(Click to listen to an audio recording of this article, read by the author)
“A penny for your thoughts” – has anyone ever said that to you, wondering why you are gazing into the distance, oblivious to your surroundings? But I don’t always want to share what’s going on in my mind. Often I’m glad that it’s a secret area, which no other person can see. However, there is One who can read my thoughts, who is watching closely and from whom nothing is hidden. God, my Creator, has full access, and is very interested in what is going on there in the secret places.
The problem is, I can’t always control what turns up in my thoughts. Feelings, pictures and words flash up without prior notice. These thoughts can be good or bad, positive or negative, constructive or destructive. Sometimes I can be amazed, even shocked at what turns up. Where do these thoughts have their source? What does God think about them; does He judge me based on these involuntary impulses?
Every human being on earth has been born with a “flesh”. This is the human nature that was corrupted when Adam and Eve, the first people, committed sin. People, the most excellent of God’s perfect creation, gave in to temptation and let sin and the curse that follows enter into their lives. As a result, people’s thoughts turned from serving and loving God, to living for themselves. As a human being, I have inherited that nature, and this means that those hard, unforgiving, discouraging or filthy thoughts all come straight from my flesh. They’re part of my human nature.
Uncomfortable as this insight is, most people will eventually accept it as a part of life. “I’m only human, after all!” Many think that as long as it remains a thought, it’s not so bad – after all, I’m not hurting anyone else. However, Jesus Himself makes it very clear that this is not the case: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:27-28. In other words giving in to the thought is sin, just as much as a physical action – even though the consequences for other people are not the same. Of course this also applies to other sins like anger, criticism, jealousy and discouragement, in fact any sin that I give in to in my thoughts!
Who is the real “me”?
This in itself can seem discouraging – how can I possibly stay pure in my thought life, when many of those thoughts are involuntary? Paul gives us a clue when he writes “… in me (that is in my flesh) nothing good dwells … For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice … I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good.” Romans 7:18-21. From this it is clear that there is a difference between the “me” that is my flesh, and the “me” that is my mind, or will to serve God. Then I can ask: who is the real “me?”
There is a conflict between what my mind wants and what my flesh wants. Here I have to ask myself a number of questions that should be straightforward to answer. For example: Why should my flesh and the sin that dwells there be the winner? Whom do I believe – God or my flesh? Is the power of sin stronger than the power of God? What does God’s Word say?
As a matter of fact, reading the Bible, I find that it never mentions defeat other than a fall caused by my own weakness and lack of faith. The Bible makes it very clear that these falls should be exceptions to the rule. The normal Christian life is that of an overcomer – in thought, in word and in deed! So how do I overcome in my thought life?
A battle and an example
In James 1:14-16 I read that it is my own desires (lusts in the flesh) that cause me to be tempted. A temptation is the desire in my flesh making its presence known, usually as a thought or feeling. But the desire must conceive in order to give birth to sin. The conception occurs when my mind agrees with the flesh. The two “I’s” unify, and the thought that started out as an involuntary impulse – a temptation – becomes sin, often followed up by words and deeds.
However, the whole Bible is a call to action: to resist the enemy, which in the New Covenant is the sin that dwells in my flesh. Being tempted is not the same as committing sin, but for it to stay that way I have to take up a battle against the lusts that become visible.
It can seem impossible, but when Jesus returned to His Father in heaven, He promised to send us His Spirit, the Helper. With the Holy Spirit’s help and guidance we get strength, not only to endure in temptation, but also to totally defeat the enemy. This is the fight of faith. As long as I am fighting, I have not sinned! This is the life of an overcomer! This also means that I remain pure, and there is no condemnation for those involuntary thoughts.
How do I know this is possible? It is written that Jesus was a man like me and was tempted in all points like I am, but that He never sinned. Not once! This means that it also must be possible for me. I can go to Him to get help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16) The time of need is the time of temptation – before I have fallen! The help is in God’s Word and the Holy Spirit, who strengthens my will to endure in the fight.
A new creation
This fight has awesome results. As I am faithful to resist the sin that is made visible in the temptation, it actually dies. (Colossians 3:3-5) My corrupted human nature is gradually replaced with a new creation. The negative, destructive thoughts and impulses lose their hold more and more, and positive, constructive and hopeful thoughts and reactions take their place. This is God’s work, which He performs in me while I am alive here on earth!