What is God’s prescription for fighting sinful thoughts? It starts with knowing Him — and His Word — intimately, and ends with obeying Him fully and faithfully. It includes learning to see things (i.e., sin) how He sees them, and responding to them how He responds; rejecting what He rejects; and pursuing hard after what He loves and glories in. (Read the longer answer here.)
But sometimes that’s easier said than done! It’s easy to quote Philippians 4:8, but hard to let it rule over sinful thoughts on a moment-by-moment basis. It’s easy to say “obey God” but hard to do in the day-to-day moments when we’re tempted by selfish desires. It’s easy to say “avoid temptation” but hard to do when we’re surrounded by it on every side.
Practically speaking, how do we fight temptation? How can we train our minds to reject sinful thoughts — and replace them with holy thoughts?
Stephen Charnock, one of the more well-known Puritan authors, shares the following list** of practical ways to win the victory over sinful thoughts (abridged by me):
- Get accustomed to serious meditation every morning. Getting fresh air from heaven in our souls will engender a purer spirit and nobler thoughts. Throughout the day, after we have dispatched other thoughts that are necessary to attend to our daily activities, our morning theme of meditation will return as our chief companion for the day.
- Avoid entangling yourselves with the world. This clay will clog our minds, and dirty happiness will engender but dirty thoughts. If the world once settles in our hearts, we shall never fail to have these senseless thoughts torment us.
- Avoid idleness. Idleness kindles many unprofitable imaginations in the soul that would be sufficiently diverted if the active mind were kept intent upon some stated work. Empty minds are the fittest subjects for extravagant fooleries.
- Awe your hearts with the thoughts of God’s omniscience. If a foolish thought breaks in, consider — what if God, who knows this, should presently call me to judgment for this sinful glance? Is it fit for God’s glory or our own interest that he should find such a nasty dunghill and swarms of Egyptian lice and frogs creeping up and down in our chambers? If our heart is possessed by the truth of his omniscience, we would be ashamed to think what we shall be ashamed to own at the last day!
- Keep a constant watch over your hearts. We need grace to stand as a sentinel over our thoughts. Our minds are like idle schoolboys that are unruly if the master’s back is turned. Opportunity may ambush unguarded thoughts or affections.
- Examine your thoughts. Consider what thoughts are lingering in your. Inquire what business they have there, and what their design is. Bring every thought to the test of the word of God. Ask yourself why you entertain such company.
- Put a check on thoughts at their first appearance. If a thought has the reasonable mark of sin, do not even give it the honour of examination. Quench it instantly as you would a spark in a heap of straw. If a thought is plainly sinful, any treaty we make with it is a measure of disobedience! If it does not savour of the things of God, do not listen to its reasonings. Do not excuse it because it is little. Small vapours grow into great clouds. If entertained, it may force our judgment, drag our will, and make all of our affections a bedlam. Let us crush the brat immediately, and fling the head over the wall to discourage further attack. Let us be ashamed to cherish in our thoughts what we would be ashamed to have break out in our words or actions.
- Use corrupt thoughts as motivation. Open the flood-gates of your godly sorrow, and groan about your original sin. Let your heart praise him who delivers you. Let Satan’s fiery darts inflame your love rather than your lust. The skillful pilot will make use of the violence of the wind and the raging of the sea to further him in his voyage. This is to beat the devil with his own weapons.
- Continue your resistance. Do not lay down your weapons until your sinful thoughts wholly shrink from you. If you suffer them to gather strength, they may end in madness. If they resume their arms, we must continue our shield. If we entertain them they become bolder. We must not leave the battlefield until they cease their importunity. Do not allow them to increase their courage by your own cowardice.
- Join supplication with your opposition. Our own weakness should make us pray that we may be powerfully assisted. Be as frequent in soliciting God as wicked thoughts are in soliciting you. As they knock at your door for entrance, knock at heaven for assistance.
- Welcome and entertain holy thoughts. Good thoughts may spring naturally from the grace in our hearts, or be peculiarly breathed in by the Holy Spirit. As is our happiness and duty to stifle evil thoughts, so it is our misery as well as our sin to extinguish heavenly. The more such sprouts are planted and nourished in us, the less room will stinking weeds have to root themselves and disperse their influence. Feed them and keep them alive and brood upon them.
- Encourage holy thoughts to their natural end. Don’t just give holy thoughts a bare reception, but consider what results are properly encouraged by them: as the search of some truth or the performance of some duty. The gleam of holy thoughts that suddenly shoot into us have some lesson sealed up in them to be opened and learned! Do not lie at anchor when a fresh gale would fill your sails, but lay hold of the present opportunity. The breathings of the Spirit, if not entertained with suitable affections, may be lost forever!
- Add new holy thoughts to your reservoir of morning meditations. Throughout the day, when holy thoughts arrive, they are like little brooks rising from several springs that will meet in the channel created by your morning meditations, and grow to a more useful river. Many of these thoughts will strengthen your morning meditations.
- Record the choicest thoughts. We may have an occasion later to look back upon them as grounds of comfort in some hour of temptation or some sudden emergency. They lie by us as money in our pocket. We should preserve the whisperings of what the Spirit has taught us. If we forget them, it will discourage the Spirit from sending any more, and then our hearts will be empty! And we know who is ready to clap in his hellish swarms and legions of wicked thoughts.
- Turn your choicest thoughts into prayer. When the Spirit renews in our minds a gospel truth, let us turn it into a present plea and remind God in prayer of his own promises.