From time to time a person pulls me aside saying, “Father, I need to speak with you.” After getting my attention, the person confides in me that he or she struggles with something “so terribly embarrassing.” When I ask what it is, the answer comes back, “I’m so ashamed – I struggle with impure thoughts.”
Impure thoughts: dirty images, violent or ugly ideas. If we are honest, most of us have struggled with these things at one time or another. We don’t always know where the thought, image or idea comes from, but it troubles us. Why me? That’s not what I want – that’s not the kind of person I am! And yet, these thoughts do creep up from time to time and they can become a heavy cross.
First of all, what are these images? Most of the time, “dirty thoughts” are thoughts having to do with some kind of sexual activity. We might be single, married, or in the religious life. Nevertheless, the thought comes and we are shocked by it. Other times ugly ideas come into our minds about revolting things or practices. Sometimes these thoughts or ideas have to do with violence to ourselves or others. And sometimes these impure thoughts can even have to do with God himself.
Where do these things come from? Many times images that come into our minds come from things we have recently seen. Perhaps it was a lust-filled or violent image on a television program or in a movie. Maybe it was a scene from a book or perhaps a person we saw recently that was inappropriately dressed. And suddenly the image pops into our heads. Other times, such images are from our distant past and have remained with us for many years. Sometimes impure thoughts can come simply because of our fallen human nature and our inclination to sin. And yes, many times such impure thoughts can be temptations from Satan intended to cause us to fall into sin. Such demonic temptation often comes when we least expect it and when we are most vulnerable.
What can we do? First of all, we need to realize that most people struggle with these things! You are not the only person to have these thoughts! Next, we need to clearly understand that such thoughts are not reality and not what we want or intend. When impure thoughts arise, we need to meet them head-on and dismiss them quickly. Such thoughts are not sinful if we dismiss them right away. They can become a sinful offense against God when we dwell on them, entertain them, or conjure them up again. This is an important distinction: Having an impure thought is not a sin! Yes, it is troubling, ugly and contrary to everything we believe in. But it is not sinful unless we take it in and make it our own.
When impure thoughts arise, a quick “Get behind me Satan” will do a good job in dispelling it. Making the Sign of the Cross, saying the Our Father or some other prayer, or asking God for help at the moment will do much to dispel the ugly thought. Sometimes impure thoughts can be dispelled by laughing at them. Yes, laughing! Sometimes we can become so ashamed and afraid by such thoughts that the Devil has us right where he wants us. Laugh at his temptation! He hates that and will leave quickly. Another technique when we are tempted with an impure thought of a sexual nature is to immediately thank God for making such a beautiful person and ask the good Lord to bless the person! Nothing throws more cold water on lustful thoughts than prayer! The Lord knows our hearts. He knows that we do not want to do these things.
Impure thoughts are mysterious aspects of our fallen humanity. All of us remain “clay pots,” as St. Paul says. We are all easily broken – we are all weak. But what matters most is the treasure inside! So when impure thoughts come our way, let us remember the words of Jesus: “Be not afraid.” Let us stay close to him.
Fr. Girotti, who serves as vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia, is author of “A Shepherd Tends His Flock.”