Can We Control Our Thoughts?

This is the second article in my series on sinful thoughts. You can read Part 1 here.

I wrote this series of articles because of a question raised by one of my youth group kids: “Is all jealousy sinful, because can’t we not control that?”. Based on this question, I presented a talk which I’ve adapted for this blog. I wanted to challenge the basic misconception that we can’t control our thoughts.

In my last article I set the groundwork for this issue, arguing that our thoughts can indeed be sinful. Through the Bible, God commands obedience in our head, hands, and heart. Now we’ll tackle whether this obedience is actually possible. My answer is both yes and no.

Answer: No.

One of the commands we looked at in the previous article was this: “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).

Can you keep this commandment perfectly for your whole life? How about for a day? I certainly can’t keep it for even an hour. Perfect love for God means that all our thoughts must obey and honour him. Paul urges the church in Corinth to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). The demand is all-encompassing.

I’m sure you’ve also experienced this struggle to control your own thoughts, even when you know they’re wrong. It’s easier to modify our outward behaviour than tame the wellspring of evil within our hearts and minds. Like the Pharisees we are whitewashed tombs, “which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).

Therefore, we cannot control our thoughts enough to be saved on judgment day. Our certainty of eternal life comes only from Jesus. He lived in perfect obedience to God, doing what we could not. He died in our place, and clothes us in his own righteousness. He has taken on the penalty of our sin so that we bear it no longer.

Answer: Yes.

We cannot control our thoughts enough to have any hope of being saved by our own merit. But Jesus doesn’t only save us from the penalty of our sin—he also releases us from its power. We don’t need to resign ourselves to wallowing in the putrid swamp of our minds.

God has done what he promised us in Ezekiel 36:26: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”

By his Spirit dwelling within us, all who trust in Jesus are made new. Our thoughts, emotions, and desires have been completely corrupted by sin; but he is progressively restoring us. Over time, all followers of Jesus will be transformed to look more like him. This is God’s grand plan for his redeemed people (Romans 8:29). This sweeping transformation affects our mind and emotions as much as our actions.

We’ll get more practical in my next article, but for now it’s important to remember that we need to wage war against our sinful thoughts, and it’s possible to do this by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul writes imperatives in his epistles which show that we are expected to be actively growing in godliness. For instance:

“For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:13)

“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” (Colossians 3:5)

Notice that he tells us to put to death both sinful actions and sinful thoughts, like lust and greed.

So it comes down to this: no, we can’t completely control our thoughts, and so we must throw ourselves on the mercy of Jesus; but yes, we can and should grow to be more like Jesus by his power.

In the final article of this series, we’ll zoom in on one particular manifestation of sin: jealousy. I’ll show you why and how you need to kill it.

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