When I was seven years old, I thought God would come down to earth in a spacecraft to take everyone to heaven. I was terrified that if I disobeyed my parents or told one of my older brothers to “shut up” that I would be left behind in this science-fiction rapture. There is a psychological diagnosis for people that go through their lives with this type of thinking. It is a subcategory of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) called scrupulosity.
Sufferers of scrupulosity fear punishment from deities for their actions. “They’re walking around with this black cloud of ‘I’m going to hell,'” expert Jonathan Abramowitz of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill described. If you have this condition, you believe that your thoughts have the same moral implications as your actions. A colleague of Abramowitz explains that “Scrupulosity literally means ‘fearing sin where there is none.'” In order to alleviate their fears they perform whatever rituals their religion prescribes compulsively and methodically, like we’d expect a person with OCD to wash their hands after shaking hands with a stranger or straighten a crooked picture frame.
I have good news and bad news. First the bad: Jesus explains in his most famous sermon that if I lust after a woman, I have committed adultery with her in my heart. If you harbor anger against your brother, you may as well act out your anger, because it is equivalent to murder. Is Jesus prescribing that we go ahead and murder someone if we are angry with them? Or sleep with the next person we lust after? Of course not. He is illustrating that our sinful thoughts indeed are equivalent to sinful actions in terms of their punishment. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). However, earthly consequences differ from God’s judgment. The jail sentence for “borrowing” my neighbor’s beautiful car is a lot different than coveting it. However, both have the power to separate us from God.
Now, the good news: Jesus did what we cannot do. He lived the perfect life. He kept God’s laws perfectly. He did not lust after a woman or hate his brother. He did not steal or covet his neighbor’s chariot. Jesus, God who humbled himself to become a man, chose to suffer and die the death that our sin earned us. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tore apart the Pharisees’ notion that men could keep all of God’s laws and commandments and effectively earn their way into heaven. Death and separation from God is not a prison sentence one can shorten with good behavior. Without God’s grace, man’s case is hopeless.
Remember that verse from “Amazing Grace” that says:
T’was grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed.
God’s wrath against sin is a very real and very terrifying thing. It is a grace of his to reveal to us that we are deserving of his wrath. How overwhelming it would be though to stop there and to live with the knowledge of God’s wrath, but not walk in the precious grace and knowledge of the freedom that Jesus bought for us on the cross.
Have you received the free gift Jesus offers you? Or are you holding onto sins that God has already forgiven and forgotten? You can be free today.