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Catholic Spiritual Direction

Is it a sin to have bad thoughts? How do I deal with bad thoughts? How can I be sure to avoid the unforgivable sin?

Dear Father John, Thank you for your excellent series on scrupulosity. I have a question that relates to it, namely the occurrence of “bad thoughts” — thoughts that are negative, vile, or even blasphemous against any of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity or Our Lady herself. I understand that these may occur in cases of psychological imbalance, or gross immaturity, for which I presume there is little culpability. In the context of those trying to develop their spiritual lives, bad thoughts appear to be temptations flashed before us by the devil as a form of spiritual warfare. My understanding is that since temptation is not a sin, the best course of action is to ignore them. In addition, because one is more prone to these thoughts when tired or hungry or under stress, good sense would indicate the importance of food, sleep, exercise, and prayer. But given that, what is the “dividing line,” so to speak? I love God and never remotely want to get close to the “unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit,” yet these thoughts can be alarming. When and how does one confess them? How does one order the spiritual life to purity of thought?

Your question itself contains a lot of wisdom. Actually, it also contains a lot of questions (three, to be exact). Before answering them, we need to make one more distinction.

For someone who is already actively and sincerely trying to follow Christ, bad thoughts may be flashed directly by the devil, as you point out, but there may also be two other sources. First, they could flash up from our own subconscious. If someone has undergone a conversion (or reversion) after spending years in a self-centered, sinful lifestyle, echoes of that lifestyle will still reverberate under the surface of the mind. From time to time, they may break the surface and grasp at the conscious mind, trying to regain a hold on the will. In this case, the bad thoughts are not planted directly by the devil. If we resist these last gasps of our old habits, they will gradually lose energy and their appearances will decrease in frequency. Second, bad thoughts can be the result of carelessness. We are surrounded by non-Christian, and often un-Christian mental influences: images on the Web, billboards, and advertisements; ideas in news articles, movies, books, and television shows; anti-values woven into music and secular art. If we allow ourselves to imbibe these toxins, they will have their effect later on, stirring up thoughts that would pull us away from friendship with Christ.

Guarding the Castle

Thus, the first answer to your third question: we can grow in purity of thought by guarding our senses and minds from toxic input. This may seem a bit puritan in a pluralistic society, but it is only common sense. We are careful about the food we put into our body, because we know that it affects our physical health. We should be even more careful about what we purposely let into our minds and hearts, because that will affect our spiritual health. (Another favorite image used by spiritual writers is that of a drawbridge and a castle. You don’t let down the drawbridge when enemies come knocking; you keep it securely in place to protect the castle from invasion.)

A wife who regularly reads grocery-store romance novels (which are a subtle form of pornography), or who daily drinks in the titillating sensuality of your typical soap opera, is clogging her marital arteries and setting herself up for a spiritual heart attack. A husband who goes to strip bars “just for business,” spends more time with atheist buddies than with fellow Christ-seekers, and doesn’t take the initiative to protect himself from Internet pornography is not keeping in spiritual shape. In both cases, “bad thoughts” and blasphemous ideas will pop up more and more frequently, even without the devil’s direct provocation. In these cases, we are at least partially responsible for the evil thoughts that come up to tempt us, and we should confess this negligence in the sacrament of reconciliation, and God will give us strength to be more coherent.

Spiritual Self-Defense

One other tactic useful for developing purity of thought consists in responding positively to the bad thoughts that do come up, whatever their source. As you mention in your question, once we recognize the flash of a bad thought, the last thing we want to do is pay attention to it. If you can simply ignore it and get back to doing God’s will with your whole mind and heart, great. But if the bad thoughts are violent and insistent, ignoring them is not always easy. In those cases, we need to have a prearranged plan. We need to be ready to counteract them with prayer as we try to turn our attention back to God’s will. This can be a simple vocal prayer, like the Our Father or the Hail Mary. It can be a favorite verse from Scripture used as a shield against evil (e.g. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” Psalm 23:1). I recently heard the example of a man battling to overcome sexual temptations who committed himself to singing hymns until the sensual thoughts dispersed – he said that he ended up memorizing four whole verses to more than a dozen hymns in his efforts to grow in purity! If we fail to fight actively, with a spirit of faith, against the evil thoughts that tempt us, or if our efforts to fight them are lackadaisical, then we should confess this negligence in the sacrament of reconciliation, and God will give us strength to be more courageous.

