Q: Dear Father John, Thank you for your excellent series on scrupulosity. I have a question that relates to it, namely the occurrence of “bad thoughts” — thoughts that are negative, vile, or even blasphemous against any of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity or Our Lady herself. I understand that these may occur in cases of psychological imbalance, or gross immaturity, for which I presume there is little culpability. In the context of those trying to develop their spiritual lives, bad thoughts appear to be temptations flashed before us by the devil as a form of spiritual warfare. My understanding is that since temptation is not a sin, the best course of action is to ignore them. In addition, because one is more prone to these thoughts when tired or hungry or under stress, good sense would indicate the importance of food, sleep, exercise, and prayer. But given that, what is the “dividing line,” so to speak? I love God and never remotely want to get close to the “unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit,” yet these thoughts can be alarming. When and how does one confess them? How does one order the spiritual life to purity of thought?
A: Your question itself contains a lot of wisdom. Actually, it also contains a lot of questions (three, to be exact). Before answering them, we need to make one more distinction.
For someone who is already actively and sincerely trying to follow Christ, bad thoughts may be flashed directly by the devil, as you point out, but there may also be two other sources. First, they could flash up from our own subconscious. If someone has undergone a conversion (or reversion) after spending years in a self-centered, sinful lifestyle, echoes of that lifestyle will still reverberate under the surface of the mind. From time to time, they may break the surface and grasp at the conscious mind, trying to regain a hold on the will. In this case, the bad thoughts are not planted directly by the devil. If we resist these last gasps of our old habits, they will gradually lose energy and their appearances will decrease in frequency. Second, bad thoughts can be the result of carelessness. We are surrounded by non-Christian, and often un-Christian mental influences: images on the Web, billboards, and advertisements; ideas in news articles, movies, books, and television shows; anti-values woven into music and secular art. If we allow ourselves to imbibe these toxins, they will have their effect later on, stirring up thoughts that would pull us away from friendship with Christ.
Guarding the Castle
Thus, the first answer to your third question: we can grow in purity of thought by guarding our senses and minds from toxic input. This may seem a bit puritan in a pluralistic society, but it is only common sense. We are careful about the food we put into our body, because we know that it affects our physical health. We should be even more careful about what we purposely let into our minds and hearts, because that will affect our spiritual health. (Another favorite image used by spiritual writers is that of a drawbridge and a castle. You don’t let down the drawbridge when enemies come knocking; you keep it securely in place to protect the castle from invasion.)
A wife who regularly reads grocery-store romance novels (which are a subtle form of pornography), or who daily drinks in the titillating sensuality of your typical soap opera, is clogging her marital arteries and setting herself up for a spiritual heart attack. A husband who goes to strip bars “just for business,” spends more time with atheist buddies than with fellow Christ-seekers, and doesn’t take the initiative to protect himself from Internet pornography is not keeping in spiritual shape. In both cases, “bad thoughts” and blasphemous ideas will pop up more and more frequently, even without the devil’s direct provocation. In these cases, we are at least partially responsible for the evil thoughts that come up to tempt us, and we should confess this negligence in the sacrament of reconciliation, and God will give us strength to be more coherent.
One other tactic useful for developing purity of thought consists in responding positively to the bad thoughts that do come up, whatever their source. As you mention in your question, once we recognize the flash of a bad thought, the last thing we want to do is pay attention to it. If you can simply ignore it and get back to doing God’s will with your whole mind and heart, great. But if the bad thoughts are violent and insistent, ignoring them is not always easy. In those cases, we need to have a prearranged plan. We need to be ready to counteract them with prayer as we try to turn our attention back to God’s will. This can be a simple vocal prayer, like the Our Father or the Hail Mary. It can be a favorite verse from Scripture used as a shield against evil (e.g. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” Psalm 23:1). I recently heard the example of a man battling to overcome sexual temptations who committed himself to singing hymns until the sensual thoughts dispersed – he said that he ended up memorizing four whole verses to more than a dozen hymns in his efforts to grow in purity! If we fail to fight actively, with a spirit of faith, against the evil thoughts that tempt us, or if our efforts to fight them are lackadaisical, then we should confess this negligence in the sacrament of reconciliation, and God will give us strength to be more courageous.
This brings us to your first question about where to draw the line. If you know that certain circumstances (the use of particular media, or physical tiredness and stress, as you mention) tend to increase the intensity, frequency, or seductive power of evil thoughts, you have a responsibility to make a decent effort to avoid those circumstances. Eighty hour work weeks may win you the promotion you covet, but is winning that promotion worth exposing yourself to the occasions of sin? Jesus didn’t think so: “What, then, will anyone gain by winning the whole world and forfeiting his life?” (Mt 16:26) At times, however, the circumstances are out of our control (needy babies make for sleepless nights). That’s when our Lord is inviting us to lean more fully on him, and on the means for perseverance that he gives us (the sacraments, prayer, healthy friendships, a loving spouse…).
If you are actively making a decent effort to do your part to live a Christ-centered, balanced life and to grow in purity of thought, and still the evil ideas and images plague you, they really do not qualify as material for confession. They are more like bad spiritual weather. In this sense, it is worth mentioning that many saints experienced violent and intense temptations to blasphemy towards the end of their lives, when they were well advanced in the spiritual life. The devil sent these temptations to cause confusion and to try and steal away their confidence in God and their peace of soul. If that happens to you, put up your umbrella of prayer and obedience to God’s will, and endure the storm for as long as the Lord allows it. As you do so, you will exercise all the major Christian virtues, thereby growing in holiness and building up the Church.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC