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Question #204

How can I battle bad thoughts?

Lately I have been having these bad thoughts and I have been battling with this on and off for the past almost year since I came to the Lord. I have done everything I could possibly do and have been praying about it for a long time but I just don't know what to do anymore. I need some guidance. I really don't want to lose the Lord and I want to be pure but I'm afraid these thoughts keep getting in the way. Please help me. God bless you.

The Answer:

This question is a difficult question to answer. It basically asks, “How can I quit sinning?” There is no simple answer and, unfortunately, to those who are sincerely struggling, most answers will seem trite. Among other things that is caused by the fact that the inquirer here has struggled but feels that he has failed. His struggles have included prayer, but failure still seems his only reward. Suggestions can be made, but the real fight can be waged only by the individual.

Of course, this does not mean that the individual must struggle and fight alone. Support groups of various kinds bring together persons with similar weaknesses. This not only provides strength, but it also lets each member know that he or she is not the only person who suffers from a particular weakness. Seeking out such help is not easy. That is especially so because lust in the heart seems particularly dehabilitating and disqualifying. After all, there are people who purport to be spiritual who use alcohol and drugs. But few and far between are those who claim to be spiritual while indulging in lust which often involves pornography. Even people in high places are guilty of immoral thoughts. Many will recall former president Jimmy Carter’s admission of lusting in his heart in an interview published in Playboy magazine in November 1976. Televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert both were caught up in affairs that ended their careers for all practical purposes. More recently Ted Haggard of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado (a megachurch), was caught up in a homosexuality and drug scandal. These are not mentioned to continue to publicize their weaknesses and to reproach them more, but to demonstrate that even people who, we would think, could easily overcome and control such problems may also have deep personal struggles within.

Although lust is generally associated with immoral sexual thoughts and desires, scripture teaches that all sin is the result of lust. James 1:13-15. While mankind tends to rank some types of lust as worse than others, scripture makes no such distinctions. James 2:10. This does not excuse permitting any lust to conceive sin which matures to death; it merely reminds us that all men are in the same boat, subject to the same desires of the flesh, and, having committed one sin, stand under the sentence of death. Rom. 3:10, 23.

Christ came into the world to save the world. John 3:17. He received a testimony greater than that of John, who came to prepare His way, based upon which he taught men that they might be saved. John 5:34. He shed his blood for the remission of man’s sins. Matthew 26:28. He called men to come unto Him and receive rest for their souls. Matthew 11:28-30. He sent His disciples into the world to proclaim Him as Lord and King, baptizing penitent believers for the remission of sins (Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:36-38), into Him (Gal. 3:26-27), into His body (1 Cor. 12:13) which is the church (Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:18), and into a new life (Rom. 6:3-4; 2 Cor. 5:17). This glorious message attracted all manner of sinners and justified and sanctified them (1 Cor. 6:9-11). This does not mean that they were not sinners as the Corinthians themselves proved; it does mean that they were saved sinners. Neither does it mean that Christians are free to continue in their sinful habits and practices (Rom. 6:1-2). It does mean that, since they were no longer servants of sin, they were no longer to yield their members (bodies) to unrighteousness. Paul expressed it well:

11 Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. 12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. 13 Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. {instruments: Gr. arms, or, weapons} 14 For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. 15 What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. 16 Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? 17 But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. {which...: Gr. whereto ye were delivered} 18 Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness. 19 I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness. 20 For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness. {from...: Gr. to righteousness} 21 What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death. 22 But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. 23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 6:11-23.

Paul knew well the struggle of man. His description in Romans 7 (please take the time to read it) is graphic and frightening. If it were not for the last verse the word “hope” would not be in our vocabulary; the fulfillment of hope would not be in our future. Out of the anguish of his heart he cries, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” How glorious the reply! “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

But in the midst of our struggles and failures dare we pray and hope for success? ABSOLUTELY! But how can we overcome the world and be victorious? I THANK GOD THROUGH JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD. Listen to John the beloved: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” 1 John 5:4.

Unfortunately, even though the victory has been won and is ours for the taking, the real question is, “How does Christ give us the victory through faith?” It does not come through some kind of magic transformation that requires nothing on our part. It is not bestowed upon us at baptism and we no longer commit sin. 1 John 1:8-10. But it is possible. 1 John 1:7.

We get a hint at what we must do in 1 Peter 1. Read it carefully. Note that we have all things that pertain to life and godliness. These blessings are bestowed through the knowledge of him that has called us to glory and virtue. Flowing from that knowledge are exceeding great and precious promises by which we become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. But the escape is not enough – we must give diligence to grow in that knowledge and in our faith that is based on that knowledge. Rom. 10:17.