Circumstantial Evidence

This brings us to your first question about where to draw the line. If you know that certain circumstances (the use of particular media, or physical tiredness and stress, as you mention) tend to increase the intensity, frequency, or seductive power of evil thoughts, you have a responsibility to make a decent effort to avoid those circumstances. Eighty hour work weeks may win you the promotion you covet, but is winning that promotion worth exposing yourself to the occasions of sin? Jesus didn’t think so: “What, then, will anyone gain by winning the whole world and forfeiting his life?” (Mt 16:26) At times, however, the circumstances are out of our control (needy babies make for sleepless nights). That’s when our Lord is inviting us to lean more fully on him, and on the means for perseverance that he gives us (the sacraments, prayer, healthy friendships, a loving spouse…).

If you are actively making a decent effort to do your part to live a Christ-centered, balanced life and to grow in purity of thought, and still the evil ideas and images plague you, they really do not qualify as material for confession. They are more like bad spiritual weather. In this sense, it is worth mentioning that many saints experienced violent and intense temptations to blasphemy towards the end of their lives, when they were well advanced in the spiritual life. The devil sent these temptations to cause confusion and to try and steal away their confidence in God and their peace of soul. If that happens to you, put up your umbrella of prayer and obedience to God’s will, and endure the storm for as long as the Lord allows it. As you do so, you will exercise all the major Christian virtues, thereby growing in holiness and building up the Church.

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • Mary

    Now Fr. John, you write like you know me personally or like you have been my regular Confessor!!!! Bad thoughts and how to handle them and when they are sin or not has been a tricky situation for me. Now you have shown me exactly how to handle these frustrating intrusions. Once again, I say, Fr. John, you will never realize just how helpful and edifying your articles have been to me. Thank God He led me to this Website. God bless you

  • cnovena

    Thank you, Fr. John. That was beautiful. I remember a priest telling me in Confession one day that thoughts are like a ticker tape. As they pass by, we get to choose which ones we want to pluck out of the air and give energy and time to. That visual has helped me to let some of the harmful thoughts, “keep on truckin.”

  • MarkRSz

    Fr. John, this was extremely helpful! You have no idea how much the question reflected my own inner turmoil at times. The practical advice about a plan is so appropriate for me. Again, thank you and may God continue to bless you!

  • Gina

    That was an amazing explanation and so helpful. Thank you Fr. Bartunek!
    God Bless you.

  • cathy

    What comforting and helpful words! I pray the “Prayer of Surrender” at times of temptation or “bad” thoughts (sometimes over and over again). Often I simply pray the first sentence. Perhaps it will be of help to someone else.

    “Take these thoughts from me, Lord, and turn my mind to you.
    Delay this action (or thought), Lord, and fill me with your comfort.
    I give myself to you. Amen.”

  • amberleannedv

    Praise God that I found this article!

    Fr. John, I have been struggling with blasphemous thoughts while praying on and off for about a year. I want more than anything to be holy and they've caused some serious heart ache. I was beginning to think that my soul was in serious peril. Thank you so much for clearing this up for me and others who are trying to grow in holiness. God Bless you!

  • Ann

    I, too, wondered just how resposible I am for the thoughts. Some of them have been horribly disgusting. I wondered how some of them could come into my mind. At least I know now how to handle them. Thank you for being here to guide all of us who have this problem. God bless!

  • http://fromthepews.wordpress.com/ From The Pews

    As with many, your words have “struck a chord” with me as well.

    We all weather many a storm. It is difficult, to say the least, and prayer is sadly not always my first recourse. It should, but isn't.

    How does one go about praying for the desire to pray, when one has difficulty praying in the FIRST place? =o)

    I attend Mass 2 -3 times a week, pray a Novena here and there, say my Children's Daily Prayers with them, read as much Spiritual Nourishment as I am able, and yet, those storms, they keep a 'coming.

    I know, I can do much more, if not more, more focused. I also KNOW that the Holy Rosary would be invaluable! I just have to DO it!

    There is hope, however. I have gotten better and those storms are fewer and far between.

    One more thing that helps, that has helped me, and you touch upon this, how by “spend[ing] more time with atheist buddies than with fellow Christ-seekers” one ” is not keeping in spiritual shape” is absolutely true.

