Scrupulosity: Understanding Religious OCD and How to Treat It

woman with arms around her tucked knees, her head in her hands
How can I break the cycle of severe doubt and fear about my faith?

I’ve asked God to forgive my sins. I believe that Christ died on the cross and rose from the grave. I’ve invited Jesus to be my Savior. And I try to live a good Christian life. But I have no peace. I always feel guilty. I have constant, intense doubt and anxiety about my faith. Things like whether God loves me. If I’m truly saved. If I’m praying the right way. If I have unconfessed sin. If my commitment to Christ is real. (My list of religious fears is long.) I know the Bible tells us to trust and not doubt. So what’s wrong with me? Why is my faith so weak?



NOTE: This article comes alongside people who have already asked Jesus to be their Lord and Savior but are hurting from obsessive spiritual doubts. If you have questions about what it means to have a personal relationship with God and the promise of eternal life with Him, we encourage you to read our free online booklet Coming Home: How to Know God.

Also, this article can only offer a brief overview of a complex topic. If you or someone you know is struggling with signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, don’t try to self-diagnose. Instead, call our Counseling team at 1-855-771-HELP (4357) for a free over-the-phone consultation. They can give you a list of referrals to licensed therapists in your area who specialize in treating OCD. You can also find resources through the website of the International OCD Foundation at*


Before anything else, we want you to know that God understands the sincerity of your heart and your desire to follow Him. If you have trusted what the Bible says about your own sinfulness and Jesus’ perfect holiness, you are saved — and there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1).

Every Christian needs to wrestle with doubt and disbelief to a certain extent. A faith unquestioned and untested isn’t true faith. Even Jesus’ disciples had to find their way through this dark, discouraging tunnel. (At the very moment when belief might have come easiest — when the risen Christ stood in front of them — Matthew records that “some doubted” (Matthew 28:16-17.)

However, the unrelenting, extreme distress you described is causing you anxiety that God never intended. We’re glad you reached out for help.

When doubt is about mental health, not a lack of faith

You’re right: The Bible tells us to pray “in faith, with no doubting” (James 1:6-8). At the same time, we must take all of Scripture into account. Remember that Jesus does not condemn anyone who follows Him. Nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8:1).

Also, consider the biblical account in Mark 9 of the father whose son was suffering. The man cries out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Jesus doesn’t scold him. Our tender, compassionate heavenly Father “knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). God understands our human condition and that even Christians will struggle in this world.

Having repetitive, unwanted thoughts, worries, and doubts about salvation or other topics of faith doesn’t mean you are spiritually “weak.” Instead, those symptoms could point to a psychological condition called scrupulosity (also called religious scrupulosity, religious OCD, or scrupulosity OCD).

Scrupulosity is a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). So, to best answer your question about how to break the cycle of severe doubt and fear, let’s first look at a basic overview of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

What is obsessive-compulsive disorder?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder that usually has two parts: thoughts and behaviors. (However, a person with OCD can sometimes have obsessions without compulsions, and they can have compulsions without obsessions. This makes the disorder complicated.)

  • Obsessions are persistent, unwanted thoughts about specific topics.
  • Compulsions are behaviors a person uses to try to get obsessive thoughts out of their mind.

In short, someone with OCD often has intrusive, anxiety-producing obsessive thoughts. And to try to get rid of these unwanted thoughts, an individual with OCD often acts on compulsive behaviors (repetitive actions or rituals). They could also be gripped by a thought (urge) that they should do something — even if they don’t follow through.

For example, excessive handwashing is one of the best-known examples of a compulsion. The initial obsession that can lead to such behavior is ongoing, anxious thoughts about germs.

How does OCD impact thoughts about faith?

It’s normal to think about faith. However, people with OCD take personal responsibility for every thought they have. Additionally, they believe every thought has deep, important meaning. (This is true even for random thoughts.)

An individual who has unwanted and persistent thoughts that fixate on spiritual topics might have a form of OCD called scrupulosity.

What is scrupulosity?

