This document reflects commonly held beliefs based on scripture which have been endorsed by the church's Commission on Doctrinal Purity and the Executive Presbytery.
Why do Christians place such importance on one's personal thought life? Can fantasy and imagination in themselves constitute sin? When are such thoughts temptation and when do they become sin?
The Bible emphasizes the profound importance of one's personal thought life. The way a person thinks determines character and actions (cf. Proverbs 23:7, KJV). Faith and belief are ways of thinking. Though faith originates with God, we choose to direct our thoughts toward God or toward the world.
Living in a Fallen World
A noted poet once observed, "the world is too much with us." In other words, the attractions and distractions of everyday life make pure and moral thinking a challenging goal. Paul had to remind Christians, "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." (Philippians 4:8).
Paul’s admonition to safeguard our thoughts does not mean we can control all that immediately enters our mind. We live in a fallen hedonistic world. Sin is all around us. It confronts us first in our thought life. Therefore we must always be conscious of our thoughts and where they are leading us.
Temptation and Sin
Temptation comes to mankind through the thought realm. This happens as thoughts from our sinful culture flash into the mind. Though temptations are not sin, they can lead to sin if not discerned as such and rejected. It is the destructive thoughts a person allows to germinate that first constitute sin. The Bible says, "But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; and sin, when it is finished bringeth forth death" (James 1:14,15, KJV).
Fantasies are thoughts in technicolor which one allows to take foothold in the mind. They can be harmless or lustful, so they must always be judged. Sexual feelings and romantic attractions are normal, healthy gifts of God. But they become lust when God-given desire is debased to thoughts of biblically forbidden sexual conduct. Such pornographic imaginings and dwelling on thoughts that violate biblical moral standards eventually stagnate spiritual growth in the life of a Christian. Sexual fantasies are often accompanied with an obsessive cycle of physical self-defilement (masturbation), and a nagging sense of guilt which in turn brings feelings of spiritual defeat. When allowed to take root, evil sexual thoughts have the destructive potential of producing such wanton actions as emotional and physical abuse of others, and sometimes even such despicable acts as rape, incest, and child molestation
Satan entices through thoughts planted lavishly by the culture and worldly activity all around us. That is why Scripture so solemnly admonishes, "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you" (James 4:7). Christ warned His followers, "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak" (Mark 14:38).
Some ask why God should care about thoughts and actions that affect no one else. The truth is that there are few thoughts or actions that do not affect others, either immediately or in some future circumstance. God is more interested in what we do with the thoughts that pop into our minds than in the thoughts themselves. We have not sinned when we are tempted by an impure thought that flashes into mind, but we are responsible, and do sin, if we harbor and linger on the evil thought. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can quickly discern each thought that tempts us, dispel it, and consciously change our thoughts towards what is pure. With His help even our thought life can be holy.
To maintain a pure thought life we must first safeguard those areas of life that we can control. Some Christians today allow corrupting influences into their homes and surroundings through unhealthy magazines, books, music, radio, television, cable programming, movies, videos, computer software, and the Internet. Unhealthy input will corrupt anyone’s mind. Christians must allow the Holy Spirit to guide them in making necessary changes in these areas (Gal. 6:7,8).
In eliminating such worldly enticements one should replace them with things that are pure and reflect God’s moral standards and truths. A good way to start is by cleaning your life of all things known to be sinful and becoming accountable to a mature believer for your behavior. Remember too that fasting with prayer is specially used by God to transform our minds and spirit. Set aside a specific portion of time for a devotional life of Bible study and prayer. Many Christian growth resources are available today through Christian bookstores and catalogs. In every step we take, sowing "righteousness in," will reap "righteousness out."
Guarding the gates of our minds against invasion by evil or sin-prone thoughts is a continual responsibility for the believer. But God has given us His Holy Spirit as a guide and guard for our thoughts, and with His help we can think on things that are edifying and noble and turn from those thoughts that draw us away from having the mind of Christ within us (Rom. 8:6, 12:2).
The above statement is based upon our common understanding of scriptural teaching.
All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise specified.