I mean, I love Jesus too. But I also love all the rest of it: Brunch after church with friends, hylomorphism, late-night Eucharist on Christmas Eve, and carols and stollen and roast beef and friends’ children whom I have known and loved since they were born, dressed in deeply miscellaneous animal and animal-adjacent costumes for the pageant. C.S. Lewis and John Donne and Charles De Koninck, Durham Cathedral and St. Cuthbert’s tomb, tucked away absentmindedly behind the high altar, the Aksum Empire and the Holy Roman Empire and all the little communes of monks and anabaptists, who read Acts 2 and 4 and decided to just go ahead and do it; stoles and copes and incense and candles; neoplatonism and canon law and postliberalism and hot cross buns.
And knowing that I am called to a high calling, that nothing good will be lost, that there are no ordinary people, that death has been killed, that our God and King has given us his body to eat, his blood to drink. I love it. I love the experience of being a Christian, and I also think it’s true, so there’s that.
But there have been times when I have found belief to be almost unbearable. And I’ve met enough other people who have shared this particular difficulty that I think my story might be worth writing down.
I was sixteen when I was baptized, but it wasn’t until grad school that I started more seriously to try to follow Jesus. In the decade after that grad school conversion, I went through various … well, in retrospect I’d call them attacks, or something. Episodes. Times I couldn’t stop thinking. I would call them, now, ruminations, though I didn’t have that language then. They came in three varieties:
First, an inability to stop thinking about the idea that God might not be good, might not be trustworthy, if Calvinism was right. Second, a sense of “I can’t live in a world where some people may be going to hell.”
Third, I also at various points felt intensely guilty about things which an objective observer would not say that I ought to feel guilty about. Can I spend time doing anything other than evangelism, or serving the poor? Does God want me to enjoy nature and read novels, or are these things worldly, of the flesh? How can I enjoy anything while abortion is an ongoing reality in this world, in my country?
These circling thoughts led to a kind of exhaustion about my own attempts to make sense of everything, and a sort of grief, a nostalgia for a time when I was just a secular person, not needing to worry about any of this stuff. I felt alienated from non-Christians and even from Christians who didn’t share my intensity and anguish.
And maybe a couple of times, at the worst of these moments, I felt like I was presented with a choice: you can cease to believe, or you can pray for faith. And I prayed for faith.
That choice didn’t feel like it would change reality. What it felt like was that I was given the option to become … a non-player character, somehow. Taking the blue pill, and so on: living in the psychological comfort apostasy offered.
Scrupulosity is agonizing. I had the worried-I-was-sinning kind, too, though usually I worried I was sinning by omission. But the ruminations: those are a real bear.
I’m not sure when I first heard that word — scrupulosity. I think at some point I probably googled “religious OCD,” which is more or less what it is, and what I could feel that it was. It’s been a weird blessing in my life that before my adult conversion, I’d experienced what might be called secular OCD: obsessive-compulsive disorder unrelated to Christianity. How OCD works is that it makes what feel like moral threats: your moral safety, or physical safety, is at risk; you are both unsafe and in the wrong, and performing various rituals (handwashing, not stepping on cracks: the disorder is varied in what it comes up with but it does seem to come up with the same things frequently) is what will put you morally and physically right again.
Very frequently what you care about most is what the disorder “chooses” to threaten you about: “wash your hands just right or your child will die and it will be your fault,” that kind of thing. Those with this disorder are not delusional: You always know on some level that the threat isn’t real, it’s irrational, and because of that, the disorder can be profoundly embarrassing. “Don’t mind me, just going to ummm… wash my hands seven times and then turn off the tap with the backs of my hands… for… reasons… you go ahead and start dinner.”
It started when I was around twelve, and I got a diagnosis fairly briskly and ended up at various points doing various kinds of treatments — medication, cognitive behavioral therapy — which all helped enormously. Because I am who I am, I also, in my teens, became deeply emotionally connected to Samuel Johnson, who had it pretty bad: he felt the need to touch each lamp-post as he passed it, walking the streets of London; he feared hell profoundly and often couldn’t find peace about that. I used to imagine inventing a time machine and going back in time to bring Dr. Johnson Prozac-spiked brownies; I figured that would be less likely to cause unfortunate changing-the-timeline butterfly effects than trying to explain enough contemporary neuroscience to him to convince him to take pills. I also didn’t want him to worry about what the implication of the efficacy of meds on this anxiety disorder was for the existence of the soul — he had enough religious ruminations of his own — but I worried about it. (I also, full disclosure, had a pretty intense crush on him).
