Christianity, Sin, and Thought Crime

Growing up in a fundamentalist evangelical home, I had little chance to commit any serious sins. To some extent this didn’t matter: I was taught that a sin is a sin is a sin, and talking back to your mother is just as bad in God’s eyes as was murder. Practically, though, what sins I did commit – being mean to a younger sibling, not coming immediately when called, doing a chore sloppily – were rare and easily made right. What I was much, much more concerned about was committing thought crime.

You see, I was taught that you could commit murder without laying a hand to someone. You could commit adultery without so much as touching anyone. You could do all of this inside your mind and it counted just as much as if you’d actually done it. And it’s not like my parents made this up – they got it straight from Jesus himself.

Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

I know the Christianese rationales for this passage and this doctrine. “Jesus cares more about the state of your heart than about your actions,” or “Jesus wanted people to be heartfelt, not legalistic.” But the reality is that this passage creates a whole new category of sin: thought crime. It also creates a whole new category of surveillance: God doesn’t just watch what you do, he’s in your mind reading your thoughts.

Needless to say, this made me very concerned. I knew that I was a sinner and needed a savior, and I’d already given my life over to Jesus. I wanted to be righteous and to live a godly life to please God and to witness to others, not to work my way to heaven. This is why I worked hard to do what was right and to avoid sin. But no matter how hard I tried, I found that I could never be truly godly.

In some sense, thought crime decreases the importance of one’s actions. After all, if I could work as hard as I could to be kind to my siblings and obedient to my parents and then still commit murder in my mind if I so much as became angry inside at my little brother, what was the point? If I could keep my body pure and not so much as talk to a boy my age and still commit adultery by so much as thinking a sexual thought, what was the point?

Let me give an example. I obeyed my parents. I did everything they told me to do. I voluntarily took on more chores. I took over some homeschool subjects and became my siblings’ teacher. I dressed my little sisters in the morning and dressed them again for bed. I did everything I could be to be a perfect daughter. But sometimes I felt misunderstood by them, sometimes I felt smothered and ignored, and in those moments I felt angry with my parents, which, I knew, was just the same in God’s eyes as if I’d murdered my parents.

My mind became my enemy. Emotions like anger and resentment were sins. Sometimes you can’t control where your mind goes, and I did the best I could to clamp down on that. I knew I must never think an angry thought, must never think a hateful or resentful thought. I became afraid of feeling angry at my brothers because I was tired of committing mental murder, and I did the best I could to smother those feelings as soon as they arose. I did the same with feelings of resentment toward my parents, and with sexual thoughts. As I’ve mentioned before, I managed to strangle my sexuality entirely, thus shutting off the possibility of committing adultery. I struggled to do the same with feelings of discontentment, anger, or unfairness. I knew that to be truly godly I must control not only my actions but also my thoughts. A stray thought could be just as sinful as a heinous crime.

I have to say, when I became an atheist as a young adult what relieved me most was not realizing that there was no hell, no Satan, and no demons, but rather realizing that I couldn’t commit a crime with my thoughts.

Am I saying that our thoughts don’t matter at all? Of course not! Angry or resentful thoughts can lead to us mistreating other people, but if they do, the problem is not the thought but rather the action. Angry and resentful thoughts can lead to unhappiness and depression, but if they do, the problem is letting those thoughts rule your life and not dealing with them, not feeling angry in the first place. What matters is not what thoughts we have but rather what we do with the thoughts we have.

Furthermore, our emotions are things that need to be understood and dealt with, not simply suppressed. If I feel angry, it’s important to not simply suppress that feeling but rather to seek to understand why I feel angry and what I should do about it. Pushing it all away and pasting on a fake smile is counterproductive. Every time you see the Duggar kids smiles, remember this: they have been taught that feeling angry is a sin.

Today, I am no longer at war with my mind. Today, I no longer live in fear of committing thought crime. Today, I am no longer afraid of my emotions. Today, I am free.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.