    As I began to state, what helps me Immensely, are Christ-seeking friends! They have invited me to “Rosary Night,” to prayer meetings, to things that guide me, fortify me and provide me with the “Umbrella” to weather the storm.

    Thank you for sharing your Wisdom and Knowledge, Fr. Bartunek.
    I am extremely Blessed to have met you.

  • B.A.

    bad thoughts expressed verbally but in the privacy of home or room; I was told by a confessor such was a 'cathartic' … or purging. It sounds like his words and your blog here fit together. BAD thoughts are BAD and our Lord did say even if a man THINK of lusting he has… so IT'S NOT A GOOD IDEA to entertain carthartic moments is it? On the other hand…is it good to 'get it out' in the privacy of home rather than saying a bad thought to another? I await comment

  • Piccola

    Dear Fr,

    Thank you so much for these posts. I'M SCRUPULOUS.

    Well, I was not before but since my conversion earlier this year, I have been fighting battles. Before, I didn't understand what it was until one day my spiritual director (who's also my confessor in most of the time) mentioned it to me.Still, I was not sure he understood what I meant. (that's how I thought- typical scrupulus-)One day I searched about “scrupulosity” and I was amazed to what I found out and how many people suffer from it. I also read St John of the Cross and it seemed that the first 2 books of “Darkness night of the soul” were written about me.

    Well to make the story short, I have made progress but I sometimes go up and down (Often fearing to fall into laxity as well).I would like to share some of the weapons I use to fight it.

    1.I wear a bracelet with a miraculous medal and when a temptation or anything comes up, I will quickly say “O Mary conceived without sin…” In most cases the temptation leaves me quickly.

    2.Rosary. I remember one day it was so severe that I felt I was losing the battle so I said it while crying to our blessed Mother.(I got so much strength and it was one of the source for me to know what I was going through)

    3.I have a picture of Madona della strada so sometimes I stick it on my chest and walk around the house with it in the house.

    4. I read from St John and others that the trials might be comming from God so I learned to offer them to him.

    4.I have now been given a spiritual excercise to say “Thank you God” whenever a bad thougt comes (ignore it but give the gratitude to God)”. It's working.

    God is so powerful that he can remove all these struggles but if he doesn't, we have to trust him that they are for our own good. (However, one should not solicit this warfare; only God and the one suffering can understand its intensity

  • Lauren

    Thank you so much Father for this article, and also to the original poster.  I was in search tonight for this exact thing and I’m sure god led me to it.  I have been able to put my mind at rest knowing that I am not alone.

    God Bless!

  • Ann

    Fr. John, I go to a christian high-school where i’m with classmates who talk about impure things. I always try to avoid those conversations, and try not to dwell on them…I pray at once to banish them when those thoughts pop into my mind. So would it be a sin to continue attending that school? This school is the only one Iv’e tried that works for me academically. I really don’t know what to do!

  • Anonymous

    Dear Friend (Dan here) – It is not a sin to live within and to travel in and through a world of sin. In fact, Jesus called us to be “In the world but not of the world.” If we are not present, who will tell the truth, feed the hungry, preach the gospel? The key is to keep praying and don’t participate in the sin. Instead, offer silence, positive comments about people and demonstrate the love and light of Christ to those who are in darkness. “Be encouraged, I have overcome the world.” Jesus –

  • Larry

    Dear Father John,
    Lately I have been experiencing this issue to but it is in relation to certain lines in certain prayers. I know that I heard a song blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. It was not something I expected when I heard the song. This was a while ago but now I have thoughts about God the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and Mary. Even in church or while praying the Rosary. I ask God to not let these thoughts enter my mind but they still do.
    In your article you state: ”
    …it is worth mentioning that many saints experienced violent and intense temptations to blasphemy towards the end of their lives, when they were well advanced in the spiritual life.”

    Which saints had bad thoughts or temptations?

    • http://www.rcspiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Dear Larry – to submit questions in the future, please use rcspiritualdirection@gmail.com. No worries about this very good question. I have already sent it to Fr. John for an answer. Be assured of our prayers.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/MGEE5L6JWXSXFIYXC2UAQNNWO4 Patricia

    what is exactly blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. I am never sure or clear as to what it is. Temptations have been strong and intense so much so that confessing them helps me to be more at peace. some thoughts are uncontrollable and behaviors too especially if it pertains to mental illness and or disorder. I am curious as to what is the unforgivable sin. I thought it was ultimate despair. I need clarity on this.