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Scrupulosity, pride, and how humility helps

C.S. Lewis wrote something which I think goes right to the core of religious obsessions: "Humility is not thinking less of oneself. It's about thinking of oneself less."

That is Law, and as always is the case with Law, it functions for our good only when, as Paul put it, we "use it lawfully." It can do damage if we misuse it.

Being obsessed with the self is pride. OCD will seek occasion to make us feel guilty about obsessing because it means thinking about ourselves. It will lose track of the fact that we obsess because of a neurological condition which can have spiritual ramifications, not a spiritual condition as such. And of course, it will lose all sight of the fact that the whole problem is that a person who is paying attention to how he or she is doing spiritually is fixated on himself (or herself) and isn't looking outward, to Jesus, Who is the only righteousness we have or ever will have, and to our neighbor.

But that's the whole point! We don't have a duty to obsess about whether this or that is a sin, or how well we're doing in the sanctification department. In fact. doing that only makes things worse. We have a duty not to do that! But our tendency to do it anyway is prompted and reinforced by a medical condition.

But there's no mistaking the element of pride in religious obsessions. Who, after all, is as proud as the person who thinks that his or her moral sense is better developed than God's, and who cannot forgive himself or herself in spite of the fact that God Himself has? Who is nearly as proud as the person who doubts that the promises of Jesus to forgive and to save all those who believe in Him apply to him or to her, because he or she is an extra-special, super-duper sinner who is SOOOOOO bad that they might be the ONE EXCEPTION to those promises- even the ones which specifically state that there are no exceptions?

The Reformers talked about three "uses" of the Law. The First Use of the Law is to intimidate even psychopaths into limiting their victimization of others by making them afraid of somehow being accountable. Sometimes fear can deter even people who lack a sense of right and wrong.

The Second and most important "use" of the Law is to break us, to attack precisely our pride by driving us to despair over our ability to do what people with OCD torture themselves by trying to do every day: "fix" ourselves by our own efforts and stop being a sinner. Three cheers for the Second Use of the Law! Only it brings home to us both how broken we are spiritually and how impossible it is for us to "fix" ourselves are we able to see our need for Jesus. And when we find ourselves slipping back into the pattern of turning our gaze inward and obsessing about the condition of our own hearts and the minutia of our behavior,  we need it to break us once again and convince us every day, if necessary, that it ain't gonna happen- that in focusing on the condition of our own hearts and our own behavior we will find only failure and death.

As the Second Use of the Law, Lewis's comment that humility means thinking of ourselves less reminds us that all we'll discover by thinking about ourselves is sin and death. It shows us that we will find no answers there and instead drives us to do exactly what we have failed to do: stop focusing on ourselves and focus instead on Christ.

The Third Use of the Law is controversial. Luther never spelled it out, though he often implied it. Certainly, the Bible is quite clear about it.  Driven to Jesus, and taking refuge in Him, we no longer are threatened by the Law. We no longer have to focus on ourselves and how well we're doing or not doing. We're free to think about God and our neighbor now, instead of about ourselves. So what should we concern ourselves with where God and our neighbor are concerned?

Now comes the Law again- except not as an accuser, but as a helpful friend. It can't accuse us anymore since we're finding our righteousness and the answer to everything it demands in Jesus, and have no need to look obsess about the condition of our own hearts, where we already know we will find only anguish and despair and failure and death. So instead, the Law tells us, whom it can no longer accuse, how to spend all that energy we've been wasting worrying about how we're doing and whether this or that harmless action might for some far-fetched reason be a "sin-" as if anything a sinner does could, in itself, not be contaminated by all that decay and corruption and spiritual pus that we've been lovingly stirring all that time in the hope that we could somehow fix ourselves! Now we have time for Christ and for our neighbor! Now we look to them, think about ourselves less- and discover that therein lies peace.

OCD is a neurological condition, not a spiritual failing. The problem isn't as simple as uncomplicated pride. Fixating on ourselves is pride, but it's not pride which causes us to fixate on ourselves. For all the spiritual damage obsessing does by driving us in on ourselves, it's not fundamentally a spiritual problem because it's caused by our broken brains, not by our broken hearts. But the obsession with oneself and with one's own hear and behavior which manifests as pride finds a perfect resolution in the fact that when we're convicted of our pride. the Law in its Second Use causes us to despair of ourselves and be driven to the Gospel, to Jesus. And there, we find not only the remedy for our pride but even for the OCD-driven habit of thinking so much about ourselves.

We are given Jesus and our neighbor to think about instead.  Instead of thinking less of ourselves, when we find our righteousness and our healing in Jesus and our the focus of our lives in the needs of our neighbor, we end up thinking about ourselves less. The result is peace, freedom, and the very holiness which we had been trying and failing for so long to work within ourselves by our own compulsive worrying and fretting,

When your OCD accuses you, instead of letting it drive you to anxiety and depression and a fearful striving to be what you can never make yourself, let it drive you to Jesus.  Let Him be your righteousness. Let Him bear your burden. Let Him free you from the burden of thinking less of yourself by enabling you to think about yourself less.


