Some liturgical persons are so scrupulous that they go to confession six, eight, or ten times a day confessing more and more minute sins. Martin Luther suffered this kind of bondage and pestered his confessor, Staupitz, who in impatience said: “Go sin so that you will have something real to confess!”
Scrupulosity is no private possesion of any one church. Some people of the Free Church tradition — and particularly of the revivalist tradition — may make repeated confessions of faith and seek baptism many times. Others will become obsessed with one particular passage of Scripture, such as Matthew 12:32: “Whoever says a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this age or in the age to come,” or Hebrews 6:4: “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened … since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.”
I have seen countless people in psychiatric clinics who live and think as I have just described. No amount of theological debate, pastoral reassurance, or biblical instruction in words of hope, inspiration and spiritual discernment deters them from their obsession.
When I have carefully learned their life histories, I am embarrassed to discover that more often than not they have first gotten the idea and interpretation from sermons they have heard. Even during their efforts to recover from the shut-down of their useful and creative work by their scrupulous ruminations, they return to religious gatherings where preachers unknowingly use these same verses in the very sense that the person is interpreting them.
The scrupulous person’s story is a caricature of the Gospel, a mask covering deep springs of fear, rage, and an inability to forgive those who have deeply hurt them. The clearest, most common-sense statement of the “unpardonable sin” is in the Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors…. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you, but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). I have found this approach tends to uncover massive hurts and injustices these people have suffered. When some reconciliation between them and their adversaries takes place a burden begins to roll off their backs.
However, these more obvious instances of scrupulosity are easily noted. The run-of-the-mill instances are the less easily observed. In fact you may find yourself praising these persons when internally they are driven and bound by the obsessive need to be perfect, the fear of making a mistake, and a strident intolerance of other people who do not measure up to their expectations. Their character masks have some or all of the following features:
– They get caught up in trivial details, such as losing a list of the things they plan to do in a church committee meeting. Instead of laughing it off and asking the committee to help them form an agenda, they use half the meeting time fretfully trying to find the list. (After all, only their list will do!) All the while this trivialization is going on, they and the committee miss the big picture of why they are there.
– They are, as the psychiatric manuals say, “stingy with their emotions and material possessions. For example, they rarely give compliments or gifts.” They are the Scrooges of this earth and often surface as the treasurer of the church. They administer the money as if it were their own.
– They are the legalistic controllers of others, giving only two alternatives to those they influence: the wrong way and their way. They go by the book and let the issues of justice, wisdom, and mercy go unattended.
– Obsession with work pushes these persons to overfunction on their jobs in such intensity that they “get in their own way” at work, making themselves unhappy and having many conflicts with fellow workers.
The longer history of these people’s lives provide sources for empathic understanding of them. We can respond to them in kind or make them the object of sarcasm and vindictive humor. In such responses to them, as Shakespeare says, “in the course of justice none of us should see salvation. Therefore, pray for mercy, And that same prayer doth teach us to render the deeds of mercy” (The Merchant of Venice, IV, i, 184).
The “Unnecessary Conscience”
These persons as small children were heavily supervised by those caring for them. They were demanded to make the bricks of production without one straw of warmth, affection, and appreciation. They were able to survive by being workers. Now salvation — even before God — is in doing things perfectly. Their God became a stingy God. Many of them were told that if they did not do as they were told Jesus would not love them.
This does not necessarily mean their parents did not care for them at all. The parents themselves had grown up much the same way. Surviving required total effort.
I recall such a parent — a father, a farmer — who came to see me with his six-year-old daughter when I was working for a few days at the “church in town” nearby. He wanted me to help her. I asked what he thought was wrong with her. He said: “Preacher, she’s got an unnecessary conscience.”
Puzzled by this, I asked him to illustrate what an unnecessary conscience is by some of the things she did. He said: “She has trouble going to school. She will go to school if we make her do so. While at school, the teacher sent her to the blackboard to do some arithmetic. When she sat down she put the little piece of chalk in her apron pocket, forgetting about it as she did so. When she got home and found the chalk in her pocket she was terrified. She was afraid the teacher would whip her for stealing! Don’t you think that’s an unnecessary conscience?”
I certainly did. I comforted the child and asked the father to get one of the counselors at the Family and Children’s Agency to talk with him, the mother and her when I was no longer there.
