The Healing Journey with Religious OCD and Scrupulosity

The subject of scrupulosity or religious OCD is one that is near and dear to my heart. For I have had to personally work through many aspects of that battlegrouind. So I do not address this from a distance, but as someone who has had deep struggles with OCD. I pray that my learning and healing journey will be an inspiration to yours. 

Religious OCD and scrupulosity is also a struggle that many well meaning Christians struggle with. Many do not know what it is or that they even struggle with it. To be honest, it took me years to realize that the main pattern of torment and trouble revealed that I was obsessive and compulsive. You can hear more about my personal story in other episodes

Religious OCD triggers a great deal of conflict, guilt, uneasiness, anxiety and inner torment over a lot of spiritually related issues that end up weighing heavily on people’s hearts. And because the OCD points to areas of religious nature, which involve important issues of religious devotion, salvation, purity, holiness and eternity, it can be easy for a person to become swept away by the storm of religious OCD or scrupulosity. 

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What is Religious OCD or Scrupulosity?

With religious OCD or scrupulosity, you become fearfully preoccupied with doing what is right and making sure your spiritual condition is settled, correct and properly lined up. But that driving conflict and disturbance grows and intensifies. You may act on some religious rituals or acts that temporarily seem to bring relief to your inward torment, but over time, the unsettledness continues and does not relent. 

With religious OCD, there is an obsession over a spiritual or religious issue that becomes magnified and taken on as a heavy burden to resolve.

These religious obsessions can be: 

  • Intrusive thoughts that are impure or disturbing. 
  • Blasphemous thoughts 
  • Committing the unpardonable sin
  • Doubts about your salvation
  • Fearing you may have lost your salvation
  • Backsliding 
  • Introspective searching for sin in your life. 
  • A heavy sense of moral wrong 
  • A driving feeling of “not enough” spiritual devotion

As one seeks to “fix” these obsessions, they will seek to find relief through what can become a compulsion. 

Compulsions: excessive routines, behaviors or mental acts to reduce anxiety, guilt and discomfort. Neutralize the issue. Some are outward actions. Some can be in your head. 

  • Checking . . . checking salvation, checking sin issues, checking feelings, introspection
  • Confession, repenting, praying
  • Reassurance seeking
  • Researching, investigating, the subject of obsession
  • Mental arguments, spinning, ruminating
  • Excessive talking out 

One may get momentary relief by utilizing one of these practices, but this habit becomes a compulsion. Meanwhile, the obsession often finds a way to come back and grow. 

The feelings of unrest and things not being “just right” increase over time, driving you into an endless loop of obsessions that rise up in your mind. You end up chasing those feelings, which lead you into constant compulsions you attempt to engage in order to find peace. 

Some Initial ROCD Observations

There are some upfront observations you need to be aware of when it comes to Religious OCD or scrupulosity. 

  1. Shame blankets the hearts and minds of those who battle scrupulosity.
  2. If you battle scrupulosity, you won’t get the help you need unless you are ready to receive it.
  3. ROCD strugglers wrestling with a lot of confusion, because their obsessions and compulsions lead them into constant loops. They are often exhausted, depressed and feel deeply defeated.
  4. Telling someone with religious OCD to just “get over it” or “stop thinking that way” can actually make things worse. It can leave them in a pile of shame and self-condemnation that gets deeper.
  5. People with religious OCD often go to their spiritual leaders for help. The natural response for any well meaning Christian leader is to pull out their Bible and provide feedback to the religious subjects. This is understandable and well meaning. But for an OCD mind, it can make matters worse.
  6. Working through OCD takes certain insights and protocols that need to be learned for healing and overcoming. They take time to learn, process and develop. But they at first seem counterintuitive.
  7. Learning to heal will take being willing to see that “what you think the problem is, is not the problem.” You will need to become aware of the real issues that need to be faced.
  8. Those with religious OCD/scrupulosity have a cluster of battles that are often called “distortions.”

Overview of 7 Distortions:

  1. Perfectionism
  2. Struggle with Uncertainty
  3. Distorted Meaning of Thoughts
  4. Overestimating Threats
  5. Inflated Responsibility
  6. Intense Need to Control Thoughts 
  7. Difficulty with Emotions

The History of OCD

Religious OCD is not a new thing. It has been around for at least hundreds of years. I would argue that it has been around for thousands of years, going back to the Old Testament. 

I believe that Paul the Apostle himself had to address this overwhelming battle within, which he was very honest about–the awareness of sin being at work within his members. Some of this journey is documented in what he penned in Romans 6, 7 and 8. Some of his finest revelations came about through the process of discovering the freedom in the grace of Jesus Chrsit and the love of Father God. 

