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Do This When Evil Thoughts Come

The three wise monkeys..
The “three wise monkeys”–hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

The phrase “defense wins championships” used to be one of the most common phrases uttered in sports parlance. An explosion in offense in the NBA and NFL in recent years have made people in the US take a much more balanced view of things. Today people seem to appreciate that “offense wins championships” just as much as defense does. In our pursuit of sexual integrity, there are offensive and defensive steps we can take. An example of an offensive step is charging our phones in another room, surrounding ourselves with people, and avoiding tempting situations. However, we can’t get rid of all temptation, just as we can’t control all the thoughts that enter our minds.

How To Overcome Evil Thoughts With Desert Wisdom

Below is a vivid excerpt from Desert Wisdom by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Desert Wisdom is a simple illustrated book consisting of the sayings of early church fathers and monastics.

A brother came to Abba Poemen and said: Abba, a variety of thoughts are coming into my mind and I am in danger. The old man took him out in the air and said: Open your robe and take hold of the wind. And he answered: No, I cannot do it. The old man said: If you cannot do it, neither can you prevent those thoughts from coming in. But what you should do is to stand firm against them.

Desert Fathers, page 78.
Desert wisdom on overcoming evil thoughts.

We cannot prevent thoughts from coming, nor is it wise to try to chase them away. By accepting our thoughts (rather than repressing them or running away from them), we gain access to them. Repression may mean we don’t have to think about things consciously for the time being, but thoughts do not magically disappear; repressed thoughts continue to affect us on a subconscious level, in a place that is really hard to get to. Access is required to change anything in our lives, which is why there is wisdom in facing reality, rather than running from it.

A big part of life is learning how to play defense. It starts by accepting the presence of every thought that enters our minds, whether it involves the past, present, or future. To deny our thoughts is to deny reality, and denying reality is not a virtue. We can prophetically speak to who we are becoming while simultaneously acknowledging undesirable aspects of who we are today.

What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.

Carl Jung

[But] every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.

James 1:14

For example, if a lustful thought comes into my mind, I should first identify it as such. (If I’m in a tempting situation, I should take steps to get out.) I shouldn’t guilt others, “the devil,” or engage in other forms of denial/blame shifting. Accepting the fact that there are evil desires within me, like lust, greed, etc., takes away the fear and shock value I experience when evil thoughts arise. And, more importantly, it gives me direct access by which I can begin to reprocess them.

“Seeing no evil,” “hearing no evil,” and “speaking no evil” is only possible in an ideal world with ideal people. But, in reality, we can only remove so much evil from our environment. What’s more is that all of us have some evil resident within us. Trying not to think about a reality impressing itself on us–like trying not to think about a pink elephant–is dang-near impossible (thought experiment). Indeed, denial only serves to enlarge the power the object of our denial exerts over us.

After accepting the reality of an evil thought, we can gently focus our attention on something else–a word, another activity, an affirmation, or a Bible verse–until the thought goes away on its own. And we can repeat this process every time an evil thought arises again.

That is the art of reprocessing. In my experience and observation, it is a hec of a lot more effective than repression.

For more, see the complete archive of articles on integrity.

An intellectually curious millennial passionate about seeing people make healthy, informed choices about the moral direction of their lives. When I’m not reading or writing, I enjoy hiking, web-making, learning foreign languages, and watching live sports. Alumnus of Georgetown University (B.S.) and The Ohio State University (M.A.).

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