Scruples: Too Many or Not Enough

Scrupulosity is an interesting phenomenon. Some might call it perfectionism or a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder. God bless those folks (I’m not one of them) who use up a bottle of hand-sanitizer every day. They have to physically or mentally touch base with all their possessions or routines ad infinitum in order to bring order out of their personal chaos. They are over-achievers who have high standards, and beg the question in our morally lax culture, “Is it possible to have too many scruples?”

“Scruple” is an old word, “a small piercing stone,” the kind that gets caught in your sandals as you make your way to the beach lugging all the chairs, towels, and suntan lotion for the family. It’s literally a pain to stop, put everything down and shake out the offending pebble. In ancient days people actually put scruples in their sandals as reminders, sort of a “to-do list” to keep them from forgetting something important. A person with scruples, therefore, is a person quite aware that there are things worth remembering, especially when it comes to morality. When I was a child we tied strings around our fingers to remember things. I don’t think we do much of anything to do it today. The absence of these reminders is dangerous, but there must be a balance between being over and under scrupulous.

Sometimes scrupulosity takes remembering your Mother’s admonitions to the max: “Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t chew, and don’t hang around with those who do.” Being obsessive about scruples leads to a perfectionism that is not forgiving of others and even worse on oneself. It can also lead to the fate of the hyper-religious. Hyper-religious people can take sin so seriously that they become callous to all those sharp little stones and forget that there’s anything wrong. Over-sensitivity can led to insensitivity.

It’s like the Native American story of people’s conscience being shaped like a diamond in their chest. When they do something wrong the diamond turns, and it hurts. However, if they continue to do wrong things and the diamond perpetually turns, pretty soon the edges of our conscience have worn down and our wrong-doing doesn’t hurt anymore. Building a rock pile out of scruples can actually lead us into worse trouble. Those with an over-the-quota number of scruples have little or no tolerance for slackers or sinners. They have set the bar so impossibly high that they become judge and jury on the rest of the world.

Frankly, the swing back and forth between being judgmental or non-judgmental is cultural and religious quicksand. Not having enough scruples is just as dangerous as having too many.  It’s pretty weird that we spend so much of our time sanitizing our hands while we let our minds, bodies, and souls go to pot. Can’t we find a place somewhere between grace and judgment? My wife uses hand sanitizer religiously thanks in no small part to her beloved nurse grandmother and germ phobic mother, but then she kisses me! See the problem?

It strikes me that as a church and as individuals we aren’t sure what to do about scruples. We are either too holy and self-flagellate ourselves with a list of sins, or we preach prevenient grace a lot more than sanctifying grace and end up with a mushy goo of over acceptance of sin. Sure we believe that God draws us through pre venio grace, a grace that comes before we ever come to God, but some of us want to theologically and personally stay in this warm fuzzy place and never judge anyone or move toward real change. We’ve given up on transformation. There is no need for justifying grace. We have reduced sanctifying grace into little more than an extension of prevenient grace, except on steroids; i.e., “God loves everybody so let’s do it even more!” Wow, that’s 20th century United Methodism defined.

We missed the step in the three-fold Wesleyan stages of grace that calls for Jesus’ righteousness to supersede our own and entails repentance, humility, and a clinging to Jesus as our only savior. With our focus on prevenient grace we have called everything good as if that stage is our end all of the Christian faith. We have become so pre-loving due to prevenient grace that we forgotten that God has prejudged us and found us all wanting. We need to move beyond a shallow blind acceptance of the way things are, and we need some more sharp rocks in our sandals, standards in our hearts, and values in our society. We cannot keep on accepting things the way they are and sitting back as if this is the way God meant it to be. God wants better for us. God didn’t send Jesus to leave us the way that God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world.

21st century United Methodism is trying to find a way to the middle of grace and judgment. We must not clean the outside of the cup like the Pharisees and leave the heart as-is. We can’t make ourselves perfect no matter how many rocks we put in our shoes, but if we let Jesus rule our hearts then there’s a winning chance that by the sanctifying grace of God we might actually change.

Do you want things to stay the same old way every day in your life? I don’t think so, and neither do I. I also don’t want so many scruples that I become desensitized, callous, and careless in the way I live. Neither do I want to lose all my rocks, marbles, and moral compasses and end up lost forever. We cannot have it, whatever it is, both ways, but there has to be a middle way!