An individual with scrupulosity lives in constant distress about their faith. Their doubts and questions attack what they hold most dear and most strongly believe. In a sense, OCD thoughts are telling the person the opposite of who they truly are and what they believe.

They might feel afraid they never do enough to “prove” their faithfulness. They often are afraid they’re not practicing faith in a “correct” way. They might feel as though they have unknowingly offended God. They may have a constant desire (compulsion) to compensate (atone, make amends, pay) for what they believe are sins or shortcomings.

The International OCD Foundation offers this definition of scrupulosity:

Scrupulosity is a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) involving religious or moral obsessions. Scrupulous individuals hold a high moral or ethical standard that acts as a restraining force or inhibits certain actions. They’re overly concerned that something they thought or did might be a sin or other violation of their religious or moral doctrine.

In other words, someone who suffers from scrupulosity can deeply love the Lord and sincerely want to live life according to His teachings. That person’s pain is not the result of moral failings or lack of faith. Rather, people with scrupulosity suffer from debilitating anxiety and a never-ending sense of doubt that can negatively impact everyday life.

What are the symptoms of scrupulosity?

As we mentioned before, symptoms of general OCD usually include thoughts (obsessions), and behaviors/rituals (compulsions). Similarly, these two elements can be seen in symptoms of religious OCD.

Obsessive thoughts common to scrupulosity can include:

  • Intrusive negative thoughts about religion or moral issues.
  • Needless guilt and fear about offending God or committing sin.
  • Fear of God’s punishment.
  • Worry about praying “incorrectly.”
  • Concern about misinterpreting religious teachings.
  • Fear of going to the “wrong” place of worship.
  • Constant self-examination.
  • Doubt about whether your ethical choices truly are for the greater good.
  • Fixation over whether you’re a “good” person.

Compulsive behaviors common to scrupulosity can include:

  • Perfectionism (the need to get your thoughts and spiritual life “right”).
  • Refusing to make decisions because you can’t figure out the “best” choice.
  • Seeking reassurance to an excessive degree from religious leaders.
  • Avoiding any situation where immoral acts might happen.
  • Trying to do “good” things to make up for “bad” things.
  • Being afraid of lying by omission or accidentally misleading someone.
  • Acting generously to “prove” to yourself that you’re a good person.
  • Unconsciously discriminating against people.
  • Debating ethics for hours in your head.
  • Acting out of self-interest instead of being motivated by helping others.
  • Repetitive praying (fixating on certain prayer topics) or frequent confessing. (Prayer and confession are encouraged in Scripture; see 1 Thess. 5:16-18 and 1 John 1:9. However, they can become compulsive when pursued in unhealthy ways.)

How can I overcome scrupulosity?

You can overcome religious OCD. Scrupulosity can be treated. OCD thinking might lead you to question your sincerity in the Christian faith. But your commitment to follow the Lord is not defined by doubts you cannot control.

However, we urge you not to self-diagnose. And don’t listen to friends or family who try to shame you for having doubts, obsessions, compulsions, or the need for professional help. Religious OCD is a complex mental health issue that requires compassionate, competent care.

The most important step is to get help from a licensed, professional therapist.

Call our Counseling team at 1-855-771-HELP (4357) for a free over-the-phone consultation. They can give you a list of referrals to licensed therapists in your area who specialize in treating OCD. (You can also find resources through the website of the International OCD Foundation at*)

Connect with a licensed Christian counselor who has expertise in dealing with OCD and is trained to address scrupulosity. That individual might recommend exposure and response prevention (ERP) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), two of the best therapeutic options for overcoming scrupulosity. They might also recommend medication if your symptoms are severe.

In the meantime, here are a few FAQs to help jumpstart your journey to overcome religious OCD.

You “are God’s workmanship” (Ephesians 2:10). And God is pleased with you because you trust in Him and “hope in his steadfast love.” (Psalm 147:11)

Lean on the constant, unchanging strength and love of God. Who better to share your worries with than the One who knows you best? As you surrender your thoughts to Him, God’s peace will guard your heart and mind.

