God places heavy emphasis on our thinking, commanding us to “Love the Lord your God…with all your mind” (Luke 10:27) and to ponder only what is commendable (Phil 4:8). So, it’s especially distressing when wicked intrusive thoughts just pop into your head. What can you do when thoughts intrude?
Often when a counselee brings up intrusive thoughts, they feel full of shame. They are embarrassed to say out loud what was hidden internally, because the thoughts had such wicked content like violating others, hurting a child or animal, or causing destruction. Wicked intrusive thoughts are sometimes startling because they seem so random and unexpected. Actually, we have lots of intrusive thoughts all day long. Most are just benign thoughts that pull our attention away from one thing to another. Only the ones that we evaluate as a certain level of wicked really startle us, and in many cases cause us to have an initial knee-jerk reaction of shame. We are not automatically sinning just because a wicked thought comes into our mind.
However, just because intrusive thoughts are not automatically sinful doesn’t mean we should ignore them. We can’t stop a thought from popping into our head, but we can certainly influence what we allow our next thoughts to be. One initial intrusive thought can lead to a cascade of subsequent thinking that dishonors God and is rooted in self-love or a fascination with wickedness. Without putting effort into evaluating thinking and responding to thoughts biblically, it is possible to allow ungodly intrusive thoughts to develop into unhelpful, damaging habits of vain imagination that consume your life.
Don’t make wrong assumptions that inhibit progress
Wicked intrusive thoughts should get our attention, but they shouldn’t automatically force us to make assumptions about ourselves. One counselee was particularly reluctant to acknowledge her intrusive thoughts because she was so ashamed that it impeded counseling progress for months. I reminded her that God was aware of every thought she was wrestling with, but her reluctance to admit them was inhibiting her from asking him for the help she needed so much. She acknowledged that she was overwhelmed with how wicked those thoughts made her. We were able to make significant counseling progress once she was able to see that those intrusive thoughts didn’t “make” her super sinful. She already was super sinful, and no one, least of all God, was surprised by that. In fact, she was utterly depraved, and she was actually capable of much worse than she was even imagining. That, in part, is what made God’s love for her so comforting. God already knew the worst thoughts she had entertained, and he loved her anyways…enough to send his son Jesus to cure her of her hopeless sinfulness and create in her new life and a capacity to be trained by his righteousness. Now she needed to learn how to respond to those intrusive thoughts righteously.
Respond to intrusive thoughts
2 Corinthians 10:5 teaches us to hold each of our personal conclusions up against all that we know about God and how he wants his world to work. Thoughts that are consistent with Scripture can be entertained, but any lofty opinion that is opposed to the knowledge of God must be destroyed so that we can take every thought captive to obey Christ.
Each thought needs to be evaluated and responded to, and any that don’t line up with the way God teaches us to think (Col 3:2, Rom 8:5-6) or are inconsistent with the things God teaches us are right and good (Phil 4:8) must be disciplined from our minds and replaced with righteous thoughts. That will likely take quite a bit of work and might require a plan for training. I have found a lot of help for my counselees from the sermon series Right Thinking, the book In the Arena of the Mind, and the training session Controlling Your Thoughts.
It’s also a good idea for counselees to investigate influences they’re exposing themselves to from tv/movies, books, magazines, social media, and music to make sure that ungodly intrusive thoughts are not being generated from a mental diet of “junk food.” Many people have never learned to examine their thinking or to track where their thoughts may have come from. It’s a helpful exercise to evaluate those influences to see if any of their messages match the content of the unwanted intrusive unrighteous thoughts.
2 Corinthians 10:3-4 reminds us that we don’t wage war simply according to the flesh, but we are waging war against strongholds that can hold us captive. We don’t exactly know all the ways that Satan influences our thinking, but we know that he does (Eph 6:16). Thankfully, Eph 6:14-16 and James 4:6-8 tells us that God gives us all the grace we need to fight against thoughts that reflect Satan’s values and learn to submit to God’s pure standards resulting in us having less double-mindedness.