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Tough Question: How do we control our thoughts?

Reflections

“Temptation itself is not sin. Even Jesus was tempted by the devil for forty days in the wilderness, yet he was without sin. Temptation is an invitation to sin, which can be accepted or refused,” says The Rev’d Charlie Lacey from St Andrew’s, Springfield

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I recently received a question, which was prompted by a line in an authorised confession which says, “Merciful God, our maker and our judge, we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed…”

The enquirer expressed that he has a good level of control over his words and deeds, but not over his thoughts, which are sometimes “less than wholesome”.  The question was essentially, “How can one avoid sinning against God in thought, when unsavoury thoughts so often pop into one’s mind, seemingly unannounced and uninvited?”

The first thing to say is that if a Christian recognises that his or her thought life is unsatisfactory, it is in fact an encouraging sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in that person. However, when it comes to our thoughts, we must differentiate between sin and temptation. Every human being experiences temptation and there is nothing novel or unique about the temptations of any individual. As it says in 1 Corinthians 10.13, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind (NIV).”

Temptation itself is not sin. Even Jesus was tempted by the devil for forty days in the wilderness, yet he was without sin. Temptation is an invitation to sin, which can be accepted or refused. It is not the unwanted thoughts that cause us to sin, rather it is what we do with them. Do we reject them immediately, or do we dwell on them? Martin Luther wrote, “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”

We could also liken tempting thoughts to passing a room with an open door and witnessing something sordid going on inside. In that situation, we could either close the door immediately and walk away or stand in the doorway gawping. Worse still, we could enter the room and get involved, which is the point at which sinful thoughts become deeds.

Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to determine the exact point at which a tempting thought becomes a sinful one. I once heard someone ask, “What is the difference between noticing a beautiful woman and lusting after her?” The reply given was, “About two seconds.” As Christians, we should be aware of the thoughts that we are entertaining and invite the Holy Spirit to give us the resolve to keep “closing the door”.

Many, if not all, of our thoughts are triggered by things that we see and hear. Thoughts will often be an immediate response to external stimuli; however, our memories enable us to replay and relive just about anything our five senses have taken in over the entire course of our lives. Naturally, we cannot filter out every sound, image or sensation that may give rise to a tempting thought, either at that moment, or in the future. However, as Christians it is vitally important that we do not intentionally fill our minds with unwholesome stimuli. The most obvious example is pornography, and it is clearly a sin to view it. However, there are other more subtle ways to fuel our temptation, for example: music with explicit lyrics, very graphic films, inappropriate social media and so on. Being selective about the influences that we expose ourselves to is prudent, not prudish, as some might surmise. We may not be able to prevent tempting thoughts from entering our minds, but we certainly should not be fuelling them!

Perhaps the best advice is that which the Apostle Paul gives towards the end of his letter to the Philippians:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.  Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

First Published on the St Andrew’s, Springfield website in May 2023.

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