Practice holding onto facts — no matter how you feel. We know that will be challenging, especially at first. And yet, be patient and gracious with yourself. Reframe self-condemning thoughts like I should or I shouldn’t. Instead, replace those thoughts with statements like I could, I would like, or I choose.          

Life is uncertain, yet God never changes. His Word never changes. And so His promises are true:

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38–39)

“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)

“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)

You can tell if a thought is OCD thinking if:

  • The thought leads to a cycle of What if? questions and doubts.
  • The thought is emotionally charged. (The thought is not factual.)
  • The thought generates anxiety. (The thought is never calming or pleasant.)
  • The thought intrudes on you. (The thought is unwanted, repetitive, and won’t leave your mind.)

How, then, can you learn to separate your true thinking from OCD thinking? By understanding that your identity is not based on your thoughts. Yes, you have thoughts. But your thoughts are not you. Recognize obsessive thinking for what it is. Call it out. Say to yourself, That’s OCD thinking, not truth.

It’s tempting to believe that paying attention to your thoughts (feeding obsessive thinking) is a good thing because you are trying to solve the problem. But that will not work with OCD. You can’t “fight off” intrusive thoughts with sheer willpower. Doing so only gives unwanted obsessions more attention and energy.

One of the issues underlying religious OCD is anxiety about life’s uncertainty. Deep down, you know the truth of your standing with God. Still, your brain thinks it must find answers to all your questions and doubts. Unfortunately, trying to soothe or calm OCD through ongoing self-reflection (searching for certainty by feeding obsessive thinking) only leads to an endless loop of questions.

Instead of trying to fight off unwanted thoughts, guilt, doubts, and anxiety, practice grounding techniques (also known as mindfulness) to bring your thinking into the present moment.

Being grounded means being mentally and emotionally stable, practical, sensible, and realistic. Solid mental health grounding techniques can keep you tethered to what’s true. You change future-focused anxiety to present-focused reality.

Part of this involves caring for yourself. Giving attention to your whole being, including your physical body, is part of living a grounded life. Be sure to exercise, eat well, and get enough sleep. These basic activities of life (when not taken to extremes) are important to being grounded and focused on the present.

Keep your routines consistent. (Routine brings familiarity and calmness, and it lets you control what you can control.) And limit your exposure to stressful sensory input. (Too much news, social media, or screen time can increase feelings of uncertainty and anxious thoughts.)

When an unwanted thought comes to mind, pause, and take a deep breath. Slow your thinking. Acknowledge that the unwanted thought or anxious doubt exists. Say to yourself, OK, brain, slow down. Let’s make time to sort this out. I hear that intrusive thought, but I’m going to set it aside. Instead of paying attention to it, I’m going to focus on what’s in front of me right now.

For example, try the “3 x 5 + 1” method. You’ll identify five things (each) that you see, hear, and feel. And then you’ll ask yourself one important question.

  • Look around you. Name five colors that you see.
  • Listen to your surroundings. Name five sounds that you hear.
  • Name five things that you can physically feel — the sleeves of your shirt against your arms, the breeze blowing across your skin, the fabric of the chair you’re sitting on.
  • Now ask yourself, What do I need to think about or do right now?

Paying attention to your environment is a helpful way to pull your mind back into the present.

Where to find help

God created humans as physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual beings. He made the human body, mind, and spirit to work in unity as an integrated, whole being. And we can see His grace even in a broken world.

Recovering from scrupulosity will take time. However, it is possible. Be patient with yourself, and celebrate every success along the way. Would you allow us the privilege of helping you?

Call our Counseling team at 1-855-771-HELP (4357) for a free over-the-phone consultation. Our licensed or pastoral counselors would be honored to listen to you, pray with you, and offer biblical wisdom and practical suggestions for next steps. And as we mentioned earlier, they can give you a list of referrals to licensed therapists in your area who specialize in treating OCD.

We also invite you to dig into the resources and referrals below.

*Resources from and referrals to other ministries or secular organizations dealing with specialized areas of knowledge don’t imply that their stances align with Focus on the Family’s perspective in all areas.

You May Also Like