Scrupulosity: You are playing a loser's game
Those struggling with scrupulosity often get the advice to focus on God’s love for them, His mercy, and His grace. That is all well and good, but this doesn’t address the person’s paradigm for thinking about the Christian life. Here is my advice: Stop playing a loser’s game and start living like you want to win.
A “Loser's game” is not a pejorative but a description of the optimal method to be successful in a given decision matrix. In a loser’s game, the goal is to win by not losing. Think of hide-and-go-seek, for example. A “Winner’s game” is where you must outperform to win. An example would be a foot race.
In most scenarios we play with a blend of these strategies. For instance, when planning for retirement someone might hold some safe assets to make certain they will survive with basic needs met into old age, while investing the rest in very risky assets that might yield incredible returns. In this way a baseline is maintained that insures against poverty, ruin, and starvation; yet the possibility to capture a huge upside is also on the table.
I contend that most people play life like a loser’s game: don’t fail, don’t look silly in front of your friends, don’t get fired, don’t take risk. This is why the most sold cars are always the most boring cars. People are fixated on their new purchase’s potential problems. Will it break? Will it cost me a lot at the pump? Will my neighbors look down on me? Will I be able to afford the payments?
People who really love cars ask very different questions. They ask, is it the fastest? Is it the best off road? Does it make me feel exhilarated? Will my friends think it’s awesome? People who really love cars are trying to win at finding a car, not just avoid losing. And yes, some of these enthusiasts have a beige Camry sitting in wait to guard against the worst case scenarios.
I contend that whenever people really love something, they treat it as a winner’s game. If we love life we are to do the same. Scripture backs me up on this., First, we see it in the parable of the talents. The servant who tried not to lose the talent and treated his task as a loser’s game was condemned, whereas those who took risk out of love for their master and enthusiasm for their task are commended. Second, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:24, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” Clearly he is telling us to treat the Christian life as a winner’s game.
This highlights a bit of a Catholic and Protestant divide. Many Protestant theologians describe salvation as Jesus perfectly obeying a strict law which was too hard for any person to ever obey. He then receives salvation as a result, and His perfect lawfulness is credited to our account and our sinfulness is credited to Him in the “double transfer”.
This is treating the moral life as a loser’s game, where one wins salvation by not sinning. The Protestant Reformation began in a fit of Luther's scrupulosity...and in Protestant theology, it has come full circle. I would note that ontologically speaking, the non-existence of a moral infraction is not the type of thing that can be given to another person, and even if it could be, it would have no value. For instance, if I wanted to buy your shoe, I might offer a double transfer of $20 for your shoe. What would make no sense is to offer my lack of a million dollar debt for your shoe. My lack of a million dollar debt has no value. Jesus did not give us a ‘lack of an infinite debt of sin’; such a thing has no ontological status and therefore cannot be said to be transferred.
The right view is that salvation is a winner’s game and Jesus played it as such. Through an infinite act of love in his Incarnation, life, death and resurrection, He won salvation in such a bountiful fashion that the overflowing riches He merited are more than enough to make restitution for all of our sins and credit us with the gracious merits that allow us to enjoy in His eternal reward.
If you are struggling with scrupulosity, the answer is to go into the world and face evil, so that you stop searching for evil only in yourself. Scrupulosity is the autoimmune disease of the spiritual life. With nothing to fight, the body turns on itself. If you turned your fire on an actual enemy, your disease would be healed. The Pharisees obsessively focused on their own purity and it ended up being counterproductive. Jesus showed them that to do good on the Sabbath is better than to stick to the letter of the law.
If you are to become an enthusiast of the Christian life and run the race as if to win it, you may indeed need the proverbial beige Camry or a nest egg of treasury inflation protected securities. After all, you don’t run the race so recklessly as to break a leg and die in the heat of the sun. I suggest this as a strategy: focus on forming your life such that you will not ever commit a mortal sin. This is your beige Camry. After that, put all other efforts into loving God and loving neighbor. The latter will do far more to eliminate smaller sins than relentless navel gazing ever could.