The theological issue at stake here is the religion of works and the law devoid of the gift of grace through our Lord Jesus Christ. I am certain that your homiletical craft is already devising a sermon. How about a title like: “The Necessary and the Unnecessary Conscience.” Hebrews 9:14 urges: “purify your consciences of dead works to serve the living God.”
You may or may not like Harry Emerson Fosdick. In either event, you will be intrigued by his sermon “Handling Our Mischievous Consciences” in his book, On Being a Real Person.
Another homiletical approach to the tyranny of an unmerciful conscience would be “Facing Life with a Good Conscience.” Of course immediately comes to your mind the Apostle Paul’s opening remarks as he addresses Ananias in Acts 23:1: “I have lived in a good conscience up to this day.”
What does a good conscience consist of? In contrast, Paul speaks of the weak conscience in I Corinthians 8:7. In this passage he is talking about the conscience that is bound to the worship of idols. What are the idols today that bind the consciences of your people? You know them better than anyone else.
Your last point could consider the quiet desperation of those who fear they will do something wrong. They live by a morality of total safety, fearing to take any risk. The over-scrupulous person needs above all a “purged conscience” as Hebrews 9:14 says: “purify (or purge) your conscience of dead works.”
The Discipline of the Need for Perfection
The overscrupulous person, as I have said before, presents a caricature of Christian values. The need for perfection is one of these values. Yet I have never seen such a person who has made a thorough study of the whole teaching of the whole Bible on the expectation of perfection in this life.
In the Old Testament the meaning of perfection seems to be “wholeness,” and shalom, or the serenity of perfect peace. The cognate terms for perfection have connotations of “integrity,” “simplicity,” “sincerity,” as well as perfection.
The New Testament terms signify complete obedience, wholeness, and maturity. They reflect the idea of “design,” “end,” “goal,” or “purpose.” In Ephesians 4:13-14, Paul contrasts perfection or maturity in Christ with childishness of children who are tossed about by every wind of new doctrine. The command of Jesus that we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect is written in the future tense and points toward the end result of spiritual discipline.
In John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, he stressed that Christian perfection is not absolute or sinless nor a meritorious achievement of a person through effort. Rather, it is “a celebration of the sovereignty of grace in transforming the sinful person into the image of God’s love” (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 843). As the Apostle Paul puts it: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (II Corinthians 3:18).
The spiritual pilgrimage of going from “one degree of glory to another” in the high calling of the worship of our Lord Jesus Christ is the farthest thing possible to the mind of the overscrupulous person. Their perception of perfection is in doing the most minute task of the day perfectly.
A typist such as this cannot “dash off” a “rough draft.” He or she must turn each copy out letter perfect. A hostess may roundly rebuke her maid for not pouring each guests’ cup of tea at an equal level with all the others! A church treasurer may belabor the monthly business meeting with the mystery of what happened to make the figures show a 97 cent deficit. The leader of a group of eleven-year-old boys in a crafts program may elevate perfect completion of the task so high that the boys’ creative spirit will be quenched. Then he will do each boy’s work for him “the way it ought to be done — right.”
Or take the person who studies the Bible meticulously and keeps a diligent record of the most inconsequential error in detail that the pastor lets slip in his preaching. (You probably say, “No — You take him!”) Or the person who inadvertently is not looking as he walks down the hall and runs into you. To you it is one of the more or less humorous happenings of the day. To him or her, though, it is an egregious mistake for which they must apologize then, call you that afternoon to apologize, and write you a note to apologize again.
A more highly organized and productive kind of perfection is that of the professional person whose work demands perfection and severely punishes mistakes. These persons have channelled their need for perfection into highly complicated professions.
Medical doctors are the ones with whom I have the closest day-to-day fellowship in our work at the School of Medicine in Louisville. Many of them confide in me the agony they experience when they make a mistake in diagnosis, treatment or care of a patient. Not only do they expect this of themselves, their colleagues have a deaf ear to their pain, and society at large is likely to sue them if they make a mistake.
One physician wrote of this in an article in the January 12, 1984 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. He had “done all the right things” with a young expectant mother, following the results of tests, ultrasound, etc., but still he made a mistake that resulted in the death of the unborn child. The parents were very understanding and he sustained his relationship as their physician. Yet he says: “I was honest with [them] … I told them everything they wanted to know and described to them as completely as I could what had happened.