Hand sanitizer pic

23 thoughts on “Scruples: Too Many or Not Enough

  1. I was just talking with somebody who prefers things to be black or white, right or wrong, good or bad, sinner or saint – finding the in-between isn’t always easy. The Pharisees (too many scruples) often complained that Jesus never had quite enough – he was hanging out with sinners and he drank. But even so, Jesus seemed to have his own code of honor that included people the Pharisees had excluded long ago. I think it’s not a matter of having too many or not enough – but the right kind of scruples.

    1. Interesting thought? Who gets to decide what are the “right” kind? That’s the dilemma for me. If it’s culture then that’s pretty varied, and too much variety equals any things goes. Isn’t that a part of the problem: who gets to determine rightness and wrongness. Christian ethics is hard work and we need to get busy. Thanks for the thought provoking comment, tim

      Sent from my iPhone

      On Jul 26, 2016, at 11:57 AM, A Potter's View wrote:

      1. Jesus didn’t let the Pharisees, the Scribes, the Teachers of the Law define them for him. Sometimes the people that should be the best source of wisdom for such things turn out to be the worst ones to turn to. I think that we’re all different. Someone who’s usually a hot-head might need a scruple to remind them to be patient, whereas somebody with a cool-head won’t have a problem but they might need a different one entirely. So the list of the ‘right’ ones varies for each of us.

      2. So no definitive list at all? Is anything taboo and who gets to decide, vox populi? Trust me, you’re making me think. I’m more of a democracy person than theocracy, but scruples can’t be so personalized that everything is okay. tim

        Sent from my iPhone

        On Jul 26, 2016, at 12:09 PM, A Potter's View wrote:

      3. As is often the case, most scruples are cultural – not necessarily scriptural. Take the idea ‘don’t drink’. Jesus was noted for drinking, he turned water in to wine, Paul instructed Timothy to drink, Paul instructed Timothy to tell the older women to teach the younger women not to drink too much wine. If it was a moral standard, across time and culture – won’t it be more logical for everyone just to tell everyone not to drink? But considering culture and the history, how unreliable water sources were, and how wine was safer – then there’s a context where drinking was necessary. For us, water has been made quite safe, so alcohol isn’t necessary. We also have an anti-drinking element of culture – Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Alcoholics Anonymous, etc. So for us it’s easy to read into Scripture a prohibition against drinking because we’re culturally conditioned to believe it’s in there. Usually it’s preached in the context of the ‘weaker brother’ – while there’s nothing wrong with drinking, it’s not a good thing to offend an alcoholic brother so Christians shouldn’t drink at all. Now alcoholism runs in my family, so I chose to avoid drinking because I know that I’m genetically predisposed to be addicted to it. But a good friend of mine comes from another culture where she’s expected to drink and it’s odd not to. My scruple is not hers.

      4. Interesting and helpful. Are their universal scruples? Should honor-killing be universally condemned? I think so and so should racism, tribalism, and a lot more. How do we as the Church discern ethics?

        Sent from my iPhone

        On Jul 26, 2016, at 12:27 PM, A Potter's View wrote:

      5. I always wondered about that historically – centuries ago, Christians used the Bible to justify why African Americans were slaves – the Curse of Ham. They saw that the Bible gave rules about the interaction of master and slaves and didn’t condemn it. Slavery existed world-wide for millenia. Yet today, we understand that as a moral failure. There seems to be a blind-spot with interpretation and application. Almost every religion has believed in some form of what we know as the Golden Rule; including the ones that participate in honor-killing. People have this remarkable ability to ignore their ethics. It’s how atrocities like Hitler’s death camps destroyed millions of lives. Having studied honor/shame dynamics – honor killings are almost always men killing women. The shame of a woman who marries the man that she loves, or flees her abusive husband and dishonors her family flips that switch. It becomes ‘right’ to remove that which caused the dishonor; at which point ‘honor’ will be restored. Believe it or not, that’s the same dynamic Jesus lived in. The story of the woman being brought in to be stoned for adultery was pretty much the same thing – the men were going to kill a woman, while the adulterous man escaped punishment. Stoning her was considered the right thing to do, God’s word said so. But today we don’t see it that way. What bothers me about Christian’s attitudes is that we’re all too quick to condemn yet another honor-killing, but we’re powerless to do anything about them – we can’t bring education or employment to the Middle East. Their culture views ours as the one that is Godless; deceived that no matter what we do or say – they’ll see us as the ones without scruples.

