Many Christians who deeply struggle with unwanted thoughts are prone to sensitive consciences, perfectionistic tendencies, and black-and-white thinking. They scrutinize themselves closely, examining each thought to see what they find. They develop a heightened awareness of their thoughts and what they imagine the thoughts mean about them. Their guilt, shame, and anxiety don’t dissipate with acknowledgment and confession. They may even grow stronger. When this happens, several explanations are possible.
It’s Possible You Are Experiencing False Guilt over Thoughts That Are Not Sinful
An overly sensitive conscience can lead people to see every unwanted thought as a moral failure. Lingering thoughts of grief that don’t turn to joy can start to feel ungodly. The suffering associated with depressed and anxious thoughts is sometimes mistaken for sin. A struggle to change thoughts after experiencing trauma can look like a stubborn unwillingness to believe the truth of Scripture. Painful intrusive thoughts that are fueled by physical changes in the body can feel like the unforgiveable sin.
When we see sin where there is no sin, it leads us to fashion standards for ourselves that God never established. When we fail to live up to these false standards, we are left to drown in anxiety, guilt, and shame. These feelings only serve to fuel the forward momentum of our unwanted thinking patterns.
It’s Possible You Believe Your Thoughts Mean More about You Than They Do
Unwanted thoughts may begin to color your sense of identity. Highly distressing thoughts feel like signs of weakness and failure. Sinful thoughts feel like proof that you are worthless or unforgiveable. Your inability to get past your unwanted thoughts feels like a symbol of how disappointing you must be to God. Fear and self-loathing intensify as your identity becomes centered around thoughts of suffering and sin instead of grounded in your unshakable standing as a child of God.
It’s Possible You Are Relying on Perfect Thinking to Justify Yourself before the Lord
Sometimes acknowledging and confessing our sin doesn’t lead to liberation because we start to act as though we can justify ourselves through perfecting our thinking. We anxiously confess each individual thought of sin, sometimes ten times over, failing to see that this represents a heart set on saving itself. In doing this, we act as though we need to sanctify our thoughts to be right with God, instead of allowing our right standing before God to compel us toward more sanctified thinking.
Do you believe in Jesus and his work on the cross? If so, he has saved you and justified you. Your soul is safe with him. As Jesus is right now—glorified, righteous, and sitting at the right hand of God in heaven—“so also are we in this world” (1 John 4:17). This means we don’t have to fear. We need not wonder whether our souls are on the line every time a questionable thought crosses our minds. We don’t need to confess out of fear that we may be punished or lose God’s favor in some way; we need Jesus’s love to cast out our fear of what our unwanted thoughts might mean about us (see 1 John 4:17–18).
What does it look like practically for us to let Jesus’s love cast out our fear? Sometimes, it means we become less concerned about whether each of the thousands of individual thoughts we have each day are sinful and more focused on the overall posture of our hearts toward the Lord. Do we believe he loves us? Are we accepting the gospel? Are we resting in his work and his work alone? Our thoughts will become increasingly sanctified when we start to feel truly safe and unafraid because of the justifying work God has already done on our behalf.
Thoughts That Are Captured By the Gospel
Only one thing can truly help us to overcome both our thoughts that have turned to sin and our thoughts that have become enslaved by guilt, fear, and shame. We must capture our thoughts with the gospel instead.
In the first chapter of Romans, we see that the most damaging consequence sin can have on a person’s mind is to lead to a rejection of the gospel. Sin leads people to suppress the truth about God and exchange it for a lie (see Rom. 1:18, 25). Those who reject the Lord believe arguments and thoughts that set themselves up against the knowledge of God. Their thinking becomes futile and foolish (see Rom. 1:21). They deny God as their Creator, choosing to worship and serve false gods (see Rom. 1:25).
Even as believers who are held by Christ, we still fall into idolatry. We forget the basic truths of the gospel and seek peace of mind through our own efforts. But we won’t find peace through staying focused on ourselves and perfectly changing our thoughts. We find peace when we set our minds on Christ and trust the work he has done within us (see Isa. 26:3). We find peace when our minds are captured by the gospel.
To those who are prone to legalistic expressions of guilt, shame, and fear when you address your thinking: Do you quickly forget that God is patient and forgiving? Do you berate yourself for not doing better instead of resting in God’s work on your behalf?
Believe the gospel. As you examine your heart, remain aware of Jesus’s heart for you. Rest safe in his love.
To those who feel uncomfortable at the idea of addressing your sinful thinking: Have you downplayed your sin in a pendulum swing away from people who have shamed you? Do you fear that acknowledging your sin will lead to discomfort or self-contempt? Believe the gospel. Regain a vision of how freeing it is to bring your sins before the only One who can set your mind free.
Jesus cares when we suffer from our thoughts and died for those times when we sin with our thoughts. This gospel reminder isn’t something to tag on to the end of a long day. It’s a truth we need to hold beside each thought we seek to change. Attempting to change our thoughts without holding the gospel in mind will plunge us back into a spiral of unwanted thinking. When we remember the gospel, even the most distressing unwanted thought dims in light of what God has done for us and what that means about us.
This excerpt is taken from pages 85-88, A Still and Quiet Mind: Twelve Strategies for Changing Unwanted Thoughts by Esther Smith.