The solution to that (the worry about the implication of the efficacy of the meds on the existence of the soul, not the crush) at least was to get better theology. If wine can make your heart merry, or doing shots of Jägermeister can disastrously lower your inhibitions, it’s not a problem in theological anthropology that a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) can dial down the anxiety enough to let you make the choice to ignore the OCD-threat.
The way this works, as best we can tell, is that it’s the repeated ignoring of those threats, that disciplined exercise of the will, that ultimately rewires those neural pathways; the meds just make the threats… quieter, the choice to ignore easier to make. That systematic building of good habits, of evaluating your own thoughts and feelings and being able to choose how to respond to them is what cognitive behavioral therapy does. You use your mind, reason, and will to physically reshape your brain.
It’s not actually very different than what a Book-of-Proverbs approach to becoming better at being a human being might be. The whole package of treatment begins to look, in fact, precisely the way one would expect if we were in fact bodysouls, rather than souls inhabiting bodies, and if we were rational creatures with an immaterial intellect which can operate via the will; in other words as if human anthropology and ethics work the way St. Thomas says they do when he talks about virtue. Just to say.
So anyway, post-high school, the OCD was pretty much dealt with. And then, after college, I started going to a Vineyard church (I’m Anglican now, if you couldn’t tell from all the flagrant scholasticism) and started actually spending time with people who believed that Jesus was, for real, not at all dead. And then I found that I really actually believed that too. And the stakes in life suddenly became much higher.
Conversion is always disorienting. But God gave me a time to work through the normal confusions of new Christianity: the sense that there is nothing that one can hold back, the realization that there are no guarantees that God will make ahead of time, for example, that you won’t eventually need to be martyred; all the normal pricks of an awakened conscience; all the joy and amazement of the first Christmas where you find out that the carols you’ve been singing your whole life contain treasures which had somehow been hidden from you, lines that are suddenly alive and blazing with glory: “veiled in flesh the Godhead see/hail th’incarnate Deity/pleased as man with man to dwell/Jesus, our Emmanuel.”
But within the first two years after I converted, I had my first major bout of scrupulosity.
As I’ve said, the feeling of OCD is one of profound danger and also of a bad conscience, in a way. It can overlap with “real conscience,” but it’s distinct enough, if you know it, to recognize. There was something going on here that was not just “what reality is like,” “what being a sinner and having a bad conscience is like,” or “what Christianity is like.”
I’m an extremely curious person and I’m also a nerd, particularly when it comes to history and historical theology. What I found, after I started digging, is that scrupulosity is a known spiritual malady that pastors have been saying “oy, not this again” about for two thousand years. It’s also a neurological OCD-related condition that can be treated on that basis, and confessors and spiritual directors have used cognitive behavioral therapy-like tools for most of the last two millennia to do just that.
The classical Protestant experience of scrupulosity is the lack of “assurance” of salvation which is read as evidence of a lack of election. A more contemporary Protestant experience is the fear that one hasn’t “been saved” properly, that sure, you said the Sinner’s Prayer but it kinda seems like maybe it didn’t … take. It is not, however, the case that Catholic spirituality is without its own specific pitfalls about scrupulosity. A classical Catholic experience is the fear that you didn’t remember everything you needed to confess and that therefore you are not safe in taking the Eucharist; this has kept many people away from the Mass for years.
As I mentioned above, there are two pretty distinct versions of scrupulosity. There’s the one that resembles “secular” OCD and which leads sufferers to either perform repetitive prayers (not as in liturgical prayer, but as in a self-imposed “I have to say exactly these words with exactly the right emphasis and feelings for it to count”) or to confess over and over again (Luther’s poor confessor!) in order to “feel like they’ve gotten it right.” And then there’s the delightful experience of repetitive, racing thoughts, ruminations over theological questions, which one feels like one must resolve in order to be at peace. Neither makes for a particularly good time.
