Monday, November 18, 2019

Anonymous Asks (67)

“Are intrusive thoughts sin?”

Intrusive thoughts can be distracting, distressing and very, very hard to get rid of. They keep us from focusing on things we know are more important, and things we really need to deal with. They raise issues we are eager to put to bed. They make us question whether we have truly forgiven others, and whether we even have full control of our own faculties.

Intrusive thoughts are certainly a pain. But are they sinful? Good question.

You Discern My Thoughts from Afar

When David wrote that God discerned his thoughts from afar, he did not mean the random, weird ideas that sometimes float through our heads. Oh, I have no doubt God knows those too, but the word that David used for “thoughts” was rea`, which means “purposes” or “aims”. It comes from another Hebrew word that means “friend” or “neighbor”, which implies the sort of thoughts nobody would deliberately push away. The sense is that God knows the things we cherish and which motivate us. Good thing too.

There are several other Hebrew and Greek words which are occasionally translated “thought” in our Bibles. In fact, human thought is mentioned in scripture many times, but most frequently in reference to plans, devices, plots, contrivances, imaginations, intentions, and so on, both good and evil; things we think about intentionally. When the writers of scripture speak of the sort of thoughts that force their way into our hearts and heads uninvited, they use words best translated “fears”, “worries” or “concerns”. Such terminology forces us to better recognize these sorts of thoughts for what they really are: ongoing evidence of our imperfect faith.

Thinking and Sinfulness

Is that sort of thinking sinful? Well, yeah. The language of the Lord himself compels us to take at least a measure of responsibility for the things we allow to caper freely through our skulls. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” he tells his disciples. That’s an active verb. We may not deliberately set about to trouble our own hearts, but once we find ourselves troubled, it appears we have a choice about how we deal with our concerns.

On another occasion, Jesus again challenges his disciples, asking them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” The question was not mere rhetoric. At the time they were experiencing the newly-resurrected Christ, and were probably wondering if they were all hallucinating. But the obvious implication is that some other way of being exists than indulging doubts and concerns, and the disciples needed to consider that and remedy their situation. And if the Lord’s expectation was that they would get their thinking in order about something so radical and unexpected, then surely he would expect us to manage the mostly-insignificant concerns that arise in our daily lives.

More Guests at the Party

Is this easy? Of course not. But we have more control over our thoughts than we might realize. If we cannot yet fully prevent lust, fear, worry, doubt, excessive grief or other things from being frequent and unwelcome visitors in our heads, at very least we ought to get into the habit of inviting other, better thoughts to the party to keep them company ... or even to inspire them to check their watches and decide they have another pressing engagement to get to.

This is in fact exactly what the Lord Jesus was doing for his disciples: encouraging them to think affirmatively rather than negatively. It is not simply, “Let not your hearts be troubled,” but “believe also in me.” It is not just that men ought not to “lose heart”, but that they “ought always to pray.” Paul’s epistles reflect the same message. It is not merely “Put to death what is earthly in you” (including several kinds of bad thought patterns), but also “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is.”

Contemplating Christ

How do we do that? Active contemplation of his character helps immeasurably. His faithfulness to his people is evidence we should also find him dependable. His holy hatred of sin reminds us we should not be indulging thoughts he would reject. His ability to see almost every correct choice as springing directly from the Father’s will reminds us that neutrality is not an option.

The more we know of the word of God, the better equipped we are to fend off intrusive thoughts, to develop the spiritual virtue of self-control, and to love God with our hearts and minds, as we are commanded.

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