Scruples

I’ve wanted to write about scruples for months now but I could never contrive the post in such a way that I could avoid mentioning that I was writing from personal experience, and it’s embarrassing to admit to having experienced them. In retrospect, they seem so effeminate and grounded in the sort of questions that have no answers, and doubts that have no point.

What I mean by “scruples” only make sense to someone who takes the idea of mortal sin and hell fire seriously, and so they can’t exist outside of a Catholic-Orthodox sacramental life.* The scruple is in large part an anxiety over, as it seems, the inevitability of sin and exhaustion over the impossible degree of self-awareness and focus it takes to avoid it. In a Catholic-Orthodox sacramental scheme, one with scruples might confess multiple times over short periods – even in the same day.

In retrospect, the most subtle evil of scruples is that they retard spiritual growth. The scruple is inevitably over some perceived fault that you already have more or less under control, or which is not the sort of thing that does all that much harm to God or neighbor. The high-voltage anxiety of the scruple makes the sort of calm spirituality that is required to see our deep faults – the ones that actually cause our characteristic sins. To take a typical example, while we’re obsessing over Jesuitical minutiae of whether some lustful thought was “consented to”, and replaying the stupid thought over and over again in our head, we overlook that the main problem in our relation to others is not lusting over them but being impatient, over demanding, overly self-absorbed, a doormat, etc. While we’re busily asking questions that have no answers, like whether we said or thought something with “full knowledge” or not, we have no time to do actually useful spiritual exercises like disciplining the sense appetite or focusing on opportunities for small acts of charity.

Scruples played an important role in my spiritual development, but I can say this about every stupid (and wicked)  thing I ever thought, said, did or failed to do. In retrospect, they were a transition to a life of habitually avoiding mortal sins, and a testimony to divine providence that could preserve faith even under conditions that had distorted that faith into a mental illness.

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*Historically, there have been Protestant versions of scruples (e.g. Cowper) but they all have a 19th century ring to me.

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4 Comments

  1. February 4, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    Somehow I didn’t know the technical term (viz. “scruples”), but this post brought to mind the following from the desert fathers:

    “Abba Pambo asked Abba Antony: ‘What shall I do?’ The old man replied: ‘Trust not in your own righteousness. Be not penitent for a deed that is past and gone. And keep your tongue and your belly under control.'”

    The teaching, “be not penitent for a deed that is past and gone,” is common and proved helpful in my own spiritual growth as well.

  2. GeoffSmith said,

    February 5, 2014 at 7:37 am

    In the old Puritan cases of conscience scruples and mortal sin come up quite often. This is particularly so in Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory.

    • February 5, 2014 at 8:31 am

      Thanks for the reference. I knew they had to be a darkside to Reformed theology. Lutheranism was born of an attempt to avoid scruples (Luther was eaten alive by them) and so I figured they would factor less in that branch of Protestantism, though this is a testable claim that I haven’t done any research on.

      • GeoffSmith said,

        February 5, 2014 at 8:37 am

        Baxter points out :
        “Another temptation to confound you in your religion, is, by filling your heads with practical scrupulosity; so that you cannot go on for doubting every step whether you go right: and when you should cheerfully serve your Master, you will do nothing but disquiet your minds with scruples, whether this or that be right or wrong. Your remedy here is, not by casting away all care of pleasing God, or fear of sinning, or by debauching conscience; but by a cheerful and quiet obedience to God, so far as you know his will, and an upright willingness and endeavour to understand it better, and a thankful receiving the Gospel pardon for your failings and infirmities. Be faithful in your obedience; but live still upon Christ, and think not of reaching to any such obedience, as shall set you above the need of his merits, and a daily pardon of your sins. Do the best you can to know the will of God and do it. But when you know the essentials of religion, and obey sincerely, let no remaining wants deprive you of the comfort of so great a mercy, as proves your right to life eternal.”

        Richard Baxter and William Orme, The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, vol. 2 (London: James Duncan, 1830), 139.


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