The clutches of condemnation, shame and accusation would have wanted to keep Paul bound to the snares of the law and cycles of sin and shame. In fact, those bound with religious OCD have a very punishment based relationship with God, where they struggle to connect to what God’s love and grace mean in their day to day thoughts. 

In Paul’s writings to the Galatians, which is believed to be his earliest writings, convey in strong language, the need for believers to remove themselves out of the influence of the law, which had bewitched believers into a performance driven religious lifestyle again. 

I believe Paul’s strong stance against the law revealed what he had to work through, but it also revealed how deceptive the ways of law can be. It showed how much law based or performanced based thinking can subtly disconnect the hearts of believers from living in the dynamic love of the Father and grace found in our Lord Jesus Christ. 

In fact, one of the greatest battles that OCD sufferers struggle with is a personal, heart-felt connection to the grace and love of God. They live in the black and white of life, without making room for the process and journey. They have become so consumed with making sure they have things “just right,” or that things “feel right,” they are always left unsettled, disturbed and lacking peace. 

Religious OCD: Scrupulosity

Religious OCD is often called scrupulosity. The record of this specific kind of battleground is found as early as the 12th century and the catholic church. Some would say that many tenets and practices of the catholic church can make its participants more obsessive and compulsive. Personally, I would argue that any faith practice that emphasizes certain behaviors, habits, rituals and perspectives that are driven by law-based or performance based thinking, can make a personal vulnerable to scrupulosity. 

Scrupulosity is where Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and religion collide. 

What are Scruples?

In order to understand scrupulosity, it may help to understand what “scruples” are. 

When it comes to scruples, there are two definitions that are helpful.

The first meaning of scruples is . . . .

  1. Concern over:
      • sin issues in your life. 
      • the quality of performance regarding your religious devotion. 
      • the certainty of your standing with God. 
  2. Doubt, uncertainty, hesitation or reluctance regarding something you may think is wrong.

A Small Sharp Stone

The origin of the word “scruples” can go back to meaning a small sharp stone. It can also mean anxiety or uneasiness. I wonder if this word has a connotation of the discomfort a little sharp stone can bring about if it is in your pocket or lodged in your shoe. The very nature of religious OCD is that small issues bring about a sharp reaction in your being. Have you ever had a sharp, tiny pebble in your pocket or shoe? It will drive you crazy. So will scruples that have gone off the rails. 

Scruples can be a part of your moral compass or your conscience (your spiritual radar of right and wrong). Because of this, you pay attention to the scruples, which bring out this sense of right and wrong that make you think you are following your conscience. At first, it may be hard to detect that you are following a way of thinking that may lead you into OCD. 

Without any scruples at all, the world would be in mass chaos, lawlessness or a moral free for all. But for OCD sufferers, their scruples are off the charts and out of place. They become neurotic about their sense of morality and rightness. 

Underneath, the driving forces are performance based spirituality, guilt and anxiety, with shame covering over all of it. But it can be hard to detect at times, because the spotlight is often placed on whatever particular spiritual or biblical subject seems to be troubling them or “violating their conscience.” 

Arguing with Scrupulosity

It can be incredibly difficult to challenge the scruples of someone with religious OCD. So beware of this if you are talking to someone with this kind of struggle. Don’t get sucked into debates, arguments or trying to convince them otherwise, because you are wasting your time. ROCD people have to come to terms themselves that their thinking patterns and beliefs need shifting, otherwise they will not open their hearts to embracing new perspectives. 

At first, leaders, pastors or mentors will follow the ROCD’s train of thought and try to help them by addressing their religious arguments or debates. But over time, they will notice the constant pattern that helpful perspectives they seek to bring do not land. Many times, a person stuck in scrupulosity is lost in the religious subject and can’t hear the insight you are providing. 

Challenging an ROCD’s obsession and compulsion feels to them like you are challenging their foundation of right and wrong. To consider any adjustments would feel like compromise, abandoning the faith or becoming a reprobate. Their grid of scruples is a major part of how they feel at peace. 

I know this for sure about people with ROCD and scrupulosity: they will only truly listen to what they need when they have come to the end of themselves and are willing to rebuild their spiritual foundation. Until then, their main OBSESSION will be answering the specific subject of uncertainty that they cannot get their eyes off. They will continue to live in the broken record of the issue they think needs solving.  

I have also noticed that when an ROCD person realizes that their scruples are “off,” or “not from God,” they can still hold onto their compulsions, especially because of the massive anxiety, guilt and shame they still feel regarding certain subjects. They get hooked into their conflicted feelings that keep calling for their attention. 