OCD has been called the “doubting disease.” Did I really turn off that gas burner? Did I really lock the door? I think I did, I remember doing it… but if I did, why do I doubt so profoundly that I did, why do I feel in danger? Better check. In other words, subjective uncertainty presents itself as something to pay attention to, something that gives good information. In non-religious OCD, one learns to talk back to one’s mind: “yes, I know you are subjectively uncertain, but that has nothing to do with reality.”
The Puritanism which is so beloved of the New Calvinism has, as one of its signature ideas (although one might, and many have, argued that this is a distortion of the actual teaching) that a subjective assurance of salvation is a necessary mark of true salvation. This idea was carried over into some versions of the revivalism of both Great Awakenings. Anxiety becomes part of the process. One sits on the “anxious bench,” until one receives assurance. Those with an unaddressed anxiety disorder can sit there for a long, long time.
Am I saved? Am I right before God? It is a question that can lead to repentance, to baptism, to a life of discipleship. It can also, in a baptized person with every reason to trust that God’s promises apply to him, now adopted into Christ’s family, be the content of irrational ruminations. But so can “Can God be trusted?” and “Does God want my family to be saved?” And this can get very very refined indeed — as refined as your theology: “is ‘good’ meant equivocally or analogically when we predicate it of God? Are you sure? But are you sure? How about ‘love’? Is monergism true? What can it mean that God desires all men to be saved if monergism is true? How can I trust that he wants me to be? Better think about this for five hours in the middle of the night to try to solve it.”
I suppose most Christians have bouts of something like this at some point; we’re all on something of a spectrum, with many of these kinds of mental distress. Anxious hearts are a common human malady, which God addresses; and of course some anxiety is good, some fears are real. How to distinguish between this and scrupulosity which ought to be treated as such? I can only tell my story. Probably the best thing would be to talk to your pastor; ask him if he even knows the word scrupulosity; that’s a good start. Above all, do not attempt to go it alone. When your own thoughts are a trap, you need others, ideally professionals; you cannot think your way out of this.
What this looked like before the therapeutic age was that the scrupulous fled in their droves to spiritual directors. Indeed, once one starts seeing this, the whole discussion of the role of “private judgment” that was such a crucial feature of the Catholic and Protestant reformations begins to sound like it’s often, at least in part, a discussion about scrupulosity.
Everyone had it. Well, not everyone. But people had it like they had Omicron in New York City over Christmas. It was just everywhere. The age of introspection that gave us Montaigne and Hamlet gave us ten thousand religious neurotics also. It’s not that the Catholic vs. Protestant theological debates were really about scrupulosity. They were not, and I would not want anything I write here to be taken as theological indifferentism. It’s that from everything I can tell, a good portion of the people who were engaged in those debates were simultaneously at least a good bit scrupulous.
“It is a secret pride,” wrote St. Francis de Sales (b. 1567), “that entertains and nourishes scruples, for the scrupulous person adheres to his opinion and inquietude in spite of his director’s advice to the contrary. He always persuades himself in justification of his disobedience that some new and unforeseen circumstance has occurred to which this advice cannot be applicable.” As the kids say: relatable.
A Jesuit, Fr. Giovanni Pietro Pinamonti (b. 1632), writes in a manual of spiritual direction that “it is well to make the scrupulous perceive, that submitting their will to the ministers of the Lord provides them the greatest security in all that is not manifestly sin. Let them read the lives of the saints, and they will find that they know no safer road than obedience. The saints plainly trusted more to the voice of their confessor than to the immediate voice of God; and yet the scrupulous would lean more on their own judgment than on the Gospel, which assures them, He that heareth you heareth Me.”
This is a different point than the point a Catholic might make about the reliability of sacred tradition through the voice of the church in an apologetic to a Protestant. It is instead a pastoral point, one that has specifically to do with how the actual Gospel, the good news of our forgiveness, is received. The tone it should be heard in is one of ringing joy in the provision that God has given us in his church: when we hear the priests’ pardon, we hear something objective and not for us to gainsay. “God’s grace, his action, what he has done, is more powerful than your subjectivity.” And it is, to be clear, not meant as a universal “out:” if your confessor really is corrupt, you should get a new confessor. You can’t finally outsource your conscience. But you also have not been left alone. I do not think we should dismiss our attempts to hear God’s voice, and I do think that it is possible to hear God’s voice directly. But I also think that one must pray to be able to hear God’s voice everywhere it is, and that directly is not the only way that it comes to us.
