I recently received this e-mail from a reader of the PK website:
Is it true that thoughts can’t be controlled?
There’s no question that the mind is far more crafty and difficult to corral than the eyes. The purification of the eyes goes much faster than that of the purification of the mind, in part because you can’t really rein in the mind effectively until you purify the eyes.
On the other hand, the great news is that once your eyes have pure habits, they’ll work with you to help purify the mind. The mind needs an object for its lust, so when the eyes view sexual images, the mind has plenty to dance with. Without those images, the mind has an empty dance card. By starving the eyes, you starve the mind as well. Although this alone is not enough — the mind can still create its own lust objects using memories of movies or pictures you saw years ago or by generating fantasies about old girlfriends or the women with whom you work — at least with your eyes under control you won’t be overwhelmed by a continuing flood of fresh lust objects as you struggle to learn to control your mind.
It’s helpful to lock on the scriptural imagery of “lurking at the door.” Job mentioned it. Just a few verses after we read about the covenant he made with his eyes in Job 31:1, we hear Job saying this:
Have you “lurked at your neighbor’s door”? It could mean stopping by in the late afternoon, visiting your friend’s wife for coffee, enamored by her wisdom, care, and sensitivity. You felt sorry for her as you’ve commiserated together over her insensitive, brutish husband. You held her as she cried. You were lurking at your neighbor’s door.
You know if you’ve lurked. Your friend’s wife seems more like your type than your wife does. Why didn’t I meet her sooner? you wonder. How different things would have been if I had.
Maybe your old girlfriend is married now, yet you lurk at her door in your mind, wondering if she misses you, secretly hoping to run into her at the mall. Maybe you’ve connected with a woman in a chat room, and you imagine what she looks like and what life with her would be like.
Or you’ve been lunching with a group at work, including that beautiful young sales associate, getting so attached that you’re depressed whenever she calls in sick. The last time you sent her an e-mail saying, “I missed you today… hope you feel better soon.”
Even as you walk with your wife or drive with her toward a weekend getaway, maybe you find yourself thinking about that girl at work, with questions popping into your mind like, “I wonder if she ever thinks of me when she’s not at work,” or “I wonder what she is doing right now,” or “I wonder if she is really happy with her husband?”
Maybe it doesn’t stop with your daydreams, and you’ve had hot sexual dreams about her as you lay next to your own wife. Maybe even as you lay upon your wife, placing another woman’s face over hers as you have sex in your marriage bed.
But you rationalize, “God understands my sexuality…He knows that my wife doesn’t fully meet my sexual needs, and our relationship is just as lukewarm as it could be.” God does not “understand” in this way. Rather, He is perplexed and amazed. Here’s my paraphrase of some questions God asks (in Hosea 8:5-6) that reveal His amazement:
What is going on here? Why are my children choosing to be impure? They are believers, for heaven’s sake! When are they going to start acting like it?
God doesn’t “understand,” and He is not in the least bit amused, either. You’re lurking at your neighbor’s door.
“What am I supposed to do?” you say. “Those thoughts come on their own. I can’t help them.” That certainly seems true, since controlling the mind can seem bizarre. Even in church, a daydream may suddenly transpire about some woman at work. Where do these thoughts come from? The mind is like a wild mustang, running free, one thought triggering another in no real order. Still, the Bible says we mustn’t just control our eyes, but our whole bodies:
This includes our minds. The Holy Spirit, through Paul, is clear on this:
This is a jarring verse. Reading it, it’s easy to wonder, Take every thought captive? Is that really possible?
God would not give us this Scripture it if we could not do so. We must learn to control and capture the sensual thoughts that come, or we’ll never be sexually pure. While our eyes are the major problem in filling our minds with objects to lust over, any of us can recall a woman into our minds and lust over the mental image until our RPMS rev so high into the red zone that we must have sexual release or we’ll blow our engines. Men can easily become emotionally and sexually stimulated just from entertaining thoughts of sexual activity. A guy dead set on purchasing Hustler at his local 7-Eleven is sexually stimulated long before he even steps into the convenience store. His stimulation began in his thought process, which triggered his nervous system, which secreted epinephrine into the bloodstream and gives that pleasure high that draws us back again and again.
God expects us to learn to capture and cast out such thoughts long before our engines hit the red zone, and our first step is to firmly reject our “rights” to such thinking. I discuss how to do so in Every Man’s Battle. But is an uphill, life-long struggle the best we can hope for? Will our minds always be putrid and kick out dark thoughts, or can we train and control our minds so that these thoughts don’t arise in the first place? From my experience, I believe we can.
Your Mind Coming Clean
This should not surprise us, because the Bible confirms that this should be every Christian’s experience. Genuine Christianity will not simply color our thinking philosophically. It can and must transform and renew our minds. PK’s key verse for the 2001 Turn The Tide conference season is Romans 12:2, which exhorts every man: “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Currently, your brain moves nimbly to lust and to the little pleasure-high it brings. Your brain’s “world-view” has always included lustful thinking. Double entendres, daydreams, and other creative forms of sexual thinking are approved pathways, so your mind feels free to run on these paths to pleasure.
But your mind is orderly, and your world-view colors what comes through it. The mind will allow these impure thoughts only if they “fit” the way you look at the world. As you set up the perimeter of defense for your mind, your brain’s world-view will be transformed by a new matrix of allowed thoughts, or “allowables.”
Within the old matrix of your thinking, lust fit perfectly and in that sense was “orderly.” But with a new, purer matrix firmly in place, lustful thoughts will bring disorder. Your brain, acting as a responsible policeman, nabs these lustful thoughts even before they rise to consciousness. Essentially the brain begins cleaning itself, so elusive enemies like double entendres and daydreams, which are hard to control on the conscious level, simply vanish on their own.
You’ll notice the effects quickly in your dream-life at night. Dreams are largely made up of “day residue,” the things we see and think about as we amble through our days. If you’ve cut off the sensual imagery by purifying your eyes and if you consistently take your sexual thoughts captive, your mind will have no “sexual” day residue with which to build dreams. I have not had a sexual dream about any woman besides my wife in nearly fifteen years.
This transformation of the mind takes some time as you wait for the old sexual pollution to be washed away. It’s much like living near a creek that becomes polluted when a sewer main breaks upstream. After repair crews replace the cracked sewage pipe, it will still take some time for the water downstream to clear.
Of course, if you refuse to guard your eyes and your mind, the cracked sewer pipe seeps sewage everywhere, and there will be no victory. The Bible says we must “flee sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18). What does this mean? It means we must seal the cracked sewer pipe, and remove every hint of sexual immorality in our lives (Ephesians 5:3). In transforming your mind, you’ll first be taking an active, conscious role in capturing rogue thoughts, but in the long run, the mind will wash itself and will begin to work naturally for you and your purity by capturing such thoughts even before they rise to consciousness. With the eyes bouncing away from sexual images and the mind policing itself, your defenses will grow incredibly strong.
Fred Stoeker, co-author of Every Man’s Battle (WaterBrook Press), regularly writes and speaks to men about sexual purity. He works with “restoration teams” that help restore pastors to ministry after adultery.