      6. So true, as I said, this process of Xn Ethics, is not for the faint of heart. Peace, tim

        Sent from my iPhone

        On Jul 26, 2016, at 1:00 PM, A Potter's View wrote:

      7. It’s a good point in and of itself; if Christian ethics were universal and transcultural – then why are there cultures out there who have practiced otherwise from the very beginning? Much as we might like to think that the Bible alone is everything the whole world needs, not everyone takes a leaf out of the Bible in how they live. While it’s the rules by which Christians like to live – it’s limited in how much it speaks to non-Christians. Mahatma Ghandi once said that he liked Jesus’ teachings, but he couldn’t stand Christians because they were so unlike Christ. It’s when Christians pattern themselves off of obeying Scriptures that they get out of step in following Christ and aiming for Christ-likeness.

      8. Sounds like Colossians 3:1-17’s text for this Sunday to me! t

        Sent from my iPhone

        On Jul 26, 2016, at 1:08 PM, A Potter's View wrote:

      9. Just don’t forget the story of the rich young ruler; it’s not enough to be completely obedient to moral teachings; it’s important to understand the spirit of the instruction. (i.e. don’t just donate to an orphan’s charity and assume that’s the end of it, you’re tasked with actually caring about orphans, speaking up for them, voting policies to protect them, spending time with them.)

  2. Very thought-provoking post. I think we will find that balance when we focus on personal accountability more and community accountability less. I’m not saying that social justice issues are unimportant, but I think it is too easy for us to gather like-minded people to hold hands and declare that “they” must change.

    Over time the “they” changes. “They” may be racists, polluters, smut-peddlers, addicts, etc. It’s easy to draw a line between “we” who issue the proclamation and the “they” who need fixing. What’s difficult is admitting that I need fixing and it’s only through God’s sanctification that I will find wholeness. Then maybe we can stop shouting at others and invite them into our fellowship. Because I think Jesus showed us that breaking bread with sinners reaches them better than shouting at them.

    1. Ray, I think it has to be both corporate and individual. Social holiness is defined by community discernment. Left to my personal preferences leads me down wayward paths. Personal accountability, as you put it, is best, but only when joined with community consciousness and discernment.

  3. Jesus was lovingly protective and accepting of the woman caught in adultery, but said to her, “Go and sin no more.” Be transformed! So we return to the basic question of what is sin, and who defines it? If Jesus does, how can Jesus’ followers have so many different interpretations?

    1. Kathy, Great point! If we allow ourselves to remain unchanged by the Gospel what’s the use in it or need of it? Thanks for sharing,


    1. Thanks, Linda. Stay cool, tim

      Sent from my iPhone

      On Jul 26, 2016, at 3:31 PM, A Potter's View wrote:

  4. Tim, I have appreciated the conversation between you and Jamie here. I would like to throw a few random thoughts into the mix. What if there are no ethical lists, no moral slate of appropriate/inappropriate behaviors for Christians except to love (ie. Christlikeness, agape, living in love as God is love and made known this love in Jesus Christ). Love defines not only what to do but the spirit in which it is done.

    Love cannot be the same in every situation. Does love require a person to divorce an unfaithful partner or stay with an unfaithful partner? That is a personal decision that resides within the person who has been wronged to make through prayerful searching for God’s will for their life. They in turn cannot turn to another person who has an unfaithful partner and say, “This is what I did, therefore, you must do this.” God’s will for this person may be different as they seek to know God’s ways in their life. In order to love, one must engage the spiritual disciplines in a search for God’s purposes.

    Moving from a personal context to a more social context, love requires each person to act out of love born of God and made real in Jesus Christ. What makes a sin a sin is not that it is on some list somewhere, but sin’s destructive and degrading impact on another human being. Sin robs a human being of his/her God-given identity as child of God. Murder is wrong not because it is one the the Big Ten, but because it puts the murderer in the place of God and takes one’s right to live from another human being. In the same way, adultery is wrong because it breaks/destroys/undermines the integrity of a covenant made between two people, not to mention the destructiveness of the human soul of the offended and the offender. Racism isn’t a sin because it is on a list and we can either agree or disagree with the list. Racism is a sin because it divides the human family (God’s children/family) into factions. It destroys the connection between us and those who are unlike us by separating us into “us” and “them.” It invites us to live not by the spirit of Jesus, but by provincialism.

