ON BAD THOUGHTS – St. Alphonsus

” And Jesus seeing their thoughts, said: Why do you think evil in your hearts.” MATT. ix. 4. 

IN the gospel of this day it is related that a paralytic was presented to Jesus Christ that he might heal him. The Lord healed not only his body, but also his soul, and said to him: ”Be of good heart, son; thy sins are forgiven thee” (verse 2). Some of the Scribes, as soon as they heard these words, said in their hearts: He blasphemeth. But our Saviour soon let them know that he saw their evil thoughts, saying: “Why do you think evil in your hearts. ” Let us come to the subject of this discourse.

God sees the most secret evil thoughts of our hearts; he sees and punishes them. Human judges forbid and chastise only external crimes; for men only see what appears externally. ”Men seeth those things that appear; but the Lord beholdeth the heart.” (1 Kings xvi. 7.) God prohibits and punishes bad thoughts. We shall examine, in the  first point, when bad thoughts are sinful; in the second, the great danger of bad thoughts when indulged; and in the third, the remedies against bad thoughts.

First Point. – When bad thoughts are sinful.

1. In two ways men err regarding bad thoughts. Some who have the fear of God, are scrupulous, and are afraid that every bad thought that presents itself to the mind is a sin. This is an error. It is not the bad thought, but the consent to it, that is sinful. All the malice of mortal sin consists in a bad will, in giving to a sin a perfect consent, with full advertence to the malice of the sin.

Hence St. Augustine teaches, that where there is no consent there can be no sin. ”Nullo modo sit peccatum, si non sit voluntarium.” (De Vera Rel, cap. xiv.) Though the temptation, the rebellion of the senses, or the evil motion of the inferior parts, should be very violent, there is no sin, as long as there is no consent. ”Non nocet sensus,” says St. Bernard, ”ubi non est consensus.” (De Inter. Domo., cap. xix.)

2. Even the saints have been tormented by temptations. The devil labours harder to make the saints fall, than to make the wicked sin: he regards the saints as more valuable prey. The Prophet Habacuc says, that the saints are the dainty food of the enemy. ”Through them his portion is made fat, and his meat dainty.” (Hab. i. 16.) And therefore, the prophet adds, that the evil one stretches out his net for all, to deprive them of the life of grace: and that he spares no one. “For this cause, therefore, he spreadeth out his net, and will not spare continually to slay the nations. ”(Ibid., v. 17.)

Even St. Paul, after he had been made a vessel of election, groaned under temptations against chastity. ”There was,” said he, “given me a sting of the flesh, an angel of Satan to afflict me.” (2 Cor. xii. 7.) He three times prayed to the Lord, to deliver him from these temptations; but in answer the Lord told him, that his grace was sufficient for him. ”For which thing thrice I besought the Lord, that it might depart from me. And he said: My grace is sufficient for thee.” (ver. 8, 9.) God permits even his servants to be tempted, as well to try their fidelity, as to purify them from their imperfections.

And, for the consolation of timid and scrupulous souls, I will here state that, according to the common opinion of theologians, when a soul that fears God and hates sin is in doubt whether she gave consent to a bad thought, she is not bound, as long as she is not certain of having given consent, to confess it: for it is then morally certain that she has not consented to it. Had she really fallen into grevious sin she would have no doubt about it; for mortal sin is so horrible a monster, that it is impossible for him who fears God to admit it into the soul without his knowledge.

3. Others, who are not scrupulous, but are ignorant, and have lax consciences, think that evil thoughts, though wilfully indulged, are not mortal sins, unless the act is consummated. This is an error worse than the former. What we cannot lawfully do, we cannot lawfully desire. Hence it is, that a bad thought to which a person consents, has the same malice as the bad act. As sinful works separate us from God, so also do sinful thoughts. ”Perverse thoughts separate us from God.” (Wis. i. 3.) And as all bad actions are known to God, so also he sees all evil thoughts, and will condemn and punish them. ”The Lord is a God of all knowledge, and to him are thoughts prepared.” (1 Kings ii. 3.)

4. However, all bad thoughts are not equally sinful: nor have all those that are sinful equal malice. In a bad thought we may consider three things: the suggestion, the delectation, and the consent. The suggestion is the first bad thought that is presented to the mind: this is no sin, but, when rejected is an occasion of merit. ”As often,” says St. Antonine, ”as you resist, you are crowned.”

The delectation takes place when the person stops, as it were, to look at the bad thought, which by its pleasing appearance, causes delight. Unless the will consents to it, this delectation is not a mortal sin; but it is a venial sin, and, if not resisted, the soul is in danger of consenting to it: but, when this danger is not proximate, the sin is only venial. But it is necessary to remark, that, when the thought which excites the delight is against chastity, we are, according to the common opinion of theologians, bound under pain of mortal sin to give a positive resistance to the delectation caused by the thought; because, if not resisted, the delight easily obtains the consent of the will. ”Unless a person repel delectations,” says St. Anselm, ”the delight passes to consent, and kills the soul.” (S. Ans. Simil., c. xl.)

