When a Christian
Thinking Blasphemous Thoughts
Unforgivable Sin or Just a Spiritual Attack?
Proof of Demon Possession or Mere Temptation?
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A mother of two told me:
Up until about a week ago, I was great! I was strong in my faith, and things were going well when one day I suddenly awoke from sleep to a thought so horrible I was in a sweat, my heart was thumping and ever since, I have been in extreme anxiety. I had thought for an instant about the verse on Jesus being a demon, and I had imagined it being so. I am a Christian so I know the thought is utterly false, but I am so mortified that I can’t get rid of thought. The more I try to stop it, the more it comes back.
I am in turmoil! The passage about the unforgivable sin makes me so afraid, that now I am a mess. That horrible thought keeps creeping back and I want it to go away. I keep telling Jesus that I am sorry, and powerless to get rid of this false image of him. It is like living in hell. Please help me!
So common is it to be tormented in this way that this dear woman has nothing to be embarrassed about. Nevertheless, rather than risk causing her the slightest discomfort I will conceal anything that might identify her. We’ll call her Kate.
Few of us regularly have a demon appear before us and start talking to us. And yet we have all had evil spiritual powers trying to tempt us. Since they rarely speak to us in an audible voice, how do they tempt us? By putting thoughts in our minds – thoughts that seem like our own but are from them.
Churning around in our mind are not just our own thoughts but the occasional thought direct from God and the occasional thought direct from God’s spiritual enemies. It is not unusual for God to put thoughts and ideas into our minds that we mistake for our own thoughts. Likewise, it is common for us to mistake as our own thoughts things whispered into our minds from spiritual powers that hate us and hate our Lord.
Kate was so upset by those blasphemous thoughts because such blasphemy is disturbingly contrary to her own views of Christ. (She was also needlessly afraid that saying blasphemous things might be unforgivable. For proof that this is not so, see Unforgivable Sin and the page it leads to but then return to this page.)
To a casual observer it is obvious that thoughts so contrary to Kate’s own thinking could not be her thoughts. Because they were happening in her very mind, however, it was hard for her to be convinced they did not originate from her. She was experiencing a hideous invasion by evil powers of the most intimate part of her – her innermost thoughts. It is such a terrible violation of her person that I refer to it as spiritual rape. Every Christian – even Jesus, who was tempted in all ways like us when on earth – suffers this.
“Where’s the Scriptural proof?” you might ask.
Matthew 4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.
Who, according to this Scripture, took the holy Son of God to the top of the temple? It wasn’t Jesus’ doing, nor was it God’s.
Matthew 4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.
Everyone knows there is no mountain in the world from which one’s natural eyes can see “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” The devil not only somehow managed to get Jesus’ body where he wanted it to be, he thrust a vision into Christ’s very mind. If the devil slipped that into the very mind of the sinless Son of God, we can expect no less. No Christian wants it, but it is normal. In fact, it is inevitable. Nevertheless, despite the repulsive violation, we, like Jesus, can remain pure.
Unlike God, the devil can only be in one place at a time. So in our case, we are almost certainly attacked by one of the devil’s henchmen, rather than the devil himself, but it makes little difference and so most Christians, myself included, often refer to him when it is technically one of his subordinates who actually does it.
Up until the night of Kate’s disturbing experience, everything had been going well for her. Obviously the Enemy of our souls hates that. He’d love to bring us down. Because he had failed to seduce Kate into genuine sin, the old Deceiver tried to fool her into taking responsibility for the devil’s own filthy thoughts.
The sneak attack began when Kate was most vulnerable. How dare he start his ambush when she was asleep! Most attacks occur when we least expect it and least deserve it. It’s not for nothing that our enemy is called the Evil One. He plays dirty.
Kate knew that the lies speared into her head were not true. That knowledge is all she needs to maintain her spiritual purity. No matter what floods her mind, she is spiritually safe because she believes the truth about Jesus.
