But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:28
For most of us, our parents taught us right from wrong by rewarding the good things we said and did and punishing the not so good. Society does the same by creating laws governing our actions and punishing those who break the law. The focus is on our actions and, occasionally, on the things we say because our words and actions have a direct impact on those around us. Jesus, however, reminds us that thoughts matter, too.
In his 1902 book As A Man Thinketh1, James Allen writes, “A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.” Thought (sometimes, very little thought) precedes our words and actions. In fact, our thoughts shape our words and actions. Every act of creation – paintings, songs, poems and other literary works, structures, relationships – begins in thought. Poorly thought out projects inevitably have poor results. In our criminal justice system, a premeditated murder – one consciously planned before the act – is treated more seriously than the accidental killing of another or a murder committed in the heat of the moment.
Jesus’ example of a man lusting after a woman in his heart is an amazingly insightful reference and the main point, in my opinion, goes well beyond lustful thoughts. When a man looks upon a woman with lust, when he not only notices the woman as an attractive being, but also allows his thoughts to explore how he might derive pleasure from that physical body, he has effectively denigrated the woman into an object. There is no recognition of or appreciation for the unique expression of God that occupies that body, for the life she lives or for the ways she impacts others by being who God created her to be. In Jesus’ words, he “has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Focusing for too long and hard on the objectification of another can result in creating ways for one’s thoughts to manifest physically, often with unfortunate and lasting results.
Controlling our thoughts is hard. Our minds were created to wander from thought to thought and, without being consciously aware of it, we can entertain some pretty nasty imagery in our heads about a variety of things we would be appalled to see actually happen. The society around us may not be able to detect our thoughts in the same way it assesses our words and actions, but our inner musings are known to us and to God. Psalm 139:1,2b says, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me…You discern my thoughts from far away.” While I believe God understands our all-too-human tendency to allow our thoughts to run where they will, and to dwell where they perhaps should not, I also believe it is an expected discipline for us to gain a measure of control over our thoughts, every bit as much as we do our words and actions. Our thoughts should be our tools, not our master. We cannot stop unhealthy thoughts from popping into our heads, but we can certainly find ways to diminish our dwelling on them. Contemplative types of prayer can help.
Because our thoughts are such powerful creative forces, we should always be conscious of them. For example, when we are overly critical of our own shortcomings, we almost certainly increase our likelihood to underachieve in many areas. If we berate ourselves for not being good at one thing, we may extrapolate that we are not good at anything. Positive thinking may have its limits, but negative thinking is almost boundless in its destructive power. While we need to guard against unhealthy self-talk, we also need to guard against negative thoughts about others. If another person does something that annoys us, it is easy to write off the entire person as annoying. When that happens, our own thoughts may blind us to what should bless us in others.
Our thinking mind is a gift that allows us to co-create with God in awesome and infinite ways. From the way we treat others to the ways we decorate our homes to the legacy we leave for our children, our thoughts birth what manifests in our lives – both beautiful and less than beautiful. In all things, our thoughts matter.
This is the 20th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”
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1 James Allen, As A Man Thinketh. Sourced from www.gutenberg.org/files/4507/4507-h/4507-h.htm on May 14, 2018.