“I never shared with them my agony that I underwent trying to deal with the reality of the events. I never did ask for their forgiveness…. Somehow I felt it was my responsibility to deal with my guilt alone…. Most people — doctors and patients alike — harbor deep within themselves the expectation that the physician will be perfect. No one seems prepared to accept the simple fact of life that physicians, like anyone else, will make mistakes.”
He further says: “The only real answer for guilt is confession, restitution, and absolution. Yet within the structure of modern medicine there is simply no place for this spiritual healing” (pp. 119-121).
This poignant story invokes empathy in you and me for the professionals of every kind in our congregations. They are a part of the dispersed ecclesia who have mobilized the anxiety of their need for perfection into service of human kind. Yet their perfectionism — and the perfectionist demands of the rest of us — pushes them into a unique kind of loneliness.
I have established fellowship with many of them. They tell me of the burden of these self-imposed and societally-expected demands. Telling another person divides the load in half if that person gets in under the load with them and collaborates with them as to strategies for distributing it to other people, keeping only their fair share and an extra portion by reason of their expertise.
In your preaching, a humble word of admonition is appropriate: “Localize your need for perfection. Let it have a reasonable force in your life when you are in the operating room as a surgeon, when you are auditing a person’s or company’s accounts, etc. However, set some limits upon it. You do not have to be a perfectionist when you are teaching your child how to ride a bicycle. Nor do you have to be a perfectionist at church. This is the place where mistakes are a part of the human condition. This is where you go for forgiveness.”
When our sons were quite young, we spent a week at a North Carolina beach. One afternoon the boys and I were exploring and came to the deep sea fishing docks. We met the skipper of one of the boats, he had some leisure and we struck up a conversation with him. He said that he had spent about twenty-five years as a jeweler. He decided to sell out and come to the sea, and still thought it was a good decision.
I noted that he had a diamond ring on his hand, and remarked: “That is a perfectly beautiful diamond ring.” Then he commented: “It is the only thing I kept from the jewelry business. It is beautiful, but it is not perfect. Only the diamonds made by human beings — industrial diamonds — are perfect. The ones God makes, like this one, all have a flaw in them so God and the jeweler can tell them apart!”
And that’s the way it is. The imperfections in our lives are the reverse side of God’s gift to us. What we see as flaws, when turned over and seen from God’s angle of vision, are the fingerprints of God’s unique design for us.
When we ask God to forgive our mistakes to praise Him, to heal us from our sense of inordinate pride in being without flaws, God turns our mistakes over and reveals to us God’s love as our mischievous consciences are enlightened by the Holy Spirit and made to praise God. God removes our spirit of fear and replaces it with the courage of imperfection.
It is better to risk making mistakes than it is to be locked into inaction by fear. Conscience need not make cowards of us all.
In your preaching, you have here the theme for several sermons. An exegetical sermon might contrast the message of Romans 6:1-4 with that of Galatians 5:1, which seem to be contradictory messages. In Romans, Paul challenges the “do what comes naturally and count of God’s grace to cover the results” of the antinomians. In Galatians he is challenging the legalistic scrupulosity of the Judaizers who insist on observing every jot and tittle of Jewish law.
These options are still being marketed in the religious marketplace. There are the “Let it all hang out” Christians who live on a psychology of the splurged urge, and there are the stingy-hearted Christians who are scrupulous in every detail of their cultural definition of the perfect Christian.
Another homiletical adventure could be taken in a topical sermon entitled: “Perfect or Maturing?” The value of perfection is a passion of the scrupulous personality. He or she expects this of themselves and of others. The value of maturity is “new wine” for him or her. Maturity calls for the capacity to learn from past experience (“hindsight”), the gift of discernment of present events and relationships (insight), and the capacity to envision the outcome of a given decision or behavior (foresight).
The biblical framework of such a sermon would most aptly be I Corinthians 12:10 and Hebrews 5:11-6:3. You could entitle the sermon “Going on to Maturity.” This is an oblique way of coming up at the scrupulous minded. Yet it has the advantage of not “singling them out” and “throwing brickbats” from the pulpit.
This discussion of the overly-scrupulous person essentially is what the Protestant Reformation was about. When you attach the paying of money for penance to this kind of religion, as Tetzel did, it becomes a devil’s brew. We are saved, redeemed, taught and live day by day by grace and not the meticulous obedience to the Law.
May your sermons bring grace to some scrupulous personalities in your congregation.

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