Can Our Thoughts Be Sinful?

Over the next few months, I’ll be posting a series of articles exploring sinful thoughts, particularly focusing on jealousy. I want to start by addressing whether thoughts can even be sinful. In later articles we’ll consider whether we have the ability to control our thoughts, then applying this to jealousy—why is it sinful, and what can we do about it?

A caveat before we dive into this topic: I’m not a mental health professional. Some mental health issues cause intrusive thoughts beyond your control, which are beyond the scope of these articles. They are a painful reminder that we live in a fallen world. Please see a medical professional, or qualified counsellor or pastor, if you need support related to this.

What is sin?

To begin, we need to take a step back to an even more fundamental question. We need to know what sin is if we are to judge whether our thoughts can be sinful.

Sin is the failure to conform to the moral law of God, in action or attitude. John writes: “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). It’s not only harmful and destructive to our relationship with God and other people—it’s also inherently bad, so we should not tolerate it in our lives.

This is why we so desperately need Jesus. God doesn’t just decide not to punish us because we didn’t really mean to have that sinful thought. All sin is deeply offensive to our holy God, and deserves his wrath. But Jesus has taken that punishment for us. Our response should be to throw off sin and live in holiness.

It’s easier to notice and condemn sinful behaviour in others than humbly examining our own thoughts. We can’t see what other people are thinking, so we can tuck our sin safely out of sight. But God sees it all!

God’s commands

God doesn’t just care about what we do. The commands he gives us in the Bible include both actions and attitudes. The problem is that it’s simply easier to do all the right things than think all the right things.

Consider the Ten Commandments. We know the famous ones: don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t murder. But look at the very first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Worshipping something over than God is not merely an action. It involves esteeming something higher than God, trusting in something else. These are matters of the heart.

In this series we’ll be looking particularly at the sin of jealousy, which is also one of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17)

We’re not allowed to steal somebody’s property, but we also mustn’t want to steal it. The eighth commandment has its roots in the tenth.

Positively, God commands us to have certain thoughts and feelings. In Galatians 5, Paul lists the attributes of someone who has the Holy Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22–23).

You can’t have joy without ever thinking joyful thoughts. You can’t have patience when your mind is consumed by anger. God truly is Lord over all—he commands our minds as well as our hands.

Jesus’ teaching on thoughts

Jesus teaches about this too. He condemns those who willfully misinterpret the Old Testament, sticking to the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit. So he cites the Ten Commandments and shows what they really mean: hatred as well as murder is liable to judgement; adultery of course is sinful, but so is thinking lustfully (Matthew 5:21ff).

Lastly, what is the greatest commandment that Jesus gives us? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30). Any thoughts which don’t align with that commandment are sinful.

You might be thinking right now that it’s impossible not to have sinful thoughts. If we think about things which break God’s law (like coveting) or fail to exhibit love, gentleness, and joy in our minds, we have offended God. That’s scary. It seems impossible to not do this every hour of our lives.

In light of this, we’ll return in my next article to consider whether God really expects us to control our thoughts.

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