Nevertheless, “mortified” is how Kate described her reaction to the haunting devastation of being plagued by thoughts she wanted nothing to do with. Examined in the cold light of day, however, it is not the slightest surprising she couldn’t get those hideous thoughts out of her mind. If Kate had woken up to find a deadly snake in her bed, she might escape unharmed but the experience would have terrorized her, just like the thought she had woken up with terrorized her.
Had Kate escaped a snake in her bed, she would have been safe. The experience might have lasted just a couple of seconds. Nevertheless, it would have so shaken her that to her dying day it is unlikely she would ever forget it. For the first few weeks the memory would rarely leave her. The vivid, recurring memories would be most unwanted, but a perfectly natural reaction to a traumatic experience.
Similarly, Kate was experiencing a natural reaction to the trauma of waking to thoughts that shocked and repulsed her because they were so contrary to her heart-attitude to Jesus. Her reaction, in fact, was proof of her sincere devotion to Christ.
Kate couldn’t remove the thoughts from her mind. “The more I try, the more it comes back,” she agonized. Large numbers of people write to me with similar stories. I have found that they are usually very sensitive people who are deeply shocked and disturbed by having such a thought, and their very reaction seems to inflame the situation. This, in fact, is exactly what one would expect.
Try telling yourself, “Whatever I do, I must not think of elephants in polka dot pajamas.” The very act of trying not to think of them will cause you to think of them. The more I raise the stakes – such as threatening to beat you if you think of them – the more you will be plagued by thoughts of pajamas-clad elephants. One’s very anxiety about it and desperation not to think of them will increase the problem.
It’s like walking on a plank that is lying on the ground. You do it effortless and perfectly. The higher off the ground you raise it, however, the more fear of falling will begin to grip you. The more nervous you become, the more likely it is that your very nervousness will make you unsteady and cause you to fall. So it is that the more you fear thinking something blasphemous, the more likely it is to happen. That’s not for any spiritual reason. It’s purely psychological – a perfectly normal mental reaction. On the other hand, the less concerned you are about the thought and the more you ignore it and focus on other things, the more it will fade from your thoughts.
Why did God make the human mind this way? It’s because thoughts that flit through our mind are of no concern to God. What matters to him is not random thoughts but what will firmly decide to believe.
It is astounding how high a proportion of those who e-mail me fearing that they have committed the unpardonable sin suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), or some other psychological difficulty. This shows that in most cases, uncontrollable blasphemous thoughts are not a theological matter or even a spiritual one, but the product of a psychological condition that is not only most unpleasant, but exceedingly unfair. Ironically, the more anxious one is to please God, the more severe the affliction.
Fearing that God will not forgive us is like fearing a harmless spider. The fear is awful but it is groundless. Someone with a phobia about spiders does not need to be lectured about trusting God and made to feel spiritually inferior. It is simply a most unpleasant, irrational fear for which there is no shame in seeking psychological help. Many Christians plagued with the irrational fear of being unforgivable are suffering from psychological problems that medication might help. Medication can’t save anyone’s soul; only Jesus can. But medication has the potential to stop some Christians from suffering needless torment. Whether it be a fear of harmless creatures, or a fear that God has suddenly turned unforgiving, if medication can ease the fear and help one act more rationally, I’m all for it.
Medication is far from perfect. For a few people it can have side-effects and what works well for one person might not be as effective for another. If you are among the majority whose body tolerates it, however, and it helps you think more rationally about spiritual things – and so helps you cling to the biblical truth that all sin is forgivable through simple faith in the power of Christ sacrifice – then I see such medication as a plus.
In theory – I know that in practice it is difficult – Kate should try to be as unconcerned as she can about the repulsive thoughts buzzing around in her mind. Like someone swearing in her presence, it is unpleasant but it is not her doing. Those thoughts are the devil’s doing, not Kate’s. She can simply ignore them and let the devil take the blame for them. None of us will ever stop the devil and his horde from being evil, so we can just let them do their thing and focus on glorifying our Lord.