Hence, though a person should not consent to the sin, if he delight in the obscene object, and do not endeavour to resist the delectation, he is guilty of a mortal sin, by exposing himself to the proximate danger of consent. ”How long shall hurtful thoughts abide in thee.” (Jer. iv. 14.) Why, says the Prophet, do you allow hurtful thoughts to remain in the mind? Why do you not make an effort to banish them from the heart? God wishes us to watch over the heart with great care; because on the heart that is, the will our life depends. ”With all watchfulness keep thy heart, because life issueth out from it.” (Prov. iv. 23.) Finally, the consent, which is the cause of mortal sin, takes place when the person clearly knows that the object is mortally sinful, and embraces it perfectly with the will.

5. A person may sin grievously by thought in two ways; by desire, and by complacency. A person sins by desire when he wishes to do the bad act which he desires, or would wish to do it if he had the opportunity: the desire is a mortal or a venial sin, according as the act which he desires to do is mortally or venially sinful. However, in practice, the commission of the external act always increases the malice of the will, either because it ordinarily increases the complacency which the will indulges, or causes it to continue for a longer time. Hence, if the act followed, it is necessary to mention it in confession. A person sins by complacency, when he does not desire to commit the sinful act, but delights in it as if he had committed it.

This complacency is called morose delectation. It is called morose, not because the complacency in the thought of the unchaste acts lasts for a considerable time, but because the will dwells with delight on the thought. Hence, the sin of complacency may, as St. Thomas teaches, be committed in a moment. ”Dicitur morosa,” says the holy doctor, ”non ex mora temporis, sed ex eo quod ratio deliberans circa earn immoratur revolvens libenter quoo statim respui debuerent.” (1, 2, qu. 74, a 1 ad. 3.) He says”libenter”(wilfully) to remove scruples from persons of timorous conscience, who suffer against their will certain carnal motions and delights, although they do all in their power to banish them. Though the inferior part should feel a certain delight, as long as the will does not consent, there is no sin, at least no mortal sin. I repeat with St. Augustine, that what is not voluntary is by no means sinful. ”Malum nullo modo sit peccatum, si non sit voluntarium.” (De Vera Rel., c. xiv.) In temptations against chastity, the spiritual masters advise us, not so much to contend with the bad thought, as to turn the mind to some spiritual, or, at least, indifferent object. It is useful to combat other bad thoughts face to face, but not thoughts of impurity.

Second Point – The great danger of bad thoughts

6. It is necessary to guard with all possible caution against all bad thoughts, which are an abomination to God. ”Evil thoughts are an abomination to the Lord. ” (Prov. xv. 26.) They are called “an abomination to the Lord,” because, as the holy Council of Trent says, bad thoughts, particularly thoughts against the ninth and tenth commandments, sometimes inflict on the soul a deeper wound, and are more dangerous than external acts. ”Nonnunquam animam gravius sauciant, et periculosiora sunt iis quæ in manifesto admittuntur.” (Sess. 14, de Pæna, cap. v.)

They are more dangerous on many accounts; first, because sins of thought are more easily committed than sins of action. The occasions of sinful acts are frequently wanting; but sins of thought are committed without the occasion. When a soul has turned her back on God, the heart is continually intent on evil, which causes delight, and thus multiplies sins without number. ”All the thought of their heart was bent upon evil at all times.” (Gen. vi. 5.)

7. Secondly, at the hour of death sinful actions cannot be committed; but we may then be guilty of sins of thought; and he who has had a habit of consenting to bad thoughts during life, will be in danger of indulging them at death; for then the temptations of the devil are most violent, Knowing that he has but little time to gain the soul he makes great efforts to bring her into sin. ”The devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, knowing that he hath but a short time. ” (Apoc. xii. 12.)

Being in danger of death, St. Eleazar, as Surius relates, was so severely tempted with bad thoughts, that, after his recovery, he said: ”Oh! how great is the power of the devils at the hour of death!” The saint conquered the temptations, because he was accustomed to reject bad thoughts. But miserable the man that has contracted the habit of committing them. Father Segneri relates that a certain sinner indulged evil thoughts during life.

At death he made a sincere confession of all his sins, and was truly sorry for them; but, after death, he appeared to a person and said he was damned. He stated, that his confession was valid, and that God had pardoned all his sins: that, before death, the devil represented to him, that should he recover from his illness, it would be an act of ingratitude to forsake a certain woman who had a great affection for him. He banished the first temptation: a second came, which he also rejected; but having continued to think on it for a little, he was tempted a third time, yielded to the temptation, and thus he was lost.