Early Records of religious OCD and Scrupulosity

Scrupulosity was observed in the Catholic church as early as the 1600s, where certain monks were praying in excessive fashion. Other religious leaders were recognizing that their behaviors and rituals were manifesting unhealthy patterns that were inconsistent with God’s love and grace. 

One of the earliest records of religious OCD or scrupulosity can be found in the writings of John Moore, who served in leadership in the Church of England in the 1600s. 

He called this struggle of scrupulosity “religious melancholy” in a sermon he gave in 1691. In this message he described dedicated worshippers who were tormented by “naughty and sometimes blasphemous thoughts” that would not leave or stop, no matter how much they attempted to stop them. 

This term religious melancholy is a good word description for a number of reasons. Religious melancholy well describes a lot of my struggle with OCD. The way I approached my faith left me more low and down than it did producing joy, greater peace and love. It often left me more depressed. 

In fact, the more I worked through OCD issues, I became aware of a whole layer of depression I was never able to even address before. I find that many OCD sufferers also have aspects of depression that are struggling with. Many times, they don’t even see it, because they are consumed with whatever religious subject they are stuck on. 

I have found that many OCD sufferers have a melancholy about them. They often take themselves and their religion so seriously, to the point that they lack joy and fulfillment. Many struggle with keeping their mood in a healthy place and others can have underlying battles with depression. 

In describing this religious melancholy, Moore speaks of it as: 

“a flatness in their minds…which makes them fear, that what they do, is so defective and unfit to be presented unto God, that He will not accept it…”

He also mentioned experiencing: 

“naughty, and sometimes blasphemous thoughts…[which] start in their minds, while they are exercised in the Worship of God…

Religious OCD includes the battle of intrusive thoughts. In the midst of the most sacred of moments, the worst, disturbing and most troubling thoughts present themselves, making the experience of a spiritual ritual of any kind very troubling. 

The first response is often an attempt to suppress the thoughts, especially because they create an intense disturbance within the person. But the more one attempts to suppress them, but more the struggle increases. 

Moore even observed that those who struggled were mostly “good people,” meaning these were not thoughts they were wanting. But they were so confused as to the meaning, source and disturbance these thoughts carried. 

Martin Luther and Others

From some research on the life of Martin Luther, I personally believe he had battles with religious OCD. It’s understandable. He was carrying a major shift on his shoulders that would impact Christianity forever. In fact, I began to read about Martin Luther during my high school years and was fascinated by his journey and what he was fighting for. I was also deeply moved by tenets of freedom in Christ that were available to the church, but had drifted to the background. 

Through his journey of seeking, learning, being a part of a monastery and even teaching the Scriptures, Luther struggled with salvation, repetitive prayers, constant confession and other acts that would be considered part of scrupulosity. It is said that he had battles with thoughts to curse God and other blasphemous thoughts. There are some articles that say he was consumed with thoughts of “the devil’s behind,” which would fall under the category of “intrusive thoughts.”  

It is most likely that John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, had thought patterns and behaviors that had some scrupulosity in it. Although it is very challenging to assess the mental and spiritual world of someone who is no longer living, I believe that many great influencers like Bunyan had religious OCD. 

But there is something very important to understand. In those days, and even in certain religious circles today, patterns of scrupulosity are culturally acceptable and at times, admired. There is a massive amount of Christian service, spiritual devotion and religious intensity that can communicate a high level of spirituality. Some religious OCD can get rewarded as someone who is intensely devoted to the faith. 

Growing up, I listened to many different preachers who were intense in their convictions and firm in their stances. They were spread out across different streams of Christiantiy. I admired their faith and courage, but at the same time, got wrapped into views on salvation, holiness, prayer, repentance, living right that propelled me further into an already performance based relationship with God. I became wide open to condemnation, guilt, shame and the constant internal conflict of “never enough.” My striving left me always feeling that what I did was “never enough.” Yet the performance and perfectionism I carried still drove me in my everyday patterns. 

I remember days of weeping, groaning, fasting, crying until I could not cry another tear. Like many monks in the past, I was driving to sacrifice, give up things and push myself in the name of giving my all to God. In reality, I was living a self-punishing life. 

I followed the guilt, anxiety and self-punishing pathway as though it was God. This inflamed OCD tendencies with incredible measure. But it took me quite some time to realize that. Especially because I would tie “God told me” or “God is telling me” as something I would wrap around everything I was thinking or doing. 

I talk about my personal journey as well as 10 key insights I needed to be aware of to walk in greater healing, which I share about in other videos. 

