Have you ever been described as “perfectionistic” or “nit picky?” Do other people think you’re fanatical or too strict about the application of moral or spiritual principles? Do you yearn to follow every word of the Lord as expressed in His Word, but are never quite sure when you’re overshooting the mark? In this article, I’d like to talk about scrupulosity and the spirit of the law–and how this can help you find balance whilst staying true to Scripture.
The Letter of the Law and the Spirit of the Law
Before I share with you about the spirit of the law, I want to begin with some disclaimers.
I believe God’s law is really important, and it’s a good thing to take it seriously. Just think of the passages in Scripture that talk about “lawlessness.” Maybe the following is one that you’ve pondered at length, like many others with scrupulosity:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’Matthew 7:21-23
Lawlessness is not taught in Scripture. That’s the “cheap grace” idea that once we’ve come to Christ for salvation, we may do whatever evil deeds we wish. No way! As we grow in our relationship with Jesus, there will be a progressive experience of becoming more like Him. This doesn’t happen overnight, and people with religious OCD have to be careful about overanalyzing our progress and getting too easily discouraged. But despite that, we should treasure every victory that God gives us through the mighty working of His power, for it is a great honor that He “works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure” in making us shine forth with the characteristics of His Son.
I’m a big fan of the justification-sanctification package. So what you read on this website is based on the ideas like:
- God wants to save us and recreate us in His image
- This occurs only by grace through faith, and not by our own works
- I am as equally secure in Christ the day I am first justified as I am ten years later when God has worked in me to overcome a bunch of bad habits
This is all preamble, because what I’m about to write about in no way negates the high regard that I hold for Christian growth and sanctification. (Did I mention the verse that talks about “holiness, without which no one will see the Lord?” Hebrews 12:14!) I am not advocating for cheap grace as I share with you the following ideas about the intersect between scrupulosity and the spirit of the law.
Scrupulosity and the Spirit of the Law
My main idea, in a nutshell, is that having a disorder like religious OCD can cause us to become too intense in our law-keeping, and that we need to prayerfully find balance. I believe the balance we are searching for is best expressed in the Biblical concept of keeping the “spirit of the law.”
Just so you know I’m not suggesting heinous crimes or doctrinally wicked behavior, let me give you some concrete examples of what I’m talking about when I say we can get “too intense” about law-keeping. All these examples come from real clients (not their real names) that I’ve met with in one-on-one coaching sessions.
- Julia struggles to leave her house to go for walks because she feels horribly guilty about stepping on ants and other insects. This seems like a violation of the commandment against killing. Walks in nature have become a twisty-turny, eyes-looking-down affair as she tiptoes around any insects. Most of the time, it’s easier for her to just stay home.
- Rico doesn’t want to break the speed limit–ever. Even if he’s creating a traffic hazard by driving 20 mph below the general flow of traffic, he feels that it would be breaking the law to drive even one mile per hour over the speed limit. He also stresses incessantly over his taxes out of a desire to “get it right” so he isn’t defrauding the government. Some years during tax season, Rico spends hours upon hours analyzing tax laws that even his tax accountant doesn’t understand.
- Martha wants to keep the Biblical teachings of modesty and simplicity, but sometimes she feels that she’s overshot the mark. She only buys old, outdated clothes from the thrift store and is careful to buy several sizes larger than she needs and only very bland colors. She also is unable to wash her hair or shower regularly out of fear of vanity, so she tends to have an oily, disheveled, scarecrow look.
- Demetrius is very concerned about the Bible’s emphasis on truth-telling, and he strives very hard to never lie in any detail of his life. He fastidiously marks the exact minute on his time card at work and panics if he accidentally gets a number slightly wrong, such as if he tells someone he arrived at 3:00 when he actually arrived at 2:58. Rounding numbers makes him feel like a liar, which means he “has” to confess to God and clarify himself to the person he spoke with, but this also makes him feel awkward. Demetrius tries to deal with this numbers problem by always prefacing his statements with vague words like “about,” “approximately,” or “I think” so that he isn’t guilty of lying.
