On Discernment and Love

I listened to a podcast last year about an LDS man, “Eric,” who suffered from a disorder called scrupulosity – a moral-based obsessive compulsive disorder found most frequently among highly religious populations, according to the podcast. Eric is a devout Mormon who became consumed during his teen years with the moral imperfections he perceived himself to have. As he was preparing for his mission, he became obsessive about being worthy to serve.

During his teenage years, his concern over his spiritual state resulted in his being praised for being so pious. Bishops, fellow ward members, and even members of his family mistook his scrupulosity for righteous concern. When he confessed things to his bishop like feeling that he had kissed his girlfriend for too long (his standard was one second), the feedback he kept getting was “Eric, you’re doing well…you’re going to be a right, pure missionary, and you’re on the right track.” His thoughts and actions were reinforced by those around him for years.

It wasn’t until he began confessing sins he’d never committed that people started realizing that Eric had a problem. On his mission, Eric confessed to sins that his mission president knew he hadn’t committed. He had a compulsion to confess and feel clean, and he became convinced of that, for example, if a part of him had merely brushed against a person or even an animal, he’d had some kind of sexual encounter with them. At one point, his elbow barely touched his mission president’s wife, and he became convinced that he had touched her inappropriately and confessed this to his mission president, out of concern that he wouldn’t make it to heaven if he didn’t.

A striking part of this podcast for me was the fact that because Eric’s behavior fit the picture that many people in his religious context had of someone who was living righteously, his thoughts and actions were reinforced by those around him for years. They say that one of the worst worst things people can do for someone with scrupulosity is reinforce his or her obsessive-compulsive worldview, but because his behavior fit a kind of cultural ideal, those around him remained unaware of its source.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this podcast over the past few weeks, because I’ve been thinking about how easy it is to be praised within evangelical culture if you know the right lingo and appear to be the evangelical cultural ideal. I used part of Eric’s story only as a jumping-off point; I wanted to give an (admittedly, extreme) example of what it can look like for a person to meet a cultural ideal while operating from a very unhealthy place. I’ve grown increasingly concerned both about our ideals within evangelicalism and about our lack of discernment–and our lack of value for discernment. Eric’s story is as good as any to show why discernment is so vital to the health of the church. His being LDS is inconsequential; his story could happen within any religious context. I believe someone with scrupulosity could flourish quite easily and be praised up one side and down the other within evangelicalism, and it would be both to their detriment and ours.

But people need not suffer from scrupulosity for similar situations to occur in the church. I’ve been involved in enough churches in my 28 years to have watched quite a few people show that their character cannot sustain the responsibility that was given to them because of their reputations. And it is both to their detriment and ours that we have so readily promoted them.

When people express opinions that we feel passionately about or behave in ways we approve of, we have a tendency to assume that it could only be because they are godly; and we think this because we believe that it is because we ourselves are godly that we have these opinions and behave this way. Our cultural conditioning can blind us to what’s beneath the surface of people’s culturally-affirming lifestyles. We fail to understand that evangelical culture is a culture, and that there are benefits, within the culture, of living according to the cultural mores.

I spent some time with the Westboro Baptist Church this summer, and because of that, I’ve had several conversations with fellow evangelicals about the WBC. One thing that consistently surprises me (but rarely fails to be the case) is that evangelicals talk about them as if they are a part of “us,” because they consider their beliefs to be Christian–even though they always denounce what they perceive to be Westboro’s downfall: they don’t feel that they’re loving. Because they consider the WBC’s doctrine to be orthodox, however, evangelicals tend not to question the church’s Christianity. I find it shocking that evangelicals can value love so little and doctrine so much that if they believe a church has the latter but not the former (but not vice versa), they consider it to be a Christian fellowship.

We seem to have forgotten Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13: If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

I don’t know how we’ve gotten so far away from this.


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3 responses to “On Discernment and Love

  1. Seth R.

    Outstanding article Sarah.

    I encountered a missionary somewhat like this. He was obsessed with his own personal purity. So much so that it caused him to act uncharitably towards any of his fellow missionaries that he felt were “holding him back.” Initially, his seniors and authorities loved him – thought he was future leader material and placed him initially in positions of authority. They soon came to regret those decisions when his true nature was revealed.

    But maybe it’s to his credit that his selfish nature was revealed. He was too honest to hide it for long. Others with less integrity of character might have simply learned to play the game better to continue climbing the ladder of prestige within the group – and remained undetected.

    Last I met him, he was greatly improved, was acknowledging the problem he had, and seemed to have mellowed out significantly.

    But yes – you can see this problem in any organization.

    Another example can be found in business – the culture of the “yes man.” Corporations have long acknowledged that “yes men” are toxic for a corporation and can lead to the downfall of the whole enterprise. But it’s a very hard problem to root out.

  2. jfutral

    Evangelicals love to say “Truth is truth.” Seems Paul believes otherwise. Jesus teaches doctrine (the Law) depends on love. Which is truer? I used to believe nothing mattered more than doctrine. I don’t believe that any more. Not that doctrine doesn’t matter, just that it isn’t sufficient or enough, ever.

    Sarah, your words always give me hope.


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