Luther rejected this role of confessors. But Luther also did not (always) fall into the error that, say, the second and third generation of English puritans often fell into, that of looking to one’s own assurance as proof of one’s rightness before God. Instead, he looked outside himself to the concrete reality of the cross, and of his own baptism.
John Bunyan (b. 1628), by contrast, had no theological or sacramental “out.” He was plagued with obsessive racing thoughts about denying Christ, which he could not lay aside — not that he was tempted to deny him but that he experienced the thoughts battering at his mind, and felt the need to do exhausting mental exercises to counteract them. Even he, theologically and culturally most primed to take such subjective thoughts seriously as giving information about the state of one’s soul, had the common sense of such sufferers that really, this is absurd. You know this is not real: but you can’t trust that you know it. “These things may seem ridiculous to others,” wrote Bunyan later, “even as ridiculous as they were in themselves, but to me they were the most tormenting cogitations; Every one of them augmented my misery.”
For Bunyan, there could be no appeal to baptism, no leaning on the body of Christ: a nonconformist with little to leaven the dependence on a direct subjective experience of assurance which he was convinced was the sign of his election, he was deep into the stressed-out DIY “hotter sort of Protestantism” of the Restoration. He simply gutted it out, and God gave him, eventually, direct consolations which brought him through — just in time for him to end up in prison for twelve years for refusing to stop preaching. His time in prison was not, he thought, such a severe captivity as his time in thrall to obsessive thoughts.
In 1696, eight years after Bunyan died, Alphonsus Liguori was born. Like Bunyan, in his twenties he received a call to follow Christ with his whole heart: “Leave the world, and give yourself to me,” he heard, and promptly (to his father’s dismay) left his law practice to pursue ordination. Like Bunyan too, he was a popular preacher: and specifically a preacher to the people. “I have never preached a sermon which the poorest old woman in the congregation could not understand,” he said, and he called many back to the faith of their baptism.
His experience and Bunyan’s are in some ways eerily parallel. One of the things that he had that Bunyan did not was a name for what he suffered: he had, we would say, a diagnosis. There is fresh air in his own discussion of his experience; he goes so far as to judge that though they could be a hindrance, scruples might also be a blessing: “Scruples are useful in the beginning of conversion…. they cleanse the soul, and at the same time make it careful.” They can present the sufferer before God, driving her to ask for his mercy. But they must not be allowed to rule. His ministry included careful and extraordinarily sophisticated advice on the development of conscience — in the scrupulous and in those whose temperament tends towards laxity.
When the scrupulous experience ongoing fear, even in the face of the advice of a wise confessor and the voice of the Church, St. Alphonsus says, he ought “to despise such fear, inasmuch as it forms no true verdict of conscience.” In his writing, he drew from millennia of reflections on scrupulosity, its relationship to true conscience, and its cure, offering a digest of Christian wisdom on this topic. He is fond in particular of St. Philip Neri, in whose oratory he had originally intended to pursue ordination. He approvingly quotes from a life of St. Philip, in which the biographer describes the saint’s approach to dealing with scrupulous parishioners: “Moreover, besides the general remedy of committing one’s self altogether and for everything to the judgment of the confessor, he gave another, by exhorting his penitents to despise their scruples. Hence he forbade such persons to confess often; and when, in confession, they entered upon their scruples, he used to send them to Communion without hearing them.”
Alphonsus quotes another priest, Father Wigandt, to support this ruthless approach: “He who acts against scruples does not sin; nay, sometimes it is a precept to do so, especially when backed by the judgment of the confessor. So do these authors speak, although they belong to the rigid school; so, too, the doctors in general; and the reason is, that if the scrupulous man lives in his scruples, he is in danger of placing grievous impediments in the way of satisfying his obligations, or, at least, of making any spiritual progress; and, moreover, of going out of his mind, losing his health, and destroying his conscience by despair or by relaxation.”