Third Point – On the remedies against had thoughts

8. The Prophet Isaias says, that to be freed from bad thoughts, we must take away the evil of our thoughts. ”Take away the evil of our devices.” (Isa. i. 16.) What does he mean by taking away the evil of our devices? He means that we should take away the occasions of evil thoughts, avoid dangerous occasions, and keep at a distance from bad company.

I knew a young man who was an angel; but, in consequence of a word which he heard from a bad companion he had an evil thought, and consented to it. He was of opinion that this was the only grievous sin which he committed in his whole life; for he afterwards became a religious, and, after some years, died a holy death. Thus, it is also necessary to abstain from reading books that are obscene, or other wise bad. You must, moreover, avoid dances with females and profane comedies: at least when the dances or comedies are immodest.

9. Some young men will ask: Father, is it sinful to make love? I say: I cannot assert that of itself it is a mortal sin; but persons who do so are often in the proximate occasion of mortal sin; and experience shows that few of them are found free from grievous faults. It is useless for them to say that they neither had a bad motive nor bad thoughts.

This is an illusion of the devil; in the beginning he does not suggest bad thoughts; but when, by frequent conversations together, and by frequently speaking of love, the affection of these lovers has become strong, the devil will make them blind to the danger and sinfulness of their conduct, and they shall find that, without knowing how, they have lost their souls and God by many sins of impurity and scandal.

Oh! how many young persons of both sexes does the devil gain in this way! And of all those sins of scandal God will demand an account of fathers and mothers, who are bound, but neglect, to prevent these dangerous conversations. Hence, they are the cause of all these evils, and shall be severely chastised by God for them.

10. Above all, in order to avoid bad thoughts, men must abstain from looking at women, and females must be careful not to look at men. I repeat the words of Job which I have frequently quoted: ”I made a covenant with my eyes, that I should not so much as think upon a virgin.” (Job xxxi. 1.) He says that he made a covenant with his eyes that he would not think. What have the eyes to do with thinking? The eyes do not think; the mind alone thinks.

But he had just reason to say that he made a covenant with his eyes that he would not think on women; for St. Bernard says, that through the eyes the darts of impure love, which kills the soul, enter into the mind. ”Per oculos intrat in mentem sagitta impuri amoris.” Hence the Holy Ghost says: “Turn away thy face from a woman dressed up.” (Eccl. ix. 8.) It is always dangerous to look at young persons elegantly dressed; and to look at them purposely, and without a just cause, is, at least, a venial sin.

11. When thoughts against chastity, which often occur without any immediate occasion, present themselves, it is, as I have said, necessary to banish them at once, without beginning to argue with the temptation. The instant you perceive the thought reject it, without giving ear to it, or examining what it says or represents to you. It is related in the book of the sentences of the fathers, (4), that St. Pachomius one day saw a devil boasting that he often made a certain monk fall into sin; because, when tempted, the monk, instead of turning to God, listened to his suggestions, and began to reason with the temptations.

But the saint heard another devil complaining, that he could gain nothing from the monk whom he tempted; because the monk immediately had recourse to God for help, and thus he was always victorious. This is the advice of St. Jerome: As soon as lust shall suggest evil, let us exclaim: The Lord is my helper. ”Statim ut libido titillaverit sensum, erumpamus in vocem: Domine auxiliator meus.” (Epist. 22, ad Eustoch.)

12. Should the temptation continue it will be very useful to make it known to your confessor. St Philip Neri used to say, that”a temptation disclosed is half conquered.” In assaults of impurity, some saints have had recourse to very severe mortifications. St. Benedict rolled his naked body among thorns. St. Peter of Alcantara threw himself into a frozen pool. But I consider the best means of overcoming these temptations to be, to have recourse to God, who will certainly give us the victory. ”Praising, I will call on the Lord,” said David, ”and I shall be saved from my enemies.” (Ps. xvii. 4.)

And when, after asking aid from God, the temptation continues, we must not cease to pray, but must multiply prayers: we must sigh and groan before the most holy sacrament in the chapel, or before a crucifix in our own room, or before some image of most holy Mary, who is the mother of purity. It is true, all our efforts are useless unless God sustains us by his own hand; but he sometimes requires these efforts on our part, that he may supply our deficiency, and secure to us the victory. In such combats with hell, it is useful in the beginning to renew our purpose never to offend God, and to forfeit life rather than lose his grace; and then, we must make repeated petitions to him, saying: Lord give me strength to resist this temptation: do not permit me to be separated from thee: deprive me of life rather than allow me to lose thee.

Traditional Catholic with a wife, 10 kids, 5 cats and 2 dogs. To learn why this lay person is running this blog rather than a priest, go here.