When you find yourself suffering like Kate, my suggestion is that you go on the offensive and hit the Enemy where it hurts him most. Whenever a lying thought about Jesus comes to you, turn it into an occasion to praise Jesus, thanking him that he is the holy Son of God; pure and sinless. Keep exalting Jesus until the blasphemous thought eventually leaves. Every time the thought returns, rejoice in the purity, perfection, and divine power of your Lord, affirming his goodness in praise-filled prayer. Then, no matter what heretical things flash through your mind, every lie fired into your head turns into an invitation to exalt Jesus and build up your faith in his righteousness. However, you most exalt Christ, not by turning this into an obsessive ritual, but by relaxing and enjoying the fact that through Christ you are forgiven, no matter what unwanted thoughts plague you.
Let’s return to the analogy of finding a snake in one’s bed. If it turns out to be merely a toy, it would be far easier to be rid of the recurring memories. The greater the perceived danger, the harder it is to get it out of one’s mind. Kate’s fear that she was committing the unpardonable sin was adding to the trauma and so helping to perpetuate the recurring thoughts. Her fear was yet another dirty trick from the Evil One. She was not committing the unpardonable sin. Despite uninvited thoughts clouding her mind, she did not genuinely believe that Jesus was of the devil. And even if someone had actually believed that in the past, it wouldn’t matter, provided that person no longer believes it. For as long as a person believes Jesus is of the devil, that person’s sin cannot be forgiven since he or she would not ask for God’s forgiveness in the name of someone he/she believes to be of the devil! If that person changes his/her attitude to Jesus, however, forgiveness again becomes fully accessible.
Jesus was tempted with horrific things – even to bow down and worship Satan. So let’s not despise ourselves if we, too, face horrific temptations. They indicate how evil our enemy is; they do nothing to suggest that we are ungodly. We don’t have to own the thoughts that come to us, nor be disturbed by them. We can simply reject them as being untrue and continue to enjoy closeness with our loving Lord.
There are surprising medical factors influencing devastating guilt feelings and sacrilegious mental images or thoughts. As you follow these pages, we will soon examine this. Later, we will explore a wide range of testimonies. But first I should raise another matter that could be nagging away at you.
Bringing into Captivity Every Thought?
The frustrating, unavoidable reality is that the very act of not thinking about something forces us to direct our thoughts to those very matters, thus ensuring we are spending more time than ever thinking the thought we are desperately trying not to think. It becomes a no-win situation because it is contrary to the fundamental design of the human brain. Everyone’s experience confirms that to cease thinking something we are desperately trying to stop thinking is as impossible as it is to stop all thought.
A man was keen to accept this fact of life and cease trying to do the impossible. However, the most common reason for being hounded by unwanted thoughts is anxiety stemming not from a rational concern but from an imbalance in one’s body chemistry. Since no amount of rational understanding of the cause of unwanted thoughts can change one’s body chemistry, he kept feeling anxious. More disturbing still, anxiety feels like a nagging conscience and can easily be mistaken for a divine warning that one is somehow displeasing God. This anxiety kept driving his restless mind to find some sort of rational basis for his irrational anxiety – some indication that he might be doing something displeasing to God. Not surprisingly, his mind latched on to worrying that even though fighting the thoughts inflamed them, not fighting them might be at odds with 2 Corinthians 10:5, “. . . bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ,” (KJV). He emailed me about his nagging concern about this Scripture. I quickly replied:
This verse does not mean to try not to think about compulsive thoughts because that is impossible and anyone who thinks otherwise does not understand the human mind and has not suffered from this affliction. What it means is, rather than trying to battle the thoughts yourself, entrust them to Christ, your Savior who has demolished everything that could separate us from God. He is your Savior, so let the thoughts be his concern, not yours. Refuse to worry about the thoughts but trust your Savior to keep you cleansed and acceptable to God, no matter how you feel.
In practical terms, what I wrote was entirely correct. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that the verse about making every thought captive is not even relevant to a discussion of intrusive thoughts. It has nothing to do with casual thoughts but is referring to attacking various belief systems adhered to by non-Christians thinkers (philosophers, religious teachers, cults and so on).
