August 1, 2010
The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
Susan has a secret sin. Susan is a good Ohio woman who, in her late 20s, began to take her faith seriously - compulsively so. Yet the more she practiced her faith, the more she questioned the efficacy of her efforts. Her doubts came daily, nagging her relentlessly and causing her constant pain. "I'd kept it a secret from my children, from my parents and from my husband," she admitted.
For Susan, sin is everywhere. And she is the first among sinners. The one who most needs to confess ... again ... and again ... and again. She figured she was the only one who had this condition; viewing the world through a sharp and precise moral prism, seeing sin in every situation, and magnifying transgressions whenever they surfaced. But she is not alone. In fact, there are tens of thousands of people, possibly hundreds of thousands of people, who suffer from this very thing. Clinical psychologists have given her obsession a name. They call it the "scrupulosity obsession," or the "doubting disease." Scrupulosity, Susan learned, is an obsessive-compulsive disorder, one that straddles two worlds; the clinical, fact-based world of medicine and the mystical, faith-based world of religion. It can be treated with medication, as well as with counseling and spiritual guidance. There is even a newsletter called "Scrupulous Anonymous". Scrupulous Anonymous is a Roman Catholic monthly newsletter published by the Liguori Mission, associated with the Redemptorist Order, founded by Saint Alphonsus Liguori. The newsletter focuses on individuals who need help in dealing with scrupulosity. Alphonsus Liguori, a Doctor of the Church suffered from "scruples" and feelings of religious guilt in his own life, and developed techniques for helping people with the same condition. Its editor, the Rev. Thomas Santa, describes scrupulosity as "a tender conscience" - a condition in which everything becomes a sin, to the point that you're almost paralyzed.
At first glance, Paul's letter to the Colossians might seem like an invitation to scrupulosity. "Put to death," he commands, "whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient".
But Paul is not finished. "But now you must get rid of all such things - anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.
Get rid of all such things, he thunders. Strip yourself of all such sleazy sins and polluting practices. Begin to live an authentic Christian life, removing from yourself all the trappings of your old life; which for Paul himself included being "a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence".
These Scriptures seem to play right into the scrupulosity that so many sufferers are struggling to escape. Don't do this, don’t do that. Watch out: the wrath of God is coming. If truth be told, Paul may be suffering himself from a touch of the doubting disease. He readily admits that "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the foremost". The "foremost" of sinners. The tiptop transgressor. The baddest of the bad…….. That's serious sinfulness. So, what does this mean for us? Are we to focus constantly on fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language and lies? Are we to live a life of constant introspection, relentlessly obsessing over every one of our motivations, thoughts, words and deeds? Is Christian living nothing more than avoiding a list of negatives? Not at all! Here's a true story that explains why: A Virginia man was scrupulous about always wearing his wedding ring. In fact, in 15 years of marriage he had never taken it off. Never. Not once. It was a personal obsession. One day he was out walking his dog; a big, lovable, squirrel-chasing mutt. The man stopped to talk with a neighbor, and as they chatted he let the dog's leash hang loosely on his left hand. All of a sudden, the dog spotted a squirrel and took off like a bullet. The leash caught on the man's wedding ring and broke his finger. The finger swelled up around the wedding ring, and when the man arrived at the hospital emergency room the doctor announced that he would have to cut off the ring. "Oh, no!" protested the man. "I have NEVER removed my wedding ring. Never. You can't cut it off." "Then you'll lose your finger," said the doctor, quite matter-of-factly. Suddenly, the man saw with crystal clarity what was truly important. It wasn't a perfect record of always wearing a wedding ring, day and night, consistently and flawlessly for the whole of his marriage. No, what mattered was a vital, loving and faithful relationship with his wife. And 10 healthy fingers, if possible. Off came the ring. Paul challenges us with the words: "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God". Set your minds not on the temptations of this world, but on the joy of life with Christ, a life in which we are free to enjoy boundless compassion, kindness, love, peace and gratitude. We can do this because we have been given a new and abundant life that is safe and secure and hidden with Christ in God. Those who are "in Christ" have "died" to this world - died to what Paul calls "the elemental spirits of the universe". Paul is trying to teach us to focus on Christ, not on earthly entanglements, to grow in him, not in the passions of this world. If we do, then the dismaying and debilitating distractions of this world will slip away. What matters is not a perfectly flawless record of avoiding sin, but instead a vital, loving and faithful relationship with Jesus. We can be confident that those whose lives are hidden in Christ will quite naturally show signs of new and abundant life, and the patterns of the old and sinful life will quietly die away. No one, not God, not Paul, not our families, wants us to suffer from scrupulosity. God does not want us to become paralyzed by fear of doing or saying something blasphemous or sinful. Instead, he wants us to enjoy the glorious freedom of the children of God - freedom to live in the boundless Christian love that "binds everything together in perfect harmony". We need to understand that we are dealing with a God who loves, not a God who is out to get us. Scrupulosity sufferers are dealing with the fear of God, not the love of God. Fear makes us harshly judgmental of ourselves and others. Love helps us to see everyone - ourselves included - as a sinful soul for whom Christ died. Fear points our attention inward, driving us to examine our own motives and actions excessively. Love pulls our attention outward, inspiring us to take part in a mission to a hurting world. Fear leads us to obsess over fine points of morality. Love helps us to see that we are never going to be perfect, but that we will always be forgiven. Fear drives us to worry constantly about the future. Love liberates us to trust that God has a plan and a purpose for us, and will always be close beside us. Bottom line: God is loving, merciful and trustworthy. So let's set our minds on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth. Our old selves have died. Now, let’s our earthly obsessions do the same. What's left is a life that is hidden with Christ in God, just waiting for us to discover it.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.