Say the words “thought life” and one of the first verses that comes to most of our minds is Philippians 4:8. Even if you can’t quote it perfectly, you likely can recall a handful of the adjectives used. (Hint: they include true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praise-worthy.)
If asked, I’m sure you could explain what most of those words mean, and give examples of what they describe. For instance: the word true means the opposite of something that’s false, and includes things like the promises of God’s Word and “what is” rather than “what if’s.” The word honorable conveys the idea of being noble and good, respectable and upright; it describes things God’s commands and thoughts about how to edify those in the church and love those in our communities.
We could go on, but you get the idea. I’m sure you could define and describe each one of the adjectives from Philippians 4:8, and explain how it pertains to our Christian walk — and specifically, what it communicates regarding our thought life.
But if we understand what the words mean, and can even point out particular application for each of them, why don’t we follow it more faithfully? If understanding and recall isn’t the problem — what is?
Why is there a disconnect between how we know we should think and how we actually think?
If we know this verse so well, why is it we struggle with . . .
- worries that creep in when our spouse is late getting home, when the warning light comes on suddenly in the car, or when other “what if’s” start coming to mind?
- desires that flicker when someone of the opposite gender shows us a little too much (good) attention, when a certain actor/actress comes on the screen, or when we lose ourselves in a romance novel full of unrealistic expectations?
- criticisms that come to mind when someone makes poor choices, whether they’re actually sinful or simply unexpected, or chooses to look and act differently than we prefer?
- harsh dislike that settles in our hearts when someone offends us, leaves us out, doesn’t seem to understand where we’re coming from, or gets some thing or position that we earnestly desire?
- defensiveness when someone brings attention to an error we’ve made, either purposely or accidentally, and a stubborn refusal to accept ehir correction and acknowledge our wrongdoing?
- discontentment with our current situation and lust for pleasure, status, wealth, relationships, state of being, things, opportunities, or whatever else we want that we don’t already have?
The problem lies somewhere in between knowing and doing. We often know the right thing to do, but we don’t always understand how to do it. More specifically: we often know the right way to think, but we don’t always understand how to re-train our minds.
Sinful thoughts are a sickness. They pervade our minds and hearts, make us weaker and break down our resistance, and eventually — if left to themselves — lead to destruction and death.
Just as our bodies need medicine to fight illness, so our minds and hearts need a course of treatment to fight sinful thoughts.
But there’s no instant weight-loss drug or miracle cure for cancer, and there’s no quick fix for defeating our innate desire to entertain sin. It’s a long, hard battle and we must follow God’s prescribed treatment plan to the letter if we want to gain the ultimate victory!
What is God’s prescription for curing sinful thoughts?
The Psalms are filled with injunctions to meditate on His word, to learn it and internalize it, to seek its counsel and obey its commands. God’s Word has the supernatural ability to shine the spotlight on sin’s shadowy hiding places in our hearts, and has the force of dynamite to blow it to pieces. It is like a double-edged sword that can pierce our very mind and heart, drawing forth our thoughts and attitudes like a sword in battle draws forth blood.
Practically speaking, how can we allow God’s Word to pierce our hearts, expose our sinful thoughts, and refine us to become holy in His sight?
- Spend time in God’s Word every day: learn it, meditate on it, internalize it, and apply it.
- Learn what God deems good and evil, and increase discernment to recognize the difference in daily life.
- Avoid getting into situations where temptations are most likely to arise — even if it’s inconvenient.
- Daily examine your words and actions, repent of your sin, and seek God’s help in changing.
- Be in the habit of prayer, always ready to whisper a plea for divine help when temptations arise.
- Take sinful thoughts captive, and replace them with words from Scripture or godly hymns.
- Make visible reminders to think holy thoughts and place them where they’ll be seen often.
- Seek wise counsel and accountability from a godly brother or sister for ongoing battles with sin.
Regular personal examination is necessary to discover where and when we habitually give into temptation. Once we understand those patterns, it is our responsibility to reject or transform them into opportunities to think right thoughts. We should never intentionally place ourselves in the way of temptation!
For instance: if you’re discontent with your marriage, don’t read romance novels or watch Hallmark movies! If you like to channel surf but tend to end up watching shows that are less-than-pure, either cut it off at the source (i.e., get rid of cable!), or set written guidelines by wherever you watch tv and seek an accountability partner to help you overcome the temptation, or simply find something else to do instead (read a book, play a game, go for a walk). If you know certain friends will tempt you to be discontent or think impure thoughts, either avoid them altogether or bring along a godly friend whom you can trust to keep you accountable.
There are always ways around the places and times where we habitually fall into sin!
However, sometimes an impure or selfish thought will completely surprise us, and other times we simply can’t avoid the situations where they do arise.
For instance: if you’re consistently tempted to entertain improper thoughts about a man or woman in your church, you certainly shouldn’t avoid being at church altogether (that would be adding sin upon sin); and while you could find a new church if there is another good one nearby, the temptation will likely keep appearing no matter where you go. Instead, why not seek a wiser, more long-term solution? You could learn to avoid certain situations like being alone with that person or sitting next to them all the time; possibly seek accountability from a godly friend; and train your mind to reject sinful thoughts and fight against lustful desires.
We are called to mortify the flesh — to put to death whatever cause us to habitually sin.
That sounds painful, because it is! Christ tells us to cut off the hand that steals or pluck out the eye that looks on someone with lust. He’s not telling us to literally disfigure ourselves; but He is commanding us to take drastic measures in order to fight against sin. Obviously, we can’t dig out our brains to avoid thinking sinful thoughts; but we can “refuse it, starve it, and reject it.” We are to put it to death in every way possible!
What if certain impure thoughts hound you for the rest of your life? What about shameful thought patterns which are so ingrained that you may never be free from their pull? Thinking you are not enough or thinking too much of yourself, resenting current or past circumstances, lusting after a different future . . . we all have some area that we will likely fight against till the day we die. But that is no excuse!
We should not entertain sin for even a moment, but resist it and flee from it!
Next week, we’ll look at some practical advice for fighting sinful thoughts from the Puritan Stephen Charnock. In the meantime, I’d love to know if you have any particular practices that are helpful in fighting temptation — meditating on Scripture, talking with an accountability partner, restructuring your day to avoid certain situations, etc??