“Lighten up and take it easy on yourself.” To a left-brained recovering legalist who’s given to viewing the world in black and white, phrases like these have chafed at me for as long as I’ve been a believer. Those of us with rather sensitive consciences often agonize over our sins and our could-be-sins. We know that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive. We know there is no condemnation for those in Christ. But we often struggle to believe it on the level that moves us: our functional theology. If this is you, this is written for you. If not, keep reading because you are likely in community with someone who labors in this way.
Of Puritans and Scruples
The Puritans spoke of sensitive consciences by using the term “scrupulosity” to refer to someone overly introspective about his or her thoughts and deeds. Richard Sibbes observed,
“And among other causes of discouragement, some are much vexed with scruples, even against the best duties; partly by distemper of body, helped by Satan’s malice, casting dust in their eyes, in their way to heaven…”
“This scrupulosity, for the most part, is a sign of a godly soul, as some weeds are of a good soil: therefore, they are the more to be pitied, for it is a heavy affliction . . . The end of Christ’s coming was to free us from all such groundless fears.”
I am not sure why Sibbes’s words have comforted me as they have. Perhaps it’s because I know how seriously the Puritans took sin. There was no whitewashing there. Many of us were taught in our 11th Grade English classes how hard-nosed, how puritanical the Puritans were. And yet here, we see one of their foremost preachers acknowledging that the temptation to spend too much time dwelling on one’s sin is a “heavy affliction” and represents a “groundless fear.” Seen in this light, the rigor of scrupulosity reveals itself to be no mark of spiritual maturity at all, but an enemy of Gospel rest.
A Difficult Age
It’s probably true that the Puritan’s day would have occasioned a difficult life for those of sensitive conscience. But our own culture and era present some unique challenges as well. If you haven’t noticed, everyone is speaking in starkly moral language these days. We hear much about being “on the right side of history” and “living up to our values.” If you take one side, there’s an anonymous keyboard warrior or two waiting in cyberspace to lambast you for your clear blindness. It’s a tough minefield to navigate, even for the most well-meaning conscience. However, the scriptures have not left us in the dark concerning how we might run our race, heavy conscience and all.
A Way Forward
1) Understand the Gospel Breakdown
"If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” . . . according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” - Colossians 2:20-23
We are who we are, for better or worse, because of how we see and interpret the world. While it’s true that many influences have bearing on how our perception of the world and truth has formed, the reality remains that if we are seeking “self-forgiveness,” we are on a fool’s errand. Perhaps part of the reason our consciences are so easily bruised is that we’ve supplemented the easy yoke and light burden of Jesus with a bit of a pagan additive. We’ve placed extra-Gospel demands on ourselves, and as such, have sought extra-Gospel means of reconciling ourselves to God. Consider the weight of this possibility. Have you misunderstood the Gospel, practically? Have you run into the safety of legalism and ritual only to find that there’s no rest from striving there but only the “appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion?"
2) Take Sin Seriously, but Yourself Lightly
“The Lord is merciful and gracious slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us." - Psalm 103:8-12
The remedy is a bit counter-intuitive. When faced with your sin, run toward it with the confidence afforded by the Gospel. Don’t seek to deny it in shame. Rather, affirm its presence. When Satan “tempts (you) to despair and tells you of the guilt within,” tell him that he doesn’t know the half of it. Remind him that you are a worse sinner than he could remind you of, but that Christ drank to the dregs the cup of the wrath you deserved anyway. You will find that you don’t have to fear Satan snatching your righteous status away from you when you are affirming loudly that you have no righteousness of your own in the first place.
3) Ask for Grace to Change
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” - Philippians 1:6
Emboldened by these confidences, approach the throne of God knowing that he desires you to breathe the Gospel deeply on the deep, functional level that animates you. Understand that he wants you to move to a place of healthier Gospel reflection and rest. You’ve been looking for rest the whole time. It isn’t found in ritual. It isn’t found in self-flagellation. But it is found in the finished work of Christ.