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Into the Light of Grace

The people in twelve-step programs are often referred to as friends of Bill W., no matter which program they attend: Overeaters Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, many others, or the original that Bill W. cofounded in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous.

Twelve-step programs share many other characteristics, including an essential, core practice that people in the programs can’t sidestep or ignore. It has to be faced head-on or the programs can’t work.

The essential practice? The addict must come to an understanding and acknowledge that the addictive behavior that’s robbing him or her of a healthy life is powerful. It’s so powerful that the person struggling with addictive behavior must admit and accept that the behavior is more powerful than the individual person. It can’t be willed or prayed away, managed, or controlled. The behavior can’t be satisfied, satiated, filled, or completed. It always needs more. And even when it takes everything that a person has, it’ll still demand more than the person has to give. It’s that strong.

It’s difficult to accept that something within a person can be stronger than the person. Our Christian faith teaches that we can be strong-willed and highly principled, and through our efforts we can be strengthened by grace. That’s true, but a strong will doesn’t overcome the power of addiction or the power of a particular behavior that’s not freely chosen but is rather knit into the core of an individual’s being. It doesn’t matter whether the cause is DNA, a chemical imbalance, patterned behavior, diminished capacity, or whatever. “It” possesses an immense power, and the addict has to accept it for what it is.

People in the past might have identified this kind of power as the devil. For those with limited or no understanding of biology, physiology, psychology, and other pertinent and related sciences, identifying such manifestations as the devil made sense. Today there’s less inclination to pin behavioral sources on an outside force. Behaviors and the suffering that accompanies them are mostly recognized for what they are.

Instruction for this modern way of thinking has come from the accumulation of untold suffering through the ages by countless people who have been burdened with harmful behaviors that have robbed them of the fullness of life. The suffering that goes with the behaviors has not been in vain. Look at the people in the various twelve-step programs who have named and accepted the power of their experience and who have responded by living a program that has worked for millions.

When people who have suffered by themselves join together as a community and come to an understanding of what they need in order to feel some sense of peace, that’s grace. When suffering is brought into the light, people are able to learn how to identify and accept what’s happening. Remember, Jesus often invited his followers from darkness into light so they could witness the truth and heal if they needed to get better.

In order for those who suffer with scrupulosity to heal, they should follow these steps, which are similar to twelve-step practices: acknowledge scrupulosity’s power, admit they can’t overcome it alone and in isolation, and have the courage to bring the disorder into the light and seek the necessary help. There are no shortcuts, no exceptions, and they are difficult steps to take.

An additional challenge that Catholics with scrupulosity face is the sacrament of reconciliation. For them, a private confession can be a source of pain, anxiety, and suffering. The sacrament is intended to offer forgiveness of sin, accepting and celebrating the love that Jesus has for us, but the confessional tends to isolate people with  scrupulosity, making confession a potentially harmful spiritual practice for them. The privacy of the church confessional doesn’t always help people with scrupulosity.

Does this mean I’m counseling that you should avoid confession if you suffer with scrupulosity? Not at all. Instead, avoid the confessional and have a face-to-face meeting with your confessor in the light, out of the darkness. Engage in real dialogue and have a relationship with another person who’s willing to journey with you on the path to learning how to manage this disorder.

The practices of the friends of Bill W. can help the readers of this newsletter understand that scrupulosity is powerful and can’t be confronted in isolation. Twelve-steppers know that real spiritual help is gained by breaking old patterns and emerging from isolation into the light of grace. In that light, seekers find confidence and God, who is there at every moment to guide everyone who reaches out. And that, friends, is grace.

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