What To Do With Your Bad Thoughts ('cause you know you have 'em)

So, I have bad thoughts. Just in case you were of the mistaken impression that I only think about love and rainbows and the lyrics to “Victory in Jesus,” now you know the truth.

No, I think all kinds of things I wish I’d never thought. I think mean and judgmental things. I think pessimistic, faith-lacking things. I think lots and lots of pride-grown things.

[On those BuzzFeed quizzes when they ask which superpower you’d want, I never pick mind reading. I know what’s going on in my mind; I for sure don’t want to know what’s going on in yours.]

Because my thoughts can be so exhaustingly not-what-I-wish-they-were, I can get a little freaked out by scriptures like this one:

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.

David writes these words like they’re comforting. But sometimes when I read them I can’t help but feel very, very uncomfortable.

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Here are some things I know about thoughts:

I know every thing I choose to do, every relationship I’m in, and every emotion I experience is grown in the soil of my thoughts.

I know what Marcus Aurelius said, “The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.” And I know he was right.

I know God wants me to think about lovely things, pure things, noble and true things.

I know God destroyed the earth when human kind’s thoughts were “only evil all the time.”

And I know my flesh has thoughts I cannot stop from coming.

So, when I have thoughts that are not lovely and pure, when I have thoughts of a color I do not want my soul stained, what can I do?

A lot, actually.

Over the past several years I’ve spent a lot of time working on my thoughts. I’ve realized I can’t stop myself from thinking certain things, not completely, but I can dramatically adjust the way those thoughts affect my actions, attitude, speech and sense of self.

Today I want to share four ways you can purify your thought life:

1. Be inhospitable.

In Matthew 9 Jesus interacts with “teachers of the law.” He heals a man and offers forgiveness of sins, and the teachers don’t like it one bit.

"Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, ‘Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?’”

Note that Jesus doesn’t say, “Why do you have evil thoughts?” He asks why they “entertain” them.

The first step to a better thought life is to stop welcoming evil thoughts in. Sure, you’ll have them, but don’t let them stay. Don’t ask them questions. Don’t throw them a party or give them a room. Don’t give them a coffee, a seat on your couch, and a warmly-spoken “Go on…”

If you think something bad about a co-worker don’t allow that thought to bloom into a laundry list of things you dislike about him.

If you think something off-limits about a woman on a magazine cover, don’t invite her to stay for a while.

Evil thoughts are your enemy. Kick them out.

2. Take captives.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

For Paul, evil thoughts were not something to be treated lightly. Thoughts were for forcing into obedience.

That means every time your mind says something that isn’t true you correct it. You treat it like a slave. You humiliate it with truth.

I do this every day.

My mind says, “You are so talented and amazing and better.” And I say back, “Not nearly as talented as you think. There are lots of people more talented than you are. Stop being so proud and stupid.” And then maybe, “Anything good about me is from and of God.”

My mind says, “That (insert something bad for me) would be so good.” And I say back, “You’re an idiot. That would be terrible.”

My mind says, “She looks bad in those pants.” And I say back, “You’re stupid. And you look bad in your pants. Get over yourself.”

I am not kind to evil thoughts. They do not deserve nice-ness.

3. Be proactive.

It’s easier not to think bad thoughts when your head is full of good ones.

Paul says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

It’s much, much harder for a bad thought to take over when you’re in the middle of thinking something love-ly (literally “like love”).

You don’t lust after the girl on the magazine if you’re thinking about how best to love your God or your wife or even how best to love that model.

You don’t make a laundry list of dislikes about your co-worker if you want what’s best for her and fill your head with ways to help her.

You don’t plot revenge against your ex if you’re actively praying for him.

Good thoughts have a way of stifling bad ones.

4. Attend to your heart.

Jesus says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts.”

Pastor Andy Stanley says every time we have a bad thought and wonder, “Where did that come from?” we should say to ourselves “Your sick heart.”

Perhaps the best way to purify our thoughts is to purify our hearts.

This looks like praying. Like asking God to do His best work in us and welcoming that work in whatever form it takes.

It looks like pulling weeds, wading into the dark places in our hearts, identifying lies we believe about God, about living, about ourselves and ripping them out by the roots.

It looks like being careful about what we plant, what we watch and read and hear.

Thoughts are heart-born. So when we have bad thoughts, we must evaluate and cultivate our hearts.

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I read something today I think is beautiful. It speaks to the work of sorting and shaping our thoughts. I pray you’d watch the way this mother lingers over her child’s thoughts, and I pray you’d linger the same way over your own.

I’ll leave you with it:

“It is the custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if it were as nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtinesses and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind; and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.”

-J.M. Barrie