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How to “hang up” on bad thoughts



Tom Hoopes - published on 05/17/21

One of the first things we need to turn over to God is our minds.

A wise friend once told me how he handles unwanted thoughts — impure thoughts, self-defeating thoughts, or critical thoughts.

“I treat them like I do obscene phone calls,” he said. “I hang up on them.” That’s great advice. After all, thoughts are not sinful unless we entertain them. 

St. Augustine put it this way: “Where there is no consent there can be no sin.” No one has ever sinned by accident. Sin must always involve the will.

However, Augustine added that if we indulge these thoughts and encourage them, that’s a different matter. So here is some direction on how unwanted thoughts from the world, the flesh, and the devil impact us today.

First are the “phone calls” from the world.

The sad fact is, we live in a world in which the most effective marketers in history use every psychological trick to put images, ideas, and conclusions in our heads. Three places these show up:

  • Online notifications that seem to read our minds (in fact, they read our clicks, searches, and social media) to put thoughts in our heads about what to buy or what to click on, exactly when we are weakest.
  • Billboards and ads that use psychological techniques to make us long to spend money we don’t have for things we don’t need.
  • Passersby who display bumper stickers, suggestive t-shirts, or otherwise advertise their opposition to things we hold dear, which cause us to be judgmental, negative, and unloving.

The first strategy here is to avoid these altogether. Turn off notifications, unsubscribe from emails, look away from billboards. 

For those that are unavoidable, transform them. Instead of engaging with the ad, say, “Lord, give me a spirit of poverty.” Instead of judging your neighbor, pray, “Lord I love you above all things and for your sake I love my neighbor as myself” — keeping in mind that the way you love yourself is despite your own flaws.

Second are the “phone calls” from the flesh.

One of the immediate and unfortunate effects of the fall was concupiscence — inordinate desires of the flesh. Says the Catechism: “the triple concupiscence subjugates [man] to the pleasures of the senses, covetousness for earthly goods, and self-assertion, contrary to the dictates of reason.”

That means our flesh gives us three kinds of bad thoughts:

  • Our imagination runs wild with lust regarding people we see in person or online.
  • We obsess about money and material goods such that our life feels empty of all the things we want.
  • We scheme ways to assert ourselves over others.

Here, what we need is purity of heart: the ability to see the true worth of ourselves and others. The pure of heart recognize the image and likeness of God in everyone and don’t reduce them to their sexuality, economic value, or utility.

Again, the first line of defense is to flee the temptation — and if possible find someone to talk to, since community solves many problems of self-indulgent thoughts.

If you are stuck in the situation that is tempting you, pray: “Lord, you love every human being as your own child, made in your image. Give me this love.”

Third are obscene phone calls from the devil.

While it can be dangerous to ascribe too many things to the devil, it is important to realize that, as St. Peter put it, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Some thoughts that might seem diabolic:

  • He is the accuser, and you may be plagued with negative thoughts about your own self-worth.
  • He attacks hope, and your thoughts may cause you to despair that a difficult situation in your life is a catastrophe.
  • He loves violence and pain, and you may experience images of violence or self-harm.

Psychologists suggest “talking back” to yourself, by using your reason to demonstrate to yourself that you have strengths in addition to your weaknesses, and that people in much worse situations have emerged without harm.

I once heard a priest suggest this trick: He said to focus on a Station of the Cross, and pray: “Lord, you did this for sinners like me. Thank you.” 

If any of these kinds of thoughts are overwhelming you, seek professional help.

But for the small thoughts that come along, remember the maxim: “Each victory against temptation adds to the glory of God,” and start piling up wins.

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