The Movement to Psychologists

The question many Christians can ask is, “So what about psychology? What should the perspective of a believer be regarding therapy, psychology and counseling? 

Sometimes, Christians will say, “This is too much psycho-babble. Jesus is all we need. People with these problems need to read their Bible, pray and get help within the church.”

The problem is that this is exactly what OCD sufferers did, and continue to do today. Most OCD sufferers are intense rule followers. They follow the rules they are taught. 

Those who suffer scrupulosity can manifest some of the most dedicated manifestations of religious devotion. They actually follow those commonly prescribed spiritual practices. 

They also look to spiritual leaders for help…including going to their pastor or spiritual leader. But many times, in going to a spiritual leader, the OCD issues get worse. Not because the leader is treating them wrong, but what many don’t know is when you attempt to answer religious questions from someone who is OCD, it may bring temporary relief, but another tangent will arise. In chasing the rabbit trails of thought, it can be easy for the pressure of OCD to increase. 

Beginning in the early 1900s, for better or worse, our culture saw a massive wave of people with scrupulosity going to psychologists rather than religious advisors for help. This has become an ongoing trend ever since. In general, more people were going to psychologists and psychiatrists for help. 

Therapists were able to help them take a step back from their religious obsessions and help them to see how OCD has infected their overall life. For religious ocd sufferers it can be hard to see their struggles as being the same pattern as another OCD battle, for example, someone who has a cleanliness OCD. People with scrupulosity see their battle as unique, one that needs to be examined with greater depth and intensity, especially because their feelings tell them that their particular subject of urgency MUST be addressed thoroughly. 

Well . . . it’s OCD. But it may take you some time to realise that. 

It has been my observation that when it comes to religious OCD, you may hear about it from the psychiatric viewpoint and you may hear it from a ministerial perspective on rare occasions, but rarely do you get a combined psychological and healthy biblical/spiritual perspective. 

Many in the church resist psychological input. In some ways I understand, as we firmly believe the power of Christ has the ability to truly set the heart free. I have also heard input from people who have therapy experiences where their faith and biblical values are dismissed, which doesn’t help.  

But on the other hand, many church leaders will give counsel with an intensity that only further inflames the OCD battles. 

Psychology has been able to document many OCD patterns in the “study of soul,” so we can identify what OCD traits and behaviors look like. I do appreciate the insights and observations, while also taking in the freedom of grace, faith, hope and love that we can discover in Christ.

That is why I believe that working through religious OCD or scrupulosity needs a healthy combination of spiritual rebuilding, practical insights and helpful tools to coach a person into experiencing more freedom in their life. 

“Doing What is Right” Out of Context

If I was to trace my OCD back, it would definitely lead back to a mindset of always making sure I “did what was right.” But it got derailed and distorted in extreme ways. 

With scrupulosity, there is a lot of internal pressure over right and wrong. Perfectionism in religious perspectives takes over. The pressures often land in specific subjects of the faith–starting off small, but growing over time. These little sharp stones end up becoming large, overwhelming boulders of pressure that get carried. 

You may be fine in many areas of life, but in one particular area or set of subjects, there is a high level of scrutiny that becomes very unhealthy. 

There is a lot of double mindedness when it comes to scrupulosity, which we know will create a lot of instability in the heart and mind of an OCD sufferer. 

There is an internal pressure of ROCD that creates a setup for an internal war: 

  • Fear and Punishment are driving forces. 
  • You become preoccupied with a fear of messing up or violating God’s standards. 
  • Disappointing God or feeling disapproval from God is an ongoing force of inner torment. 

You are left constantly wondering if you are doing things right or living right or being in right standing with God. 

Religious Obsessions and Compulsions

With religious OCD, you have an obsession that is followed by a compulsion, creating a constant loop of certain thoughts that trigger certain thoughts and actions that end up becoming compulsions. 

ROCD starts with something that becomes an obsession. 

An obsession in OCD is not exactly the same as an obsession someone may have with a person, place of activity. Like, “I am obsessed with this TV show.” The obsession in OCD is an intrusive, unwanted kind of thought that creates a of disturbance, anxiety and feelings of guilt. 

These thoughts feel so real and bring about a strong emotional response . . . 