    These are simple illustrations, I know. It seems to me the great commandment IS the great commandment and all other commandments (lists) are suggestive/illustrative ways of knowing what love looks like in particular times of human life on earth. Jesus violated lists wherever he went because love was being violated by such lists. When he violated the Sabbath by eating temple bread, he was holding up a higher purpose: love (feeding the hungry) is more important than keeping sabbath rules. He didn’t replace one rule or list by another. He simply lived out the love of God for people. The real question, it seems to me, is what is the loving (agape, intentional good will, Christlike) thing to do, think, say and be in any particular situation.

    In one sense, love has no rules because it calls us to a life above rules. On the other hand, love requires us to filter everything not by a list, but by the heart of God revealed in Jesus, after all, the greatest is not a list, but love.

    I realize this may be too fluid for some people. It is easier and more comforting to simply “keep the rules.” I know. I have been there. It seems to me faith is not about keeping rules and living by lists, but about seeking to know and follow Jesus Christ. As the disciples discovered, when we follow Jesus, there is no telling where it will lead us (a fluid way of life).

    Just a thought. Thanks for the challenging discussions.

    1. Frank, I follow you and agree with you for the most part, and well said. However, leaving ethical decisions completely to an individual’s purview and their time and context as you put it, “all other commandments (lists) are suggestive/illustrative ways of knowing what love looks like in particular times of human life on earth,” borders on latitudinarianism. My Biblical and sociological hermeneutic trusts the inspired Word more than human vagaries. Sure, every Scripture needs to be understood in its context, but I’m not convinced that things are as fluid as you suggest.

      When we get to be the sole arbiter of God’s will in any situation as you suggest then I have a problem. My original sin has become actual sin and I’m in little condition to decide God’s mind. I know this is a circular argument that makes God and all commandments unknowable and without ultimate effect, hence my propensity to take orders, keep covenant, and understand, IN LOVE, what is the whole of God’s teaching on particular subjects.

      This is complex, and to follow love, love, love with me deciding when and how that is God’s will makes me more deified than I want to be. I appreciate the dialogue. Makes me think, and the complexity of it sends me a resounding message, “God is God, and I am not!” Peace,


  5. Tim, thanks for your comments. I, too, know I am not God nor have any pretenses of trying to be so. I, too, trust the scriptures to point the way for a life of faith. It always comes down to how do we properly interpret these scriptures that have been given to us.

    It seems to me the scriptures are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end. If the scriptures are an end in themselves, all we have to do is read a text and follow the list. Why do we need God when we have a list? I have walked that path in prior years. Slowly and painfully, I began to realize the list had become my god. Idolatry at its best!

    My journey has led me to believe the scriptures are given to us in order to see and know God. We can say they are similar to a window through which we view God. The window is not God. It only reveals what is beyond it. The scriptures point us beyond the sacred pages to God, who has been revealed most clearly and definitely in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the human face of God and, because God is love, Jesus is love incarnate. Thus the command to love is grounded in the life, teachings and ministry of Jesus, not some general idea of love as a feeling and certainly not my broken, wayward, sinful ideas about love. A Christlike life is a life lived in love as God in Christ has loved us.

    I in no way want to place myself or anyone else in the position of God. I do want to encourage a prayerful, contemplative, honest study of the life of Jesus shaped and honed by the community of faith so that our lives reflect and align with his and we become that love incarnate, though always flawed by our humanity. I think Paul said something similar, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law (Romans 13:8).

    Thanks again for the challenging thoughts.

    1. Franks, Thank you, but I would push back some. Although I am not nor ever have been a fundamentalist, I do believe the Scripture is the inspired Word of God. Your position seems to say that the Bible contains the words of God. I may be mistaken, so correct me. In your neo -orthodox existentialist human centered view the BOD’s statement that Scripture is primary becomes moot and hypothetical. No matter I’m still a friend, tim

      Sent from my iPhone

      On Jul 27, 2016, at 8:53 AM, A Potter's View wrote:

    1. Great! tim

      Sent from my iPhone

      On Jul 29, 2016, at 6:30 AM, A Potter's View wrote:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s