A perplexing yet understandable problem comprises two unhealthy choices that those with scrupulosity often face. The problem can be summarized in this way: “I can be happy, without worry and anxiety, ignoring my thoughts of sin and take the risk of damnation.” The second choice: “I can be safe, follow each rule diligently without wavering, and be assured of salvation.” The second choice falsely leads one to conclude that disregarding anxiety and living with the rigidity of certitude might make real joy impossible, but it may be worth it in exchange for everlasting life.
Neither choice is helpful. They understandably present themselves because they stem from the crooked reasoning common in scrupulosity sufferers. The choices incorrectly assume that salvation is somehow merited. Salvation is a gift of God that cannot be earned. It can be lived. It can be celebrated. But it is impossible to earn a divine gift. The crooked thinking of scrupulosity transforms an unrestrained, generous gift of God into a reward for the virtuous.
Even more fundamentally, these unhealthy choices are founded on a deeply flawed image of God in which our Creator is understood as a strict father. Author George Lahkoff and others explain that people who hold the strict-father image of God believe “Father” expects them to follow his commandments, which, in their minds, they are unable to do. This viewpoint gives God a punitive role in which he punishes those who fail to follow his commandments and rewards those who do. Following God’s laws takes discipline. The scrupulous believe they have little to no discipline.
The strict-father image of God stands in stark contrast to the image Jesus proclaimed of God as “Abba,” which is anything but strict. It is impossible to read any of the parables of Jesus and not be challenged by the overwhelming and unexpected generosity of Abba. The love and gifts of Abba are abundant and overflowing, exceeding all expectations. The Abba of Jesus’ depiction is neither strict nor punitive.
The only way to conclude a strict-father image is appropriate for Abba God is to assume that the cultural ideology of those who benefit from a system of reward and punishment somehow persists. As unfortunately true as that may be, the Gospel evidence does not support a punitive image of God. The Gospels reveal a loving God who enraged the Pharisees and scribes while filling the poor and the little ones with joy.
It is beyond the scope of this newsletter to reflect on how the strict-father image has any traction in the Christian tradition. It is perplexing how any image of God other than Abba persists in the hearts of minds of the followers of Jesus. Certainly, an examination of the many different layers of culture and human experience that today overlays the Gospel story is applicable. Undoubtedly there were and are groups who would profit from a strict-father understanding of God and who would reject the Abba Father of Jesus out of hand. Regardless, it is enough for now to acknowledge the distortion and to continue to reflect on the perplexing problem.
Does Jesus demand only the safe choice or does he accept a choice that leads to the experience of real joy and celebration? The answer is obvious, and we need to go no further than the Gospels in support of the assertion.
For Christians to give up everything for one thing is a fair deal when we are speaking about the reign of God. On the other hand, to give up everything (joy) for one thing (safety) makes no sense at all. To do that would be a fundamental distortion of what it means to be a human being made in the image and the likeness of God. It is certainly not kingdom living or representative of an authentic and orthodox Christian tradition.
When a person chooses to reject a distorted perspective on life, anxiety can result. For a scrupulous person to let go of his or her image of God as the strict father and to replace it with the Abba of Jesus, anxiety and even fear can be expected. However, it need not be a paralyzing fear that freezes a person in his or her tracks and makes change impossible. My hope is that those who opt for the healthy choice will experience the exhilarating anxiety that one feels upon understanding that “things will be different when I make this change. I can assert this with confidence because I am a firm believer in the actual and sanctifying grace of the Spirit of God.” God does not invite us to growth and health and leave us on our own, fumbling in the darkness. Rather, as we make this change, we can expect with confidence the light of truth that will show the way.
This is not an “either-or” invitation. In the Christian mindset, it is “both-and,” the already and the not yet. Even when we see with less clarity and definition than we might desire, the truth is still brighter and clearer than the illusion of what is hurtful, false, and fails to lead to life.
Thomas M. Santa, CSsR