We Should Not Let Bad Thoughts Take Hold Of Our Lives

We Should Not Let Bad Thoughts Take Hold Of Our Lives March 18, 2022

St. Poimen Greek Orthodox Broterhood Arizona, USA: St Poimen / Wikimedia Commons

We often have odd ideas cross our minds, causing us to wonder how and why we thought them. When this happens, it is best to ignore them, and that means, not to ponder them and why we had them. But, because of how we are, this often is easier said than done. We end up contemplating them, trying to discern where the thoughts came from, trying to figure out what we did to cause them, and in the process, we risk becoming consumed by them. For the more we ponder them, the more power we give to them, and so thanks to our attention, they gain strength, until, at last, what we might have thought was an odd, but bad thought, becomes a temptation as we think about what it means to put the thought into action. Thus, the more we reflect upon certain thoughts, the more we try to understand why we have them, they more attached we become to them until we begin to heed them and act in ways which we otherwise would never have considered before. This is why, when such thoughts cross our mind, the best thing for us to do is not ponder them; as Abbe Poemen told two monks, if we ignore them, they will perish without us having to do anything ourselves beyond ignoring them. First, he said to Abba Isaiah:

Abba Isaiah questioned Abba Poemen on the subject of impure thoughts. Abba Poemen said to him, ‘It is like having a chest full of clothes, if one leaves them in disorder they are spoiled in the course of time. It is the same with thoughts. If we do not do anything about them, in time they are spoiled, that is to stay, they disintegrate.’[1]

Then, Poemen said to Abba Joseph, while such thoughts will wither away, we need patience, some willingness to let them play out and destroy themselves. That is, we must not expect them to vanish instantly. We must suffocate them, as it were, depriving them of every source of energy which would allow them to gain strength and influence us on what we do:

Abba Joseph put the same question and Abba Poemen said to him, ‘If someone shuts a snake and a scorpion in a bottle, in time they will be completely destroyed. So it is with evil thoughts; they are suggested by demons; they disappear through patience.’ [2]

We must not let any such odd thought get the best of us. We must not let them to hold our attention in any fashion. It is better to ignore them and forget them than to question how and why we got them, because the more we question them, the more they are given life by us, and the more they will be strengthened by our attention until, at last, they will have been given so much life they end up taking over our lives. Even if we do not give in to some evil suggested by them, that is, even if we have not given into temptation, they can still have an effect on us as we begin to think having such thoughts in any context indicates something bad about ourselves. That is, we will begin to consider them as signs of how evil our heart must be. We should not do that, which is why Poemen pointed out that there can be many outside influences, “demons,” which inspire such thoughts. Once we realize how bad ideas can and often do come from outside ourselves, we have even less reason to ponder how and why we thought them, because we have nothing to do with their formation. They are truly outside our own agency, our own control. Realizing this, we should see why we should not let such thoughts disturb us, because once we do, we are likely to fall into the crap, ponder them, and give them the vitality and attachment which they need in order to cause us trouble.

Truly, we must realize, whatever temptations we face, they are all common to humanity as a whole. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13 RSV). Temptation is not a sin, likewise, therefore, having some odd, indeed, bad thought enter our mind is in itself not a sin. It is what we do with such thoughts, if we embrace them, which can lead us to sin.

If we are to focus on anything, it should be on what is good and true, what God has revealed to us; we should focus, that is, on love, and what love would have us do. If we do this, if we focus on love, we will be submitting ourselves to the dictates of love, to God, and evil, which would have us act against such love, will have no power over us. Or, as James said, the devil will flee: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (Jas. 4:7 RSV).

Our minds are influenced by many things. Not everything which enters them come from our own conscious agency. What is important for us is to realize how fluid our mind, our thoughts, can be, and how sometimes outside sources will create ripples in our mind as if they were a stone thrown into a body of water. Those ripples will be noticed, but if nothing is done in response to them, such as having more stones thrown into the water, they will subside. Thus, we will find that when evil thoughts  cross our mind, they will vanish if we do nothing about them. What is important is that we do not let them agitate us. We must not let them upset us. We should just accept them as a part of life, letting them come and go; once we do so, we will never let them have any hold on our lives.

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 169-70 [Saying of  Abba Poemen 20].

[2] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 170 [Saying of  Abba Poemen 21].


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