Scruples, an Illness of the Soul

August 26, 2019 | Fr. Claude Lombardo, MC

From a spiritual approach, when we talk about “scruples” we are referring to a particular disposition or state of the soul by which a person tends to see sin everywhere, to see sin where it is not. Scruples lead the person to be restless all the time, confused, always scrutinizing their conscience time and again, doubting what to do, because it seems that all the options are wrong or bad.

Regarding past actions, the person who suffers from scruples tends to overanalyze them without being able to stop, and always finds something new to critique about them. The sacrament of confession, which should be a solace for the soul, becomes instead a torturous experience, since for a scrupulous person, details and explanations are never enough to lighten their burdens.

The usual result of all of this is a persistent feeling of guilt, without a real foundation, that weighs on the conscience and makes life painful.

In the majority of these cases, there is a psychological root to this attitude, related to some kind of obsession. So, it could be very helpful to consult with a mental health professional to get guidance.

In addition, we will try to give just some advice from the spiritual point of view without intending to cover the whole topic, which is very complex in itself. We will try to define some basic principles to commence this hard fight.

 1. God is good: Many times, there is distorted image of God. Instead of thinking of a loving Father, one thinks of a strict and tough one. It is true that God can see all the tiniest details of our actions; however, this doesn’t mean that He looks at us like a detective, trying to catch us in a wrong deed. It would be useful to meditate on many passages of the Scripture where we can clearly see the love of God. For example: Matt 11: 25-30; Psalm 27; Psalm 139:1-18; Isaiah 43:1-7; Isaiah 55:1-13; Jeremiah 29:11-14.

Moreover, by frequently considering Jesus dying for us and for our sins, we can find a fountain of consolations and understanding about who God is!

 2. Holiness has a human measure. Accept reality and accept yourself. We are human beings. In everything we do, there’s always something lacking, there’s imperfection. It’s the consequence of original sin. Be patient with yourself. If you are scrupulous, you would be thinking at this point: this is a call to mediocrity. But it is not! It is the way to combat scrupulosity.

Holiness, the work of God in us, is compatible with normal human capacity. Being holy doesn’t necessarily imply bilocation, miracles, and prophesies, like some saints in the past. Being holy doesn’t imply that we don’t make any mistakes or bad decisions. 

The good news is that even though we are weak and sinful, God loves us anyway!

3. Trust in your common sense at first glance. When a person is attacked by scruples, it often happens at the very moment of the action they think is ok. Afterwards, they allow the bug of doubt to enter their souls. Did I have a good intention? Did I consider all the circumstances? Did I actually do what I think I did…? The list of questions can last forever.

If at that very moment you didn’t see anything wrong with your action, why now, far from it, would your judgement be different? 

This is a typical trap. Do not fall into it!

4. Overanalyzing: your major temptation. While advising people with this struggle, it is very easy to detect that one of the main problems consists in thinking too much. We start spinning around the same idea in our heads, making everything difficult without reason.

We wander around again and again without results. When we see our thoughts becoming confused and tangled, that is the exact moment to stop analyzing and go back to trusting in our first thought. I can see in my experience as a spiritual director and confessor how the first glance is usually the right one. But, when a person starts overthinking, he or she can reach conclusions that are almost out of the reality of what originally happened.

5. Healthy use of the sacrament of reconciliation. When we commit a sin, we can receive forgiveness with this sacrament. However, precisely because the idea of sin is disfigured in a scrupulous person, the remedy could be frequently misused/ineffective.

Here is some simple advice to try to take advantage of this beautiful means of sanctification. First, trust in the judgment of your confessor. I, as a priest, put on my shoulders the things that I say during confession. So if a priest tells you that you don’t need to go to confession that frequently or he determines an action is not a sin (when there’s no clear contradiction with the catechism, of course…) then, trust in him and rest in his adviceSecond, if you do an examination of conscience every night, write down your sins, or at least write them down right before going to confession. When you go to confession, just read what you wrote, trusting in yourself and in your good will. While it may be hard to put your sins down on paper, I think that it’s worse if you try to remember your sins in the quick moments during confession. Quite frequently a person who is scrupulous stops the priest during the absolution to “add just one more thing”. Third, consider carefully if you have had sinful thoughts (lust, anger, envy, etc.), since for these thoughts to be sinful we need to be sure that we consented fully to them and permitted ourselves to let these ideas spend time in our minds. Do not overthink about this.

Many saints fought against scrupulosity at certain moments of their lives, including St. Ignatius of Loyola. By reading their stories, we can see that it is possible to overcome this problem. Trust in God. He knows you perfectly and He will help you. Don’t give up the fight.