Hailed as “one of the best evangelical New Testament scholars” (D. Stewart) and elsewhere called “master New Testament exegete,” Murray J. Harris specifically says in this commentary on 2 Corinthians 10:5, “It is not a case of the Christian’s effort to force all his thoughts to be pleasing to Christ.”
The most confusing thing about King James English is not obviously archaic words but ones that seem the same as modern words but have actually undergone a change of meaning. For example, in the King James Version conversation can mean not just speech but one’s entire behavior, even though few readers today are aware of this shift in meaning. The full verse, of which we have quoted just a slither, uses the word imaginations in the King James Version. Back then, however, the word had a different meaning (it could mean stubbornness, or plotting or devising evil) and later translations (even, as quoted in a subsequent webpage, the New King James Version and the King James 2000 Bible) use a different word.
Consistent with this, the word translated thought is not used in this verse to mean imagination or casual thought. It is referring not to things that pop unbidden into the mind but to an entire system of thinking – a whole manner of thinking about spiritual matters, such as consistently thinking of (i.e. viewing or perceiving) God as an assortment of many different gods (pantheism) or consistently seeing salvation as dependent upon animal sacrifices. It is referring not to fleeting or superficial thoughts that one hardly believes, but to mindsets – deliberate thoughts and ways of seeing things that are so consistently believed that they transform one’s understanding of spiritual truth.
The precise meaning of the Greek word translated thought in 2 Corinthians 10:5 is hard to express in English. The difficulty is that there are different types of thought, and English speakers are not used to differentiating between them when they communicate. There are fleeting, flippant, frenzied thoughts that come out of the blue and not from one’s solid convictions. On the other extreme, certain thoughts are the product of deep, deliberate, focused thinking and match fully and precisely what one really, firmly believes. The word used in 2 Corinthians 10:5 refers to this second type of thought. It refers to one’s powers of thought in using logic and reasoning – not to wandering, scatterbrain thoughts, but to carefully thought through conclusions.
The Greek word is noema. HELPSTM Word-studies defines it as “the mind, especially its final output (systematic understanding . . .)” It rightly notes noema as being derived from noieo and it defines the latter as meaning, “to apply mental effort needed to reach ‘bottom-line’ conclusions.”
The word is relatively rare in the New Testament. Besides 2 Corinthians 10:5, it is used only five times and only one of these is outside of 2 Corinthians. In no instance except 2 Corinthians 10:5 is it translated thought, and the following occurrence is particularly illuminating as it highlights how it is the product of careful, deliberate, methodical thought:
2 Corinthians 2:11 in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes. (NIV)
2 Corinthians 2:11 Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices. (KJV)
Not surprisingly, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines it as “(an evil) purpose” and, specifically in reference to 2 Corinthians 10:5, says it is “devising evil against Christ”. Note the choice of words: devising implies meticulous planning, not something that comes unbidden or unwanted into the mind. “Purpose, in a bad sense design, plot,” says the highly regarded A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature by Arndt & Gingrich, about both 2 Corinthians 2:11 and 10:5.
The scholarly New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Vol 3, p 128) makes crystal clear just how far noema is from referring to fleeting thoughts. It defines the New Testament meaning of the word as “ . . . the understanding of the divine will concerning salvation, the thinking concerned with this. . . . noema is thus the general faculty of judgment, which can take decisions and pronounce verdicts right or wrong . . .”
Furthermore, this portion of Scripture uses war terminology, describing the “war” between Christian and anti-Christian ideologies. In this context, captivity refers not to total control of individual or fleeting thoughts but to the defeat of an enemy by taking prisoners of war. And in this case the enemy is the belief systems (the thought patterns and entire way of thinking about spiritual matters) adhered to by anti-Christian philosophies and cults. As made more obvious by some Bible versions, but implied elsewhere, an analysis of the verse reveals that it is not even about your viewpoint, mindset, and so on, but about that of your spiritual enemies. The New Living Translation makes this abundantly clear:
We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ.
