I’ve always been bothered by the Gospel (Matt 5:21-37) we read at church yesterday when Jesus says that even when we have just a sinful thought about murder, anger, adultery, divorce, and lying, we’ve already committed the sin. So if having angry thoughts is akin to murder, and thinking sexually about someone who isn’t my husband is akin to adultery, I’m in a state of perpetual sin.
Frederica Mathewes-Green has been helpful to me in her book, The Jesus Prayer. She outlines five stages that my thoughts go through before they have me chained to compulsive sin:
1. Provocation is when the thought first appears. That’s a relief; everyone is subject to receiving these provoking thoughts and having them is not my fault.
2. Interaction is when I engage with the thought, either entertaining it or arguing against it. Now it is occupying my attention.
3. Consent is when I become intoxicated with the thought and embrace it. I become absorbed in an image or in playing out a fantasy. Green explains, “It is at this point, when I consent to an image or fantasy that I become responsible for the sin, even if as yet no action has taken place.”
4. Captivity occurs once I have consented to the thought. My ability to put up further resistance crumbles.
5. Passion occurs after I have given way repeatedly and the mere appearance of the temptation is sufficient to vanquish all my resistance. I proceed to execute the physical sin; it is no longer just a thought.
I believe that stage 3 is what Jesus was talking about in the Scripture reading. When I give “consent” to the thought it is as good as the physical sin because there is nothing that prevents it from progressing to the final stages.
So what interrupts this cascade of events?
I’ve taken Mathewes-Green’s suggestion and developed a part of my mind that watches my mind. Instead of being helplessly swept off by a memory, a thought, or something I see, I’m developing a “little patch of interior real estate” where I stand beside the Lord as a “sentinel” and observe all that comes and goes in my mind. I’m beginning to perceive patterns in my thinking, and I notice certain topics or sights that are particularly disruptive to my inner peace.
The more I practice this approach, the better I am at remaining in this place of steady observation, and I am not as easily overthrown by my thoughts. Sometimes a bad memory haunts me or I see something disturbing, but often it is a thought from the devil. He’s a tempter, not a showman. If he can get my attention to drift from prayer without noticing his presence, it meets his goal. He throws disruptive, upsetting, intoxicating thoughts at me, like throwing a brick through a window. I know these thoughts are from him, particularly when I am judging someone, or fretting about being judged.
It is comforting to realize that we are all distracted by our thoughts. Eventually I hope to get to recognize these bad thoughts when they first pop into my head over the horizon, and I will reject them with no further fuss. My “nous” (eye of the soul) stands as a sentinel at the entrance of my heart, recognizing the bad thoughts as they try to advance, and batting them away.
Mathewes-Green points out that this stance of watchfulness is called nepsis, meaning “vigilance”, the wakefulness Jesus praised in the five wise virgins (Mt 25:11-13).
I have hundreds of competing thoughts, but I’ve taken Green’s advice and reserved a chamber in my mind where a thought has to wait, like a parlor in my house. Instead of being helplessly swept away, the “sentinel” in my mind stands next to Jesus and asks, “Is this thought from God or from the devil?” This discernment phase requires quietness and my full attention; I can’t be on the internet, talking on my phone, or even driving. Until I can get to a quiet place without distraction, the thought has to wait in the parlor of my mind.
I’ve been practicing this for a few weeks now. It has helped me to turn away thoughts that would have either paralyzed me, or taken away more parts of my heart until I would eventually turn to sin. Here are a few examples:
How can they disrespect me like that? They should value my opinion.
I don’t need to report cash income from my book to the IRS; the government takes too much of our money anyway.
I need to give more money to a medical foundation in Honduras to help provide mammography for more women.
I am resentful when I need to cancel a dinner appointment to sit with a friend who has been diagnosed with cancer.
I should simplify my life and not buy so many things.
I’m too tired tonight for my evening prayers.
Once the thought has spent some time in the parlor and then been thoroughly examined, it is easier to embrace it, or bat it away. Sometimes it isn’t as obvious it’s the devil and when I’m not sure, I ask a different question, “Is this of God’s world, or is this of the secular world?” If I’m freely giving money to help a person because God said to love my neighbor, it’s different from giving money to impress someone. I may discern not to give the money at all until my motivations (and thoughts) are clearly from God.
After discernment, I embrace thoughts that come from God into my heart. For the others, I call on God to cast them away for me. God never disappoints when I call upon Him for help.
Take the time to examine your thoughts. Don’t beat yourself up for having them, but examine them together with Jesus, in the parlor in your mind, without emotional attachment. Embrace those from God, and call out to God for help to cast away those that have been planted there by the devil.
Blessings, my friend,
(click below for MP3 file)