- Ruby struggles with “terms and conditions.” Sometimes she takes an hour or two to read through every line before checking the box, but this can be tricky because if there’s a clause she doesn’t understand, she has to google it, and this can be very time-consuming. Ruby hates when terms and conditions come up, because she knows it’ll take at least an hour to work through them, and sometimes she doesn’t have that much time. But if she doesn’t read through them, it feels dishonest to check the box that she “has read and agrees” to these terms and conditions.
Do any of these cases sound like you? Then let’s talk about one way we can begin finding more balance.
What Is the “Spirit of the Law?”
Paul wrote multiple times about the distinction between serving God in “letter” or serving God in “spirit.” Here are a few such passages:
But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.Romans 2:29
But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.Romans 7:6
Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.2 Corinthians 3:5-6
Following the spirit of the law is the quality of piercing to the center of what the law actually intended to achieve in our lives. The letter of the law is a superficial keeping of the law which focuses on externals and rigorous applications that may or may not achieve what the law intended.
For example, a woman might keep the letter of the law, “thou shalt not kill,” which is both a moral and civil law. Imagine that she never lays a hand on her husband, never hits him over the head with a frying pan, never poisons his coffee. She does nothing to physically harm him, and is therefore innocent of murder according to the letter of the law. But imagine this same woman manipulates and gaslights her husband, psychologically abusing him. She hurts him in invisible ways and tells him every day that the world would be a better place if he would just go and kill himself. If this man falls into depression and commits suicide, would she not be guilty of murdering him? Yes, not according to the letter of the law, but according to the spirit of the law.
Application: Scrupulosity and the Spirit of the Law
The simple idea I’d like to share with you in this blog post is that the spirit of the law will help us avoid scrupulous, religiously fanatical living. It will help us find equilibrium in our quest to live a godly, Christian life.
As an example, let’s talk for a moment about breaking the speed limit. That’s a pretty common one for people with scrupulosity.
True, the civil government (which we are supposed to obey) posts laws regarding the maximum speed limit. They also post minimum speed limits on larger thoroughfares where driving too slowly can cause a safety hazard for other drivers. Many people with scrupulosity feel that they are sinning if they go even one mile per hour over the speed limit. This, however, can be a gray area, because sometimes the flow of traffic is so much faster than the speed limit that you would create a safety hazard by insisting on going 20 mph slower than everyone else!
In a case like this, we must think: what is the spirit behind the law? What did civil authorities actually intend to achieve with speed limits?
Are we really contributing to the safety of everyone around us if we insist on sticking to the speed limit in scenarios where that is significantly lower than the flow of traffic? No! In these cases, I recommend heading over to the righthand lane and bumping up your speed to a reasonable level–you don’t need to be going as fast as everyone else, but at least fast enough so that you aren’t causing near-crashes.
Even if this requires you to go over the speed limit.
That’s one scenario that would be an exception to the norm when it seems reasonable to speed. We would say that this is keeping the spirit of the law by breaking the letter of the law.
(And in all other “normal” cases, I think it’s proper to keep the speed limit! But see, there can be exceptions!)
Let’s look at another example: reading terms and conditions on websites.
Maybe you get triggered by the fact that you’re often asked to check a box declaring something like, “I have read and agree to the terms and conditions for using this website.” You want to check the box so that you can proceed with using the website, but the terms and conditions are so long and you can hardly understand what they’re even talking about!
What do you do?
Well, there are a few options. You could sit and read every word of the terms and conditions so that you aren’t lying when you check the box. Most likely, though, unless you’re a real geek who understands how to parse out indemnification, liability, arbitration, severability, and other such clauses, your time will probably be wasted. It will be a robotic exercise of scanning through complex, technical paragraphs that may or may not make total sense.
