See how to battle evil thoughts when they arise, even though all we really want is God.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. – Psalm 23:4
The desert fathers, those who went into the desert to concentrate solely on God and his Presence, who dedicated every waking moment of their lives to the contemplation of God, are known for their pithy parables, sayings, aphorisms, and pointed wisdoms. They are always supremely simple, yet they can move us to profound, life-changing insights. The following is an example of this:
“One of the elders said: It is not because evil thoughts come to us that we are condemned, but only because we make use of the evil thoughts. It can happen that from these thoughts we suffer shipwreck, but it can also happen that because of them we may be crowned.”
Even these holy men could be overwhelmed by evil thoughts. Why? Because they were attempting to think only of God. They wanted to live entirely in the freedom of God. But there is a being who despises God and wishes to turn our hearts away from Him. It is he who wants us to submit to those thoughts and wreck our souls.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes, in the midst of your prayer, you are so distracted by completely inappropriate thoughts; thoughts that not only take your attention away from God, but try to take you literally in the other direction. We have all had this experience. Fear not! God knows what is going on. His grace abounds. We must practice the habit of recognizing these thoughts for what they are. More importantly, we must not “make use of” them, for they will cause the ship of our souls to flounder, to wreck upon the false shores of sinful actions. If we develop the habit of utilizing, rather, our free wills to turn from these thoughts when they arise, “we may be crowned.”
Evil thoughts rise up in all of us. We are fallen after all. When they occur they are very powerful, even falsely attractive. They occur most often when we are swimming deep in the whirlpools of emotion. They occur to us when we are angry, or when we are pinched by greed and jealousy, or tormented by lust. But, thank God, we are more than our nerve endings. We are not mere animals.
As human beings, we possess not only the gift of feelings, but we also are in possession of God’s great gifts of reason and free will. We do not have to be slaves to our feelings like animals are. With our consciences we have the capacity to grow in the knowledge of the good, and the source of all that is good. With the development of virtuous habits, especially humility and courage, and with our free will, we can choose to rule our emotions, rather than be ruled by them. We can develop the habit of recognizing the first hints of an evil thought and courageously turn away from the weak and pathetic thing it is, and turn our attention once again toward God, the only source of true happiness.
When we give in to our evil thoughts, and we do at times, the ship of our soul is threatened with shipwreck. When we recognize their foolishness, and turn our thoughts, once again, to God, our souls “may be crowned.”
Evil thoughts will bedevil us all of our lives, especially as we draw closer and closer to God, because there is one who wishes to take us away from God, who wishes to enslave us rather than free us. But be not afraid! God is always at our side. If our minds go astray, a quick glance back at God will bring a rush of grace into our hearts, minds and souls and we will know again that the hand of God is always ready to support, comfort and welcome us. God’s love is real. God’s love is unconditional. God’s love is eternal. He is the Safe Harbor that our souls seek.