Some people collect beetles, or stamps, or objects with penguins on them. Apparently, I collect crises of conscience. Because moral angst has been a prominent feature in the landscape of my spiritual journey, I’d like to share what I’ve learned with others who traverse those regions.
What I Mean by Moral Angst
By moral angst, I mean anxiety related to the ongoing responsibility of making moral choices which carry some ambiguity.
There is a special religious and moral form of obsessive-compulsive disorder called scrupulosity. This is not what I’m trying to address. Yet particularly when I was younger, trying to be appropriately scrupulous (morally upstanding) sometimes resulted in my becoming a bit neurotic, engaged in anxious patterns that seem emotionally out of whack, but not (yet) to the extent of a clinical disorder.
The Scruple Cycle: Circles in a moral toilet bowl?
I was most avid in my habit of run-ins with moral unease around the time I attended undergrad, but the experiences started in my mid-teens as I began to wrestle with personal responsibility for moral choices. I was always good with obeying clear-cut rules, but the approach of adulthood brought more difficult moral quandaries. Some would lead to sustained changes, like my adventure with veganism. Others took a cyclical shape. For instance, here’s a cycle I developed around the time of my first year in college:
Step 1: Believe that “whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:2), and conclude that this means breaking any law instituted by the government is a sin (unless this particular law requires burning incense to a bust of Nero or something like that).
Step 2: For fear of jaywalking, get stressed out and embarrassed in front of my new associates when they cross the street in the middle of the block. Hang back, walk to the corner, and use the crosswalk, despite breaks in traffic. Repeat if desired.
Step 3: Get fed up with living this way. Look for modifications to Step 1 that don’t result in Step 2.
Step 4: Worry that maybe I’m making excuses, rationalizing, and participating in a few of the more exotic forms self-deception in my psychology textbook. Pray for God’s help with worry and for insight, then feel as if prayer didn’t change much.
No matter how a person grows up, most of us manage to find fault of some kind with the developmental soup in which we soaked. Naturally, I feel my upbringing among evangelical missionaries in Ecuador played a role in my trouble. It was impressed upon me that God cannot endure moral imperfection, and any sin earns the sinner hell in perpetuity. But by confessing Jesus as savior and Lord, one could be saved despite deserving otherwise. I was supposed to rejoice in my salvation. But I was not joyful, for a couple reasons.
First, suppose you believed that from now on, every time you stepped on a crack, you would launch a nuclear missile that vaporized a million children. Would knowing that you’d be completely forgiven every time enable you have peace throughout the day? The notion that one received eternal torment for any moral imperfection seemed to imply the smallest sin was a more horrible thing than any number of ICBM launches weighed apart from sin. Inconceivable moral catastrophe lurked in every mistake! Why did everyone else who believed this stuff seem so well adjusted?
Second, I was given to understand that billions of other people were headed for unspeakable and irreparable horror unless they became Christians. How could I be okay with hell getting populated, or be happy for myself when so many weren’t so privileged? The benefit of personally being off the hook seemed minuscule compared with the immensity of the bad news of the Christian worldview.
The weight of all this came down on my 16-year old conscience one day as I considered playing nintendo. How could I justify squandering the afternoon in private amusement? If there was a fraction of a chance of saving one person, I had to forsake all comfort and expend myself for them! I twitched in agony for a while as moral terror arm-wrestled the social terror of my shyness to decide which terrorist would take control. Scruples won. I located my parents’ gospel tracts and ran out into the streets of Quito. Eventually I shoved them into the hands of a couple of nice strangers and one unenthusiastic panhandler. Somehow these three acts of proselytism seemed like enough trouble for one day.
Hope for the Morally Anxious
I’m not sure whether I could persuade my teenage self not to be neurotic. Maybe I needed to pass through these things. It might have helped to have seen a counsellor. I can’t provide you with that kind of help here. Yet I will venture some advice that reflects my journey since those teenage years:
Believe that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6). Moral angst can stem from a longing to do right mixed with a lack of confidence in your ability to choose rightly. The ignorant and anxious person who wants to do right ought to hope in the God who knows what you hunger and thirst for. When righteousness is what you crave, that uncomfortable thirst is part of God’s work in you. Lived righteousness will be God’s gift. It’s what we pray for in hope and faith that his kingdom will come, and his will will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. So make the discomfort of your decisions an occasion to rejoice and be glad.
Treasure God’s company. You are never left alone to work out your duties. Right living does not arise in an impersonal realm of mechanical deductions; God aims to perfect you in love through an inherently relational process. Your mistakes reveal your need to throw yourself on his mercy, enabling you to grow in love as one who has been loved.
Be patient with yourself; you’re made of dust. Some theological questions take work to answer. Some answers will even elude you your whole life. God gets it! Oversimplification in spiritual things can lead to false dilemmas. I oversimplified Romans 13:2. When I refocused my concern on the goals laws are aimed at, my conscience was calmed yet enriched in the long-run. Whether your ideas come from genius theologians, ancient traditions, or an uneducated “common-sense” reading of the King James, it’s safe to assume your theological notions are imperfect tools. Even the best ones are subject to misuse. A humble faith that God’s truth and goodness stretch beyond human comprehension can spare you some unnecessary anxiety.
Don’t write off all anxious feelings as bad. Escapism and stewing in guilt are not good responses to anxiety. Still, aren’t Christians instructed not to be anxious? The anxiety opposed in places like Matthew 6 and Philippians 4:6 is the kind which imagines that God may not provide as a loving father. But elsewhere, Paul uses the same word positively, referring to the concern of believers for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25, 2 Corinthians 11:28, Philippians 2:20).
In the words of lovably neurotic Kierkegaard, “Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.” Kierkegaard is talking about existential angst, something inherent to being human because of the responsibility of having serious choices. His point is that this angst frequently leads to spiritually destructive reactions, but it can also stimulate us to faith.
Don’t embrace all spiritual thinking as good. Sometimes the spiritual way you frame stuff can return you to twisted patterns and perspectives that obscure more than they reveal. Admitting this does not insult God. Sometimes spiritual self-examination and efforts to have faith can paradoxically work against faith, as you turn your gaze more and more to yourself. Put your hope in God, not in your own faith.
Grow in love with Christ.When I was younger, I noticed my scrupulous efforts had a negative emotional tenor. I wanted the spiritually sleepy to wake up, but who was I going to encourage if my own example was one of bleak and joyless duty? As my affection for my Lord has become hotter, pessimistic seasons and anxious struggles have not disappeared, but I have a secure haven in him and a regular source of joy.
I don’t believe we can escape the discomfort of moral questions laced with uncertainty. For some of us, such challenges will be a significant source of suffering. We can, however, grow in maturity in how we face this angst by developing in how we hope. When we ache for understanding, righteous action, and faith, we can let our insufficiencies draw us to expectant longing for the person of Christ and the kingdom that he brings.
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