So “bringing into captivity every thought” is not about an impossibly unhuman, machine-like control of one’s mind, but the spiritual defeat of belief systems present in the non-Christian world that are opposed to the gospel message.
A correct understanding of this verse is aided by consulting the context:
2 Corinthians 10:3-5 . . . we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
And it is confirmed by seeing how this dovetails with what the apostle Paul told the Corinthians earlier:
1 Corinthians 1:17-24; 2:1-2 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. . . . When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
God declares through the pen of Paul that there is a spiritual war between the gospel and people who suppose they can connect with God without reliance upon what Christ achieved on the cross. The way to win that war (figuratively speaking, destroy defenses – pull down strongholds – and take prisoners of war – captives) is not through using the means (weapons) that opponents of the gospel rely on – human reason (in the case of Greeks) or expecting supernatural signs and wonders (in the case of Jews) – but through simply preaching (declaring the truth) about the reconciliation between God and humanity that Jesus achieved through his sacrificial death.
To those who look to supernatural signs or human reasoning to confirm spiritual truth, the gospel message (the message of the cross) seems weak and foolish but those who abandon trying to confirm spiritual truth this way and instead choose to believe (put their faith in) the message of the cross (Christ securing our full acceptance with God – the forgiveness of all our sins – through his death) will be saved and they will connect with the genuine power and wisdom of God.
In other words, we win this spiritual war and connect with God not by discovering some convincing argument, nor by some supernatural sign confirming that we are saved but by clinging to faith in the power of Jesus to secure the forgiveness of all our sin. Trying to wrestle unwanted thoughts into submission is carnal and will ultimately fail; clinging to faith in the power of the cross to forgive all sin is spiritual, and where godly power lies.
Burn this into your brain: You must cease trying to stop repulsive, ungodly thoughts. Fighting thoughts is as carnal and as opposed to God’s holy ways as trying to physically kill people who hate Christ. Supposing we can gain God’s approval by thinking nothing but pure thoughts is as heretical as abandoning faith in Christ and supposing we can be saved by works.
We must put an end to carnal methods – fear, mental effort, fighting thoughts – and become spiritual. That means relinquishing faith in our own efforts and trusting Christ alone. We overcome not by fearing thoughts, nor by fighting them, but by faith alone – by resting in the fact that on the cross Christ has completed everything necessary to secure our salvation.
To be spiritual is to look not to one’s thought life but to Christ alone. The more messed up our thought life is, the better, in that it forces us to realize we can only be saved by faith in Christ, not by our works.
All your prayers and efforts to stop unwanted thoughts have failed and will always fail, because the only way to please God is by faith in what Christ achieved on the cross without your prayers and effort.
It is unhuman never to have unwanted thoughts, just as it is not human never to suffer temptation (even the holy Son of God was tempted). This, of course, does not render it impossible for the omnipotent Lord to make you the world’s only exception and keep preventing unwanted thoughts in your case. Likewise, if you were literally afraid of your own shadow, the God for whom nothing is impossible has the power needed to treat you as if you were hopelessly pathetic by perpetually performing the miracle of preventing your shadow from ever appearing. Wouldn’t it be better, however, for God to allow you to be normal so that you can eventually overcome your ridiculous fear? Wouldn’t that end up giving you greater dignity? So it is with those who fear thoughts.
Thoughts are not your enemy; your enemy is the ever-present temptation to exalt thoughts above Christ – to imagine that overcoming thoughts will please God. Trusting what Christ did on the cross is the only way to please the Holy Lord.
Whenever you worry about thoughts, you have slipped from faith and reverted to a dangerously non-Christian works-based theology. Every time that happens, pull yourself back to faith by thanking God for your salvation that was secured solely by Christ crucified. It is essential to keep returning to faith, which means ceasing to fight thoughts and resting in Christ’s completed work.
