The ‘Overactive Conscience’ Part 1 – Introduction

An Introduction to the Over-Active Conscience

At times in life, all of us go through times of spiritual struggle such as dealing with guilt, doubt, or confusion. While there can be numerous reasons for these experiences, they are commonly due to:

  1. Dealing with circumstances that are painful and difficult to understand (e.g., the death of a child)
  2. Times when we have not been diligent in the Word, prayer, attending church, etc.
  3. Times when we have not dealt with a “heart” issue such as pride, un-confessed sin, etc.
  4. Times when we do not understand Scripture well enough to discern how it applies to our lives.

While at some time or another all of us have experienced the things listed above, a smaller percentage of individuals deal with anxiety about spiritual matters that extends beyond what is commonly experienced. While these individuals may initially appear to have concerns similar to those of most people; upon closer examination, it becomes evident that they are dealing with a mental health issue that has become intertwined in their spiritual beliefs.

Please note: This article is not intended to suggest that having a spiritual struggle automatically means someone needs treatment by a mental health professional.

SCRUPULOSITY [Pronounced: skroo-pyuh-los-i-tee] is a word that many people have never heard before. However, as you read through the case vignettes below, you will see that you have probably encountered scrupulosity either in yourself or someone that you know. While all of the cases below describe situations commonly dealt with at Apostolic Christian Counseling & Family Services, in order to protect the confidentiality of our clients, all of the cases below are fictional composites.

Case #1 “I didn’t repent right.” A 60-year-old brother, who has served the Lord faithfully for decades, is tortured by the unrelenting thought that he “didn’t repent right” over 40 years ago. He has discussed his concerns with his elder (and other elders) on dozens of occasions, but still does not feel relief. Even though all the elder brothers have assured him that there is no need for him to worry, he cannot escape the thoughts and has become deeply depressed.

Case #2 “I can’t feel peace.” A young convert struggles with the concept of “having peace” prior to her baptism. While her parents, friends, and elder all believe that she is ready to proceed with her testimony (on the basis of her faith, knowledge of the Word, and converted lifestyle), she just doesn’t “feel right” about it. She knows of no un-confessed sin or unfinished restitution that would prevent her from moving forward. However, every time she starts to feel peaceful, she is quickly overwhelmed by doubt, worry, and fear that she might not “have peace.”

Case #3 “I have blasphemous thoughts.” A middle-aged sister is praying by her bedside and is asking the Lord for wisdom and guidance in her life. All of a sudden, the thought, “maybe I am actually praying to Satan,” flashes across her mind. She tries to undo the thought in her head by repeating to herself, “in Jesus’ name I pray; in Jesus’ name I pray; in Jesus’ name I pray” over and over. The more she tries to block out or undo the thoughts, the more distressed she becomes. Eventually, she is constantly bombarded by these “blasphemous thoughts.”

Case #4 “I feel unworthy to take communion.” Each year, just prior to communion, a sister becomes anxious and frantic in her attempt to make sure that she is pure and won’t take communion unworthily. She repeatedly worries that she might have “offended” someone but isn’t sure who or when this might have happened. The closer it gets to communion, the more possible “offenses” or “sins” flood her mind. Her solution is to call all of the people that she can think of that she might have offended in some way. Each time she talks to someone about her concerns, she gets the same response: the people report that the issues she is bringing up are so small and insignificant that they never even noticed. The night of communion the sister attends, but does not partake, because she is worried that she might have forgotten to go back to someone, even though she doesn’t know who that would be.

Case #5 “I need to confess… again.” A brother goes to visit his elder to confess… again. The elder kindly asks what is on his mind. The elder is surprised to find that the issue is exactly the same thing that the brother has confessed time and time again. The brother says, “When I was here the last time, I think I might have left something out. I don’t think I did, but I want to be sure.” The elder has heard this exact confession many times and, again, tells the brother that God has forgiven him and that he should move on and stop worrying about it. The brother leaves the elder’s house feeling relieved. One week later, the brother goes to see the elder again and confesses the very same thing.

Case #6 “I’ve committed the unpardonable sin.” “I think I’ve committed the unpardonable sin and I have no hope” says a brother in tears. His elder tries to calm him down and says, “Tell me what you mean; why do you think you’ve committed the unpardonable sin?” The brother says, “I’m not exactly sure that I did. I just feel like I might have. Since these thoughts keep coming to me, I must have done it!” No matter how much reassurance the elder gives, and no matter how much reasoning from the Scriptures is done, the brother cannot escape the thoughts. He is now starting to feel despondent and wonders, “If I am condemned to Hell anyway, why try?”

Case #7 “I see blasphemous pictures in my thoughts.” A young brother comes to his elder so ashamed that he can’t even look the elder brother in the face. The elder compassionately says, “What brings you here tonight? Whatever it is, with God’s help, we can work through it.” After several attempts to say what is on his mind, the young man says, “I’ve been having sinful sexual thoughts.” The elder has heard many confessions and assures him that this can be worked through. “No, my thoughts aren’t like everyone else’s,” the young brother says. “Every time I sit in a church service, read my Bible, or pray I see an image in my head of me having sex with the virgin Mary. Does this mean that my faith is really in vain?”

Case #8 “I worry that I’m going to say bad words.” A sister fears going into the church sanctuary because she worries that she will blurt-out obscenities and cuss words in the middle of the sermon. As she is talking with another sister over lunch, she starts to wonder if she just cussed out loud. She doesn’t think she did, but she isn’t sure. She carefully reviews everything that she said in order to make sure that she didn’t say something wrong. She decides that she should not go into the sanctuary for the service so that she isn’t in a situation where she might shout out cuss words and “profane the name of Christ.”

Case #9 “Did I just lie?” A middle-aged brother is repeatedly tormented by the thought that he might have just lied. He constantly feels guilty and worries that he may be in danger of hell. Earlier in the day, a coworker asked him if he knew what the weather was supposed to be like the next day. He told the coworker, “It’s supposed to be sunny.” However, after leaving work, the brother is tormented by the thought that he might have lied to his coworker when he remembered that the forecast said it was supposed to be “partly sunny” and not just “sunny.” The brother worries and worries about ‘deceiving’ his coworker. At 11:45 p.m. he calls his coworker (who was already asleep for the night) to apologize and to tell him that the forecast was supposed to be “partly sunny” and not “sunny” as he had said earlier.

Case #10 “What if my motives weren’t pure?” “I think I might have just lied to the Holy Spirit” says a brother to his elder. This man is constantly worrying about his “TRUE” motives. “What if I didn’t ‘REALLY’ mean it when I told God in my prayer that I loved Him. Did I ‘REALLY’ mean that I love God with ‘ALL’ of my heart. I think I do, but what if I don’t love Him with ‘ALL’ of my heart? Worse yet, what if I ‘WILLFULLY’ told God that I love Him with ‘ALL’ of my heart, but I ‘REALLY’ didn’t? If I’ve sinned willfully, does it mean that I’m lost for all eternity?”

Other Symptoms and Manifestations:

The cases listed above are only a few of the ways that scrupulosity is manifested. In addition, it is quite common for people experiencing scrupulosity to also worry about other things such as committing aggressive (e.g., thoughts of harming a baby, hitting a pedestrian with a car, urges to hurt a weak or defenseless person) or sexual acts (e.g., fearing that one will molest a child, worrying about being gay). These people often feel very ashamed and hide the thoughts from others (“they will think I’m crazy” or “they might take my children away from me”).

To view the complete PDF of Understanding the ‘Overactive Conscience’, click here.