Scrupulosity is a subcategory of OCD in which obsessions and compulsions center on religious themes. People often seek help for scrupulosity when they begin to realize that their spiritual anxiety may be more than just a spiritual problem. On the outside, these obsessions can appear like normal spiritual concerns, such as
- How do I know I am saved/forgiven?
- Am I in the right religion?
- What if I have grieved the Holy Ghost?
- Am I keeping all the religious codes of my faith community?
- How can I avoid sinning?
But on the inside, these “normal” spiritual concerns are driven by anxiety, inescapable rumination, and obsessive-compulsive cycles. Seeking help for scrupulosity is one of the best decisions you can make. In this article, I’ll share with you one positive practice to incorporate into everyday life that will help you keep OCD out of your faith experience.
Help for Scrupulosity: Knowing the Difference Between Religious Legalism and Religious OCD
For some people, religious OCD can become a severe condition, leading to the loss of hours per day spent in anxious spiritual rumination or fear-driven fulfillment of religious rituals. Typically, the cycle begins with a trigger — often an intrusive thought that plants a seed of doubt in the mind — which is followed by intense anxiety. To gain relief, the scrupulous individual either ruminates or engages in compulsions.
This is why religious OCD can frequently be seen from the outside as legalism, a works-based form of religion. It’s similar, but here’s the key difference:
- Religious legalism seeks to earn eternal salvation through works
- Religious OCD seeks to find emotional relief through works
Sufferers of scrupulosity usually have accurate, orthodox beliefs. Christians with OCD know cognitively that we are saved by faith – the compulsive actions are not meant to earn salvation; they are an unwanted reaction to intense inner anxiety.
To help your scrupulosity, it’s imperative to recognize the similarities and differences between religious legalism and religious OCD. It’s also key to begin tuning in to your motive when you start your cycles of excessive spirituality: are you motivated by a desire to earn salvation, or to find emotional relief?
Sabbath: A Rest Within Scrupulosity’s Storm
One of the spiritual practices that I found most helpful while recovering from OCD may sound controversial, because some people may regard it as a “work.” But I passionately advocate this spiritual practice (which I have personally followed for many years): it is the practice of keeping the Sabbath.
Sabbath keeping is understood in a vast variety of ways.
- Literal (keeping the literal seventh-day Saturday Sabbath, such as Messianic Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, and Seventh-day Baptists)
- Pragmatic (real-life sacredness, such as the story behind why every Chik-Fil-A franchise is closed on Sundays)
- Spiritual (choosing any day or several hours of a day as a sacred space to slow down)
Why do I see Sabbath as a precious shield, my “cozy blanket in time” against anxiety and OCD? More than any other practice in Scripture, Sabbath underlines the importance of rest rather than works. Sabbath is a commemoration of Creation (Genesis 1-2). God told Adam and Eve to rest because of what He had done, not because of what He expected them to do.
Anxiety tells me something is wrong and I need to spend time obsessing about it until I solve it. Scrupulosity tells me I am not good enough and have not done enough to be saved. OCD urges me to research more, seek for more reassurance, and work, work, work.
Sabbath is a time of rest. Observing Sabbath is a time when I physically commit myself to the belief that ultimately, in the grand, cosmic scheme of salvation, it is God’s great work of creation and redemption that saves me — not anything I could ever do. It is a weekly ritual in which I act out what I believe – it is His works, not mine.
For me, keeping the Sabbath means that:
- I do not work – neither in the corporate world nor in my personal life. I don’t cut the grass, clean the house, or even cook. I prepare a special meal ahead of time and close my emails.
- I attend church to spend time in corporate worship and contemplation of God.
- I seek for special time with family, friends, and nature.
How Sabbath is a Help for Scrupulosity
Keeping Sabbath does not insulate us entirely from intrusive thoughts. We will still go to church and sweat during communion and freeze in panic when authenticity questions are raised. Our compulsions to “do something” to solve emotionally-charged spiritual questions will still be there. We will still have intrusive thoughts about blasphemy and the unpardonable sin and salvation. We will still feel “off” for not completing our prayers correctly.
But wait – it’s Sabbath. What if we’re committed to the Biblical view of not working on Sabbath?
It’s a parallel to the exact treatment that counselors prescribe for the intrusive thoughts of OCD: Sit it out. Be anxious and do nothing about it.
When Adam and Eve kept the first Sabbath, perhaps they were anxious, too. They might have thought, “Hey, God! You gave us dominion over the earth! If we don’t keep working on it, the universe might self-destruct!”
And God might have said something like, “Just rest. Resting is your act of faith that shows that you trust Me to hold everything together.” God said,
Moreover I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them.Ezekiel 20:12, NKJV
Every time we keep Sabbath, we are participating in a sign — a deep, symbolic act — that ritually cements the fact of salvation by faith rather than works.
You may feel increased anxiety by the thought of spending extended time in a spiritual practice if you have a history of associating spirituality with emotional discomfort. But I do not believe that OCD can be overcome through comfortable activities – it requires a fight, and this fight is the fight of resting.
Sometimes, help for scrupulosity involves “not doing” rather than “doing.”
For me, Sabbath is the private theater in which I demonstrate my faith in God’s works by suspending my own. And often, it is in that moment of physical rest that I find rest in my soul.
How about you? Have you ever kept Sabbath? What was it like?
Wishing you all the best on your journey,