What makes this simple thing so hard is that anyone worried about thoughts has become addicted to fear and to human effort. And addicts are repeatedly tempted to return to their old coping mechanism, which will never deliver what they actually need. Instead of continually slipping back into the old rut, forge a new path by leaving behind your preoccupation with thoughts and instead delighting in the salvation that – regardless of whether you feel it or not – is yours through Christ alone.
For people addicted to the futile hope of trying to control their thoughts, this is such a radical change that few of them grasp it. As one final attempt to help you understand what anxiety-driven people typically fail to grasp, let me share my response to another e-mail I received. The email read:
About a year ago I was flooded with unimaginable blasphemous thoughts and felt doomed. But then I read your webpage and it helped me a great deal. But now, a year later, I am being attacked by more blasphemous thoughts. I start thinking of them on my own because I know that they are lurking somewhere in my mind and I feel like I just want to get it over with. I feel like I am going to be rejected by Jesus because of this and I am so afraid. It has put my life on pause because I feel like I am going to be left behind and that terrifies me. These thoughts are things I see in my mind and they sicken me. I can’t think of Jesus without seeing something blasphemous. Please could you help me to stop this?
This is typical of many e-mails I receive and shows that the person had failed to take on board what I keep stressing in my webpages. My goal – and I believe God’s goal – is not to stop blasphemous thoughts but to build faith in the power of the cross to forgive all sin and keep us holy in God’s eyes. Upon reading that he was again having blasphemous thoughts, I wrote:
My response to his plea to help him stop these thoughts was:
I dare not! Allowing the existence of these awful thoughts is God’s precious gift to you, so that you will finally learn to live by faith in Christ.
I am not in any way saying we should sin so that grace will abound (compare Romans 6:1-2). I am saying, replace fear with faith and stop trying to save yourself. Salvation depends on Christ’s efforts, not your efforts. So get your attention off yourself and on to your Savior.
Thoughts do not faze God. His concern is that we keep trusting in the power of the cross. Our thought life does not save us; Christ does. Neither will our thought life condemn us to hell. The only thing that will do that is to die refusing to have faith in the power of Christ’s sacrifice to cleanse us.
The frustrating problem I face in explaining the meaning of “bringing into captivity every thought,” is that no amount of convincing proof can ever fully put to rest the mind of anyone worried about this. This is because the very nature of the affliction that causes intrusive thoughts is to suffer perpetual unease and worry. No matter how certain something is, people suffering an anxiety disorder will keep feeling anxious and so will find themselves unable to stop worrying about it.
Anxiety driven by an imbalance in one’s body chemistry will ultimately remain untouched by rational argument. For psychological reasons, worry might temporarily ease in response to rational proof but the anxiety will soon return. Other than find a medical solution, its victims have no alternative but to learn to live with their anxiety and refuse to believe that its presence means there is a legitimate reason for concern. In other words, as the Scriptures affirm, they have to cease trying to find some convincing argument or supernatural sign, and take it by raw faith that despite their awful thoughts and worries they are cleansed through the blood of Jesus.
If a little boy had been forcibly molested by a man, would that threaten the child’s relationship with his loving parents? Would the boy have to stagger through life agonizing over whether he had struggled enough trying to resist; imagining that his parents’ love hinged on it? Of course not! In order to terrify their victims into silence, however, it is common for an offender to lie, telling his little victim that if he told his parents they would hate him for what he has done and have the boy put in jail. This would threaten the child’s relationship with his parents, not because there is any danger of the parents acting that way but if he believed the molester’s lies he would conclude that his parents hate him and that the only thing preventing their hate from manifesting is that he keeps the molester’s dirty secret. Likewise, should the attacks continue, wouldn’t it be tragic if the little boy thought his parents’ love depended on how much pain he continues to endure in further infuriating the man by vainly trying to fight him off?
Unlike that little boy, you have the maturity to see though the molester’s lies, but can you see through the devil’s lies when he pulls a similar trick by forcibly violating you with disgusting thoughts and then telling you that God no longer loves you? Please don’t insult your loving Lord by believing the evil trickster rather than the forgiving Lord.
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