  1. Enjoyed this blog. I do struggle with Pride. I have Pure O with blasphemy. I don't have obsessions anymore (that I know of) but I do mental checking all the time (which is a compulsion that hits before the obsession). Now, these checkings to bring up nasty words happened all the time but I feel no anxiety about cursing at God. Is that normal? Do others have this happen? It makes me wonder if I've lost my faith

  2. Glad it was helpful.

    Here are a couple of things you may or may not know. We all have random background noise going on in our heads all the time. Sometimes when I'm in an unusually mellow mood, and there's less going on in my head than usual, I become aware of random phrases and sometimes even whole sentences running unbidden through my my mind. They're usually meaningless and even incoherent. But once in a while they'll make sense. On occasion they'll even be vulgar or irreligious. But they don't come from my heart. They have no spiritual significance. They're merely my brain "de-fragging" itself.

    Anybody who has ever had an "ear worm-" usually a piece of music repeating over and over and over again- probably knows that the worst thing you can do is to try to drive it away. That only strengthens it. The best way to get rid of an "ear worm" is to let it be there and pay as little attention to it as possible. There are exercises to help you think of other things, but other than that the best thing to do for an "ear worm" is to let it be there and not react to it. Or did you ever spend thirty seconds trying to not to think of purple elephants? Give it a try. Purple elephants will not only dominate your thoughts, but be coming out of your ears!

    The more attention you pay to a thought, the more you will find yourself thinking it. That such obsessions (which is the clinical word for what you call "checkings") bring up nasty words and even curses toward God is the most natural thing in the world. That's because OCD fixates on whatever is most important to us. Knowing that can be a valuable weapon. People whose obsessing brings nasty words to the surface hate nasty words. If what we obsess about is our relationship with God, that actually proves that our relationship with God is the most important thing to us. People who have lost their faith don't worry about having lost their faith.

    And incidentally, blasphemy must, by definition, be spoken out loud to be blasphemy. One reason for that is precisely that it's perfectly normal for even a religious person who doesn't have OCD to have such words and thoughts pop into their minds for no good reason from time to time. People without OCD attach no significance to that. That's why they don't obsess about it!

    So your lack of anxiety is actually a healthy response. No reason to obsess about that, either!

    1. Thanks so much for your response. I read that the lack of anxiety is called the "backdoor spike". Also, the checking is a compulsion, not an obsession and was wondering if you had any advice to stop the checking to find the obsession, or if you have personally dealt with this aspect of Pure O. Here is the article says talks about the checking: Not sure if I allow the checking to keep happening, how God views me when I do this, etc.. I feel so much shame, and it makes me mad a God- sometimes I wonder if I'm just angry or preverted, or I really have OCD.

    2. Yeah, most people with OCD wonder that.

      He sees you as somebody with a broken brain. The rest, He doesn't see, because when He looks at you He sees Jesus.

    3. Did you experience the backdoor spike and also the mental checking? Do you allow the mental checking to keep happening since it's a compulstion or do you have advice on how to stop that part? Thanks again!

    4. Everybody does, and the checking thing is pretty close to being the essence of the problem. You just have to get used to the idea that fear isn't the norm.

    5. Ok, so everyone experiences the feeling of almost no anxiety but still has the thoughts? Also I'm not sure I understand the fear isn't the norm. Did you experience the checking? Any ideas on how to stop it? Do you let it just keep happening?

      Thanks again Robert!

    6. Everybody with OCD finds himself or herself at times worrying about not worrying. Everyone with OCD experiences the checking. You just realize it's silly and not do it.

    7. Thanks Robert, I even wrote down that phrase of He sees me with a broken brain, and covered by the hands of Jesus.

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  4. He believed the extraordinary promises of the Lord and the Lord counted it to him as righteousness
    God bless you all, have a nice day xoxo
    Cathy Williams

  5. Hello everyone. Thanks for this amazing blog. Im suffering from scrupulosity since 2006, but only realised, that it is indeed scrupulosity in 2010. Before 2010 i always thought im very wicked... since a few years i do well and can ignore blasphemous thoughts most of the time. But sometimes its hard and certsin thoughts stick in my mind again. And then this awful idea comes again, that i have gone too far and that i am unforgivable, because i had such horrific thoughts... and the worry, that what if those thoughts are of my heart indeed? But then, deep down, i know i really love Christ. Just so exhsusting at times. And yes, it is a fear problem. Whst we fear most, will be in our mind almost constantly. And i think, we create somehow own phrases or ideaas etc. In our mind because we absolutely dont want to think blasphemous thoughts. Simply ignoring the thoughts is one of the best things to do God bless you all


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