us all.

Comments

  1. Beautiful article, and very insightful perspective. The line “God does not intend for me to stay in my own Garden of Eden, He expects me to make mistakes and learn through experience” really hit me hard.
    Thank you.

  2. “I was once at an EFY where a speaker… ”
    Man, that’s some unhelpful BS to dump on kids. Why do we insist on this kind of rhetoric?

    Glad you’ve been able to make some progress, and share that for others who may be going through the same thing.

  3. For me, scrupulosity took the form of when I was 16 ish our Bishop gave us the “Miracle of Forgiveness” by Pres. Kimball and I read it. I became extremely, extremely self-concious to the point of social anxiety, panic and anxiety attacks. I have had to go to therapy now on three occasions. I don’t want to get into all of it but when I was a teen I went through the behavior of I would sin (all sin is of equal value of course, your thoughts have to be pure, your intentions have to be pure etc.) then when you sinned, or your thoughts, intents weren’t pure you had to repent, which means God stopped loving you, stopped blessing you, stopped everything and would “trip” you up in order for you to repent, he would set out these traps to “harrow up” you to repent for whatever. Of course you had to confess everything to the Bishop, and of course with the festival of errors you make as a teen I was confessing everything-once you confessed, then God started again to bless you, love you, help you and life would be good again until you sinned and the cycle continues. I don’t know if I am out of that line of thinking completely but here we are

  4. LDS scrupulosity usually manifests during beverage selection: Do I dare reach for that – GASP! – Coke? – or go all hella righteous with the carbonated sugar water? What then is the function of said scrupulosity, because in this case it sure is not health enhancement, a primary function of WOW. For that we’d reach for the green tea. But in upsidedown Mormon world sugar water good, green tea BAAAAD! Science, however, has it the other way around. So apparently God is pleased when we make poor health decisions. Why not just have a nice big cup of wicked coffee? But wait – science says good things about coffee, too. Why on earth did God even MAKE tea and coffee anyway? And those mild barley drinks – what’s that all about?!?!

  5. It took me until I was 40 to figure out that struggle with scrupulosity. Anxiety ruled my life when in retrospect I struggled with something that virtually all teenagers do. I’d fast during sports tournaments to prove to God that I wanted to do what was right and to plead for help. I asked my seminary teacher if I would burn at the 2nd coming. Youth temple trips were the worst because I’d confess to my poor bishop who wasn’t equipped to handle it either, and then I’d white knuckle it for two weeks before the temple trip. My MTC branch president considered sending me home because i clearly felt guilty about something intense (everything). I don’t really blame my parents because to them I was doing everything right. Not really anyones fault, I just wish I had a more enjoyable teenage and 20’s experience.

    Fortunately now guilt and church-related anxiety isn’t a thing any more for me. I figure if God made me like this then I’m not really to blame am I. Also I’m either agnostic or atheist depending on the day so I’ve kind of written off heaven if there is one. That takes a lot of pressure off.

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