Before the semester even began, I was assigned to read a biography of Martin Luther for my Reformation History class. It felt like meeting a kindred spirit. His experience of scrupulosity, the way he confessed compulsively to his superiors…his hatred of God for his inability to purge himself of chronic doubt—it all so closely mirrored my life…that it took my breath away. So, too, did Luther’s encounter with God’s grace, what he described as ‘born anew and entering paradise itself through open gates.’ God was the beginning and end of his hope—nothing he contributed brought solace.~ Katie Langston, “Sealed: An Unexpected Journey into the Heart of Grace, 204-5”
Dear People of God,
Scrupulous. Scrupulosity. Being meticulously oriented to detail. When it happens in the realm of Christian life it can be disastrous. In my own estimation, to be scrupulous is to be finding my worthiness before God in myself. Do I read the Bible enough? Do I pray enough? Do I go to church enough? Now, of course, these are all good and God-pleasing things. But do they determine my worthiness before God? All of life can be undergirded by scrupulosity. It can manifest in something as mundane as driving. After all, the laws of the land are there to protect and preserve life—they are safeguards put there by God.
When I was in college I told myself if I’m not attentive to my driving, if I don’t make rolling stop at a stop sign, if I go a few miles over the speed limit, if I don’t replace my bald tires fast enough and that leads to someone’s death—that I have done something that brings my salvation into question. Other things too. What about if I don’t recycle my milk jug? What if didn’t perfectly honor my dad on that phone call? etc. etc. Especially, I had told myself it is unforgivable if I commit a sin of which I am “conscious.” That I am mindfully aware of. That rabbit hole does not lead to despair. Call it scrupulosity. Call it perfectionism. But do not call it God’s will. The accusing voice is not something that comes from God. What good news is that?
We are all deeply flawed human beings. We fail. We are selfish and self-serving. We sin. Let us not be afraid to admit these things. Christians and others who say we can be without sin are liars—as witnessed to in 1 John: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1:10). The meticulous attention to detail in the realm of the Christian life is no life at all. Why? Because when we are scrupulous we are determining our worthiness before God with a big, ol’ measuring stick. That is, we are trying to use the Law to determine if God is gracious and loves us. When we do that we learn that we are never live up to the Law. So what now?
The cure for scrupulosity is not found in ourselves. It is found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our worthiness before God comes completely from outside ourselves. What matters is “Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). Christ is our righteousness. Christ is our sanctification. Christ is our redemption. He is the sturdy rock on which we stand. He has already done everything to secure your salvation. And because Christ has done it himself in his death and resurrection, there is nothing left that is undone.
Dear people, one cannot love God according to the dictates of the Law. For the Law always accuses. There is no mercy there. God cannot be loved until we grasp his mercy in faith. Not until then can he become someone who can be loved. When we learn that his mercy is more plenteous than our sins (Ap. 4:149) then our hearts are set free. It is the Gospel that is the gracious heart of God in Christ. The cure for scrupulosity lies in the unconditional Christian absolution—Your sins are forgiven in Jesus Christ. It is the most unconditional promise in the world that God in his Word has placed in your ears and in your heart. It is not that God foresaw something in you to make you worthy of his love. It is not our own ability to manage our sin that counts for anything. God does not find but creates that which is pleasing to himself. It is simply God’s mercy that counts. His choice to have compassion on you. There is nothing sweeter to a Christian’s ears. That promise belongs to you. To you.
Peace and joy,
Pastor Levi Powers
Mount of Olives Lutheran Church
Rock Springs, WY