One thing that the scrupulous fear is that they may be dodging their conscience; they don’t want to make their conscience less sensitive. I was terrified of “hardening my heart” as Pharaoh did. But this misunderstands the nature of conscience. We should not go against conscience, but we must seek to inform and to form it: a sense of guilt or anxiety might be good information, or it might be a passion to be firmly put in place. The dramas of our Protestant imaginations have to do often with conscience that goes against authority: we are all Antigone, we are all Martin Luther King, or Martin Luther. Well — sometimes. But the ordinary way that conscience is formed is through interaction with just authority: there ought to be what Sohrab Ahmari, writing about St. John Henry Newman, describes as a “firm, dynamic alliance between conscience and authority for a bulwark over unjust power, including power over mind.”
One’s conscience should not be bullied, but it should be brought into the realm of the teachable. The temptation of the scrupulous person, if perhaps the scruples are not very bad and so she can imagine that there is some reason to them, is to think that she alone has access to truth, or is standing against the prophets of Baal. But the very word itself speaks against this. To hear con-science, to know with, is to not be cut off from others but to join them in apprehending something outside of all of you.
What’s interesting is how distinct actual faith is from OCD, in my experience. I’m not sure I would know as clearly what it means that conscience is about relationship with God and others, not about legalism, and that the cosmic/meaningful quality of the world is not a product of my own mind but something found in the world itself, if it weren’t for my OCD and having to ruthlessly find out what is “real” and what is subjective head noise that doesn’t point to meaningful obligation.
It’s hard to describe what I mean by this, but I’ll try. OCD seems to charge the world, the material world and the world of action, with a kind of meaning. You have a strong sense of “enchantment,” or of something that seems similar to that. There is almost too much meaning, everything you do is too weighty. One might think that this is all to the good: whatever else someone with OCD is going through they won’t be a nihilist; they live in a world that is a bit too reenchanted for comfort.
But it is in learning to dismiss the louder internally-generated fake conscience voice that I’ve found my real conscience, and in learning to say no to false meaning that I felt welcomed into the true and objective meanings of the material world, and the moral world. In part, the difference can be seen in the fact that real, non-scrupulous conscience is “conscience,” knowing with others. It is a communal thing: we are all seeing and desiring the same objective Good, which is God. And as we are drawn to him, we are drawn also to each other: true conscience opens us outwards to each other, helping us to show up for each other and really see and hear others as others. OCD-conscience is a lonely and isolating thing: you know that your own intense sense of guilt is a mere feeling, it is unmoored from the judgments of others, from tradition, from external reality, from the import of scripture.
To exit one’s self-enclosed fake moral universe is to enter the real, external moral universe, which is the one we share with each other, the one where God is. I don’t know how neurology and spiritual experience work together; but I can say with some certainty that there is probably something like a center for the perception of spiritual reality in one’s mind, and maybe even brain; that it can get “clogged” with false data; and that when it is working as it ought, it is “hearing,” sensing, the real meaning in the world: meaning both intense and highly-charged, but also grounded in a deep peace. 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.
To experience this freedom is to understand something more about freedom than one did before. St. Alphonsus says that the scrupulous man “ought to set before himself obedience [to his confessor], and look upon his scrupulous fear as vain, and so act with freedom.”
This understanding of freedom is one of the things about my own experience of scrupulosity which I find most illuminating. What does it mean to be free? When I was at my worst, I was not enslaved to any outside force. When Bunyan was imprisoned by Charles II’s government, he was not as unfree as he was when he was shackled to his obsessive thoughts.
To be truly free is to have a conscience that responds docilely and alertly to reality, with and not against the whole body of Christ. To be truly free is to act with practiced and graceful practical reason, to be able to flexibly improvise with the grain of the universe, the sweetness of the Torah. To be truly free is to be able to rule oneself through reason, and also to freely and joyfully love the loveable. To be truly free is to be free to actually be present to others, rather than to be so busy with your own mental suffering that you have no emotional or intellectual space for them. To be truly free is to stand un-accused, to know oneself at peace with Christ.