That growth involves adding the Christian graces to our lives. The possession of these graces in abundance makes us that we shall neither be barren or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, but if we lack these graces we are blind, cannot see afar off. It was Moses’ faith that enabled him to “endure as seeing him who is invisible.” Hebrews 11:25-27. In addition to having lost our spiritual sight, we have lost our spiritual memory – we have forgotten that we were purged from our old sins. In contrast, if we “do” these things we shall never fall!

How do we “do” these things? How do we find strength to do them? Clearly they start with the knowledge of Jesus Christ. This does not mean that we know everything there is to know about him, but that we know Him. Philippians 3:10. The only way that we can know Him is to learn of Him. The only way that we can learn of Him is through the inspired revelation that he has provided for us in scripture, believe it, obey it, and receive His promises given in it to obedient believers.

Assuming that the inquirer here is a penitent believer who has been baptized for the remission of sins, the first step is clear – spend time in the Word. Read it, but don’t just read it – study it.

The second step is to realize that the God who saved you by his grace abides in you. Read 1 Corinthians 6:15-20. As one redeemed your body is a member of Christ. Shall you make yourself, a member of Christ, a member of a harlot in either body or mind? Such conduct places Christ in the same position. “God forbid” is Paul’s answer. The Lord is there. God is there. v. 19. The Holy Spirit is there and I a reminder that you are not your own, having been bought with a price. This applies to the mind certainly as much, and perhaps more than it applies to a physical act. The mind is active even when we are alone, not just when we are with people.

The third step you have practiced – you state in your question that you have prayed. You don’t state when or under what conditions you have prayed, but hopefully it is not the prayer of a drowning man about to go under for the third time praying for a life preserver. Prayer must come before the temptation and help prepare you for it. Not only is it hard to have evil thought while you are praying, if you take your prayer with you and pray further as you go, you will find strength.

The fourth step is to change your conduct. This will require taking hold of your mind and directing it by your will. You cannot just let it drift. Don’t purchase or look at material that can only contribute to your evil thoughts. Don’t surf the internet on sites that specialize is smut and pornography. Don’t cast your eyes upon the opposite sex for the purpose of mentally undressing them. This is difficult in our day and age when people seem to [un]dress more and more in public, but it can be done. A part of getting it done is to watch you company – “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil. . . .” Exodus 23:2. The positive side of that is to keep company with people who will contribute to your spirituality, not demean you because you seek to be spiritual or tempt you to do or think evil.

Fifth, keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life. Proverbs 4:23. As you think in your heart so shall you be. Proverbs 23:7. If you allow evil things to dwell in your mind, they will defile you. That outcome is inevitable. Mark 7:21-23. There is an old saying that is sometimes used as an excuse for evil thoughts – “You cannot stop birds from flying overhead, but you can keep them from building nests in your hair.” While sounding good on the surface, if birds are permitted to keep flying overhead, you will at least soon need to wash your hair! Another saying is, “It’s o.k. to window shop; just don’t purchase.” Another set of alternatives that doesn’t exhaust the alternatives. If you’re not buying there is no need to window shop. If you window shop enough you are at some point going to be a buyer. Remember that “window shopping” opportunities surround you. Be careful what you read, the shows that you watch on television, and the movies that you attend. Your mind will be filled with something; only you can determine what it will be. Remember that it is not enough to get rid of the evil thoughts; you must develop good thoughts. See, Matthew 12:43-45. Paul has good advice concerning the things about which you should think. Philippians 4:8. Reading good books will help. “Good books” does not mean best sellers, though there may be some few best sellers that fall into that category. You may want to spend some time in a “Christian” book store. You will find titles that deal with sanctification from both a personal and a national perspective. The prior will provide personal advice while the latter will explain how the world got the way it is. As always, books written by men must be judged in light of scripture.

More could be written, but it would mostly enlarge on what has already been said. My heart went out to you as I read your question and heard your agony of spirit. Prayers go out to God on your behalf. You may want to choose a close friend who is spiritual and pray together. It might even be someone whom you would be comfortable calling when temptation is strong and strength is needed. I am sure that you know such a person. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. A true friend will be happy to stand by your side in times of need. God bless you in your struggle.

Philippians 4:9 is a good conclusion: Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

There is no magic bullet. There is only diligence, sacrifice, and hard work. That much at least you have learned. Sanctification is a long process from the rebirth to the grave. It is said that nothing worthwhile is ever easy. That is certainly true about one’s walk with Christ. That is why Christ described it as he did: “24 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. 25 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. 26 For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?´ Matthew 16:24-26.

God's Plan of Salvation

You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17)

You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)

You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)

You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)

Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)