At the end, you can check the box, and you’ve done your duty. You’re not lying. But you did just waste 90 minutes (an average time for reading through terms and conditions).
I’m not sure if I’m right on this (feel free to argue my point in the comments section) but my current thought on terms and conditions is that the spirit behind the checkbox is to release the website owner or service provider from any damages or responsibility arising from using their service. It’s fairly well accepted that nobody actually reads this stuff. They just need you to check the box so that if at any time in the future, you decide to make a court claim against them, they can say, “hey, you aren’t allowed to do that!”
I will say, though: contracts for services are important to read carefully, because these vary widely. But terms and conditions on websites are all very similar (one exception might be the privacy policies) and they are almost universally not read by anyone. If you’ve read one, you’ve kind of read the spirit of them all.
So again, I’m not sure if I’m correct, but if I can spend 90 minutes answering emails from people suffering from scrupulosity and serving God by providing comfort to these precious, tormented souls, that seems a more reasonable use of my time rather than reading terms and conditions. Especially considering that the main intention of the terms and conditions is to release the website owners from any liability or responsibility.
Scrupulosity and the spirit of the law seem opposed to each other, because scrupulosity usually insists on obeying the letter of the law. But if we live according to the letter and ignore the spirit, there is always the danger of becoming lopsided or fanatical in our experience.
Finding the Heart of the Law
I think most of us know people who live fastidiously by the letter of the law but are miserable and unpleasant people. I know individuals who have never stolen or shoplifted anything in their lives, but they’ve stolen people’s happiness through their lack of courtesy and kindness. I know others who would never think of committing adultery, but yet they make home more like hell than like heaven.
We can make progress with scrupulosity as we seek the spirit of the law, the true heart of what God wants to mold within us. Seeking the spirit of the law is not a cop out, because it does not excuse us from obedience. Rather, it deepens and adds meaning to our obedience by blowing away the chaff of meaningless ritual. Notice what Jesus said to the Pharisees:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.“Matthew 23:23
Jesus did not excuse the Pharisees from paying tithe; He simply pointed their minds to the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith. “These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” Imagine if the Pharisees had begun paying tithe from a place of true worship, with hearts overflowing with mercy and faith. Perhaps Jesus wouldn’t have needed to wait for a poor widow to come with her two mites before He could make a comment about genuine worship! Having the spirit correct would have modulated the Pharisees’ behavior naturally, without even thinking, so that the actions would be right.
Seeking the spirit of the law does not lead us to be reckless or lawless in our Christian behavior. But it will have a moderating, uplifting effect on our understanding of obedience. No longer will obedience be a stilted, rigid application of rules-for-the-sake-of-rules, but we will develop an appreciation for the meaning behind God’s instructions. We will understand the “why,” and sometimes understand that the “why” will lead to applications that may not feel native to the scrupulous mind–applications like rounding numbers, stepping on ants, or buying a pretty blouse!
Scrupulosity doesn’t like the spirit of the law. It much prefers the letter of the law. The letter of the law is black and white; it doesn’t require interpretation or application. Legality offers us the tantalizing promise of acceptance with God through a mathematical application of rules.
But God’s not like that.
He doesn’t want your legality. He wants you to seek His heart at every step. The spirit of the law requires this, for it is not always a black or white matter. For example, I struggle sometimes to know how to balance opposing values in my life. On the one hand, I want to love and accept people who have unbiblical lifestyles; on the other hand, I feel compelled to take a stand for biblical truth and voice my beliefs against their actions. How, and when, do I balance these values? There is no black and white answer. I must seek God’s heart at every step, risk making messy mistakes, and trust that He will still guide me in the right way.
Perhaps, then, scrupulosity leads us into a deeper understanding of the spirit of the law. After all, can we really live without it?
May God bless each of us as we seek to better understand the spirit of the law and apply it in our lives!
Best wishes on the journey,