There are so many ways to get to this point, and of course I am not “here” all the time: but still, these are things that I know through direct experience. I have written often enough of the joy I have in not being a nihilist, the joy in being alive in a world full of meaning, and the contrast between that and the time when I did not believe that that meaning was in the world, and thought rather that it was only in my own mind.
But this second conversion — it is the second part of the story. It is what taught me that I am a participant in not just a possibly-pagan meaning, a non-nihilistic world, but also in the deep and utterly trustworthy goodness of Jesus who is my king. I am, now, free, or getting free. And my experience means that often when I contemplate what might be a real obligation to obedience to God’s law, it’s a very Psalm 27 kind of thing: a yearning to be closer to God, not to just shut my conscience up so I can do whatever I want without interference.
The good news here is that this is eminently subject to being sorted out. The first thing that helps is to know that this is a thing, to read memoirs and anecdotes of those who have suffered what are really very distinct and very persistently similar experiences. Read St. Therese of Lisieux. Read St. Alphonsus. Read John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Read accounts from people in the Redemptorists’ apostolate to the scrupulous. 
The second thing that helps — that helped me, anyway … sorry, this is annoying. But it’s literally learning to trust God more. And that’s not in the way you think that works when you’re first converted, where “trusting God” is like this mental thing that you need to do in order to be saved, and which you might not be doing right, or doing enough, or doing right now, and you’d better check and try again. Rather, I just mean… living with Him as my King for longer, and learning that He is trustworthy and that I don’t need to get theological answers before I am able to rest in that.
I’ve got a sort of mental box, Susannah’s Big Box of Unanswered Theological Questions. One thing that was incredibly helpful was realizing that it’s ok to have such a box, and that in all likelihood there are going to be items in it until I see God face to face, and possibly afterwards. But the fact that we have unanswered theological questions, that we don’t see how all the data points of scripture and experience and tradition fit rationally together should not, not even for a moment, allow us to discount the data points we do have about God’s character. That is one thing we do not need to doubt.
In the midst of the worst of this, I don’t think I doubted the truth of the scriptures, either. That was part of the problem: scary passages felt like chains binding me, guns pointed at my head. But it meant also that I could hang on to the passages of unequivocal grace. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” “The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.” There is nothing original that I can offer here: these are uncompromising promises about God’s trustworthiness in his character and in his love of each of us, and of those we love. I held on to these white-knuckled. And then, gradually, you realize that you don’t need to hold on that tightly, because you yourself are held.
OCD threatens you with the loss of what you most value, as I’ve said. Scrupulosity threatens you with the loss of God, of your peace with him, your salvation — and if possible more painfully, with the loss of your ability to trust that He is good. In a strange way this should comfort the one who suffers from it. You really do value the pearl of great price at its worth, if that is what you’re most horrified to lose.
As I say, I love being a Christian. I rejoice in God, and in my salvation. I hope that I never find myself again in such psychological pain that I am presented with apostasy as a kind of palliative; I pray that God will preserve me from that trial and I trust that if it comes, God will help me to once again say “yes” to faith, to living in the world as it is, even though it can feel easier to pretend that the world is otherwise. I know of some Christians who, I think, have in that moment of choice taken the blue pill, so to speak: have chosen unbelief as a relief. I don’t know how deep such unbelief goes, whether it’s something you need to reinforce in yourself because you’re worried that if belief comes back the psychological pain will come back too, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I think maybe in the back of such people’s minds is the idea “God can see that it’s too hard for me to believe in Him right now.”
What I would say to anyone who is presented with that choice, tempted by the psychological comfort of apostasy in the face of such scrupulosity, such tormenting belief, is this: take the leap. In the face of that choice, pray for the grace of faith to be given to you in abundance. It is a grace: faith is a supernatural gift. Receive it and use it well.
And then throw the whole kit and caboodle at this thing: the Redemptorists, St. Therese, Bunyan, SSRIs, cognitive behavioral therapy, all of it.
And I would say this: You will be OK. You will rejoice again in believing. God is, as it happens, patient. And also, analogically though not univocally, good, and loving. And the ways in which his patience and goodness and love are not univocally identical with ours… He is more so, always more so, not less.
Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.