Commons religious ocd obsessions: 

  1. Intrusive, unholy thoughts. 
  2. Thoughts you have committed the unpardonable sin, blasphemed the Holy Spirit or you are not saved. 
  3. Questioning the certainty of your salvation. 
  4. Having a fear of losing your salvation. 
  5. Feeling like you are not doing something right enough or you are not engaging certain religious routines correctly or it “doesn’t count.” 
  6. Constant feelings that you are not right with God. 
  7. Fear that you are disconnected from God. 
  8. Looking for sin issues that are not even there. 
  9. Over-exaggerating issues as sin. (take a sticky note from church and you feel like you stole something.) 
  10. Fear of being possessed by the demonic spirits or that you give your life to satan. 
  11. Obsession of following religious practices. 

ROCD Responds to Obsessions with Thoughts, Actions and Rituals that Become Compulsions

These actions are ways to find relief, a sense of peace, resolve or safety. At first, they give a temporary sense of relief, only to find that they have to keep doing them over and again. Over time, the obsessions increase, thus inflaming the need for the compulsions to increase in demand. 

  1. Repeating the Salvation Experience 
  2. Excessive Confession: to relief guilt and anxiety
  3. Reassurance: constant talking things out, overtalking subjects, struggles, conflicts, doubts with other people for reassurance . . . overtalking your story. 
  4. Excessive Introspection: anlysing one’s self excessively to make sure that things are just right, to ensure there is not a sin issue that needs to be dealt with
  5. Avoidance of Intrusive Thought
  6. Response statements to argue with the thought. 
  7. Excessive praying
  8. Excessive repentance: uncertainty and doubt lead you to believe you need to repent more
  9. Excessive rituals: like communion or fasting
  10. Excessive service: church or ministry involvement

Scrupulosity | ROCD Setup: 

These are areas you will need to be mindful of addressing as you walk the healing journey. I will cover this more in PART of this teaching. 

“Doing What is Right” Gone Haywire:

ROCD sufferers are preoccupied with doing the right thing, but it imprisons them. For most, the value of doing what is right is empowering. But for ROCD people, It doesn’t produce freedom, but deeper bondage. In fact, many of their patterns may produce a momentary relief or seeming sense of peace. But in the long term, they end up becoming more bound serving what become obsessions and compulsions. 

A Foundation that Lacks Love:

When looking at their story, ROCD people lack a true foundation of love in their lives. They may know about it in theory but they are disconnected from it in their hearts. A lot of it goes back to their parental relationship in how love was formed in their life and not formed in their life. Furthermore, many OCD people spiral when they hear me say that. It adds to their despair as they think they are separated from God, they are not saved or they don’t trust God enough. 

Grace Disconnect:

The spirituality of an ROCD person is based on the “letter of the law,” which the Bible says kills. The Spirit of the law adds life. But someone with OCD has a hard time understanding the relational grace that God extends to us. Grace is God’s operating power working in and through our hearts. ROCD people are conditioned that religious duty and responsibility weigh heavy on their shoulders. They can be locked so deeply into religious performance, they can think that living in freeing grace can be “too good to be true.” 

Distorted View of Salvation:

Quite often, those with ROCD have experiences where their battles and struggles were inflamed by teachings and others believers “questioning your salvation.” In fact, I know of many believers whose answer for many issues and struggles is, “Well, you must not be really born again.” This has sent more believers than I care to imagine into mental health tailspins, as they live under torment, never feeling they can fully land and solidify their salvation security. 

Performance Based Relationship with God:

Many OCD sufferers live under the “bait and switch” that happens often in the church. We are told, “God loves you as you are.” They get saved and then it’s like grace disappeared and works took over. Performance based Christianity is the newly updated form of the law that hides amongst the modern achievement culture we live in. 

A Punishment Based Relationship with God:

They carry a punishment based relationship in how they view God and their spiritual life. 

With a punishment based relationship, your focus is more on avoiding what is wrong rather than appreciating who Christ is within you. 

With a punishment based relationship, obedience, doing what is right and making right decisions become out of context. They become themes of added pressure vs experiencing fruitful relationship with God and people. 

Their internal spirituality is based more on rules than on grace relationships. Black and white thinking keeps them from reading the Scriptures in a fruitful way. 

Personal Evaluation Based on Shame and Condemnation

They are quick to judge and they judge themselves harshly. 

They judge their battles with intense self-punishment. 

Their personal view lacks mercy. 

They cannot assess their thoughts accurately. The interpretation is off. 

People with scrupulosity fall into deep introspection that is unfruitful. Their self-analysis is harsh, judgmental and condemning. They are led into feedback loops within their thinking that keep them trapped.


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The resources given are not designed to practice medicine or give professional medical advice, including, without limitation, medical direction concerning someone’s medical and mental health. Any resources given are not to be considered complete and does not cover all issues related to mental and physical health. In addition, any information given should not replace consultation with your doctor or any other mental health providers and/or specialists.