Yes, Our Thoughts Matter

I have attempted to write this post several times – each time getting close to posting it, but then finally deciding to send it to the trash. What concerns me is that some people will think I am attacking one specific group of people. I am writing to attack a specific belief, and if that belief is common or commonly espoused by a group of people, I cannot separate the two. I mean no ill will to any group of people, but I have to address what I believe is a serious misapplication of Scripture.

The belief I want to challenge is this: it really doesn’t matter what you think about, or the feelings you hold privately, the only thing that matters is how you might act on those feelings. That is Scripturally false. The truth is that our feelings, our beliefs, and our private thoughts really do matter.

Where I am hearing this the most frequently is in regard to homosexual thoughts and behavior, and mostly from those who wish to promote that a person can be a homosexual, just so long as they do not act out on their homosexual thoughts and feelings. The line I hear repeatedly is this, “a person can have homosexual thoughts, can be ‘inclined’ homosexually, but as long as he/she is celibate, that person is not sinning is his or her thoughts.”

Just to put my cards on the table, consider passages such as Matthew 5:27-30; 12:33-37; and 15:10-20. Those who argue that our thoughts, our feelings, are inconsequential so long as we do not act out on them are not arguing against me, they are arguing against Jesus.

Would we make the same kind of argument in favor of one who is a closet racist, who hates people of a different race in the depth of his heart, but who never verbalizes that hatred?

Would we make the same kind of argument in favor of one who has visions of sexually abusing children (a pedophile)? Would we welcome such a one with no misgivings so long as they promised never to satisfy their dreams?

Would we make the same kind of excuse for the wife who has wild and explicit visions of having sex with a co-worker who is also married with a family to support? Would we just smile and nod and tell her that as long as she kept her adultery “in her head” that there was nothing wrong with her fantasies?

You see, I just cannot justify the logic that is so common in our churches today – that a man can have sexual fantasies about other men or a woman can fantasize about other women and it is perfectly acceptable, just so long as it stays in their heads and never moves below the belt. No, it is not. If Jesus said it was a sin to fantasize about another man’s wife even if there was no physical sex, then it cannot be acceptable, normal, or permissible for a man to fantasize about having sex with another man, or a woman with a woman.

I write this fully aware of my own demons. For anyone to stand and say they are guiltless in the matter is to invite the harshest condemnation – either for willful ignorance or blatant falsehood. I have known no one who did not, at some point, wrestle with impure thoughts, whether they are sexual in nature, or racist, or related to anger and hatred. I do not want anyone to think I am coming from a position of pure innocence.

The fact is that we have swallowed the dualism of Plato so fully that we have  created a false reality. We believe that our heart and our bodies are so separated that whatever one does has no impact on the other. We can think or believe anything we wish, and so long as we do not physically act on that thought, all is well. Or, conversely, we can behave with the most sinful of actions, but as long as “we really didn’t mean it” and “that is not the way I really am” all is equally okay.

No, and No.

We are not dualistic creatures, half mind and half body. We are not minds imprisoned in bodies, and we are not physical bodies with a “mind” that floats somewhere separate and apart. We are unities, we are complete selves, we are whole creations. Our hearts do affect our bodies, and as Paul makes so clear in regard to men using prostitutes, what we do with our bodies does affect our hearts.

Let us be done with this heresy that just because we do not act on sinful thoughts, fantasies, and dreams that we are somehow worthy of God’s kingdom. If it is sinful for a heterosexual to have dreams or fantasies about bedding his neighbor’s wife (or daughter), then it cannot be acceptable for a man to have fantasies about having sex with a man, or a woman with a woman.

Let us rid ourselves of this Platonic dualism. We are whole creatures, created in the image of our God and savior. Let us learn to act – and think – like the truly awesome creatures that we are!

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

5 thoughts on “Yes, Our Thoughts Matter”

  1. Paul, I appreciate this post and your courage in writing it. I do want to offer a little push back on this. I am sure some have put the matter just like you described in your post, but in my conversations on this topic, the distinction has not been thought/fantasy and act, but rather orientation/desire (temptation) and sin. There are plenty of times I have felt attraction toward someone else other than my wife. You could even say that I was oriented toward that person (or others like her). But there is a difference between that initial gut-level attraction and what I do in response to it. Sexual fantasy is that next step and certainly I know the difference between the pull of the attraction and the sin that can follow (though doesn’t have to).

    In dealing with the issue of homosexuality, this is important. There are many, many people struggling with the grips of same-sex attraction that they did not choose nor ask for it. I believe such a person can live as faithfully before Christ as me or any other person. I take personal responsibility to not demean them in my language or express even a hint of judgment for their particular struggle. So, for me, I do make a distinction between sexual orientation and lifestyle, but the lifestyle aspect of this would include the thought life you describe above. There’s just a great need for a lot of nuance when it comes to this difficult topic, IMO. Blessings!

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    1. Hey David, thanks for the comment – even the gentle “push-back.” However, I want to “push-back” a little on the “push-back.” I agree wholeheartedly with the observation that a heterosexual can see someone of the opposite sex and note their attractiveness, etc. However, there is nothing inherently wrong or disordered with heterosexuality – it is the way God created us. I have never accepted, and am growing increasingly militant, with the mantra that “God created me as a homosexual” – it simply is not justifiable in light of the Scriptural denunciations of homosexual activity. It seems to me (and I am certainly no psychologist nor psychiatrist), that when we tell someone with homosexual inclinations that their desires are normal (i.e., God given) yet cannot be acted upon, that we are placing them in an untenable situation. My motivation in addressing this situation is that the amorphous institution we call “the church” makes no allowance for the fantasizing of other behaviors we label as “sin,” yet when it comes to homosexuality we carve out a niche that allows a person to maintain the sinful thoughts while ostensibly remaining “celibate.” In other words, one does not become a homosexual simply by noting that a person of one’s birth gender is attractive. One can only be a “homosexual” if the attractiveness crosses a line into sexual fantasy, or outright sexual behavior.

      I will admit that I am just not capable of a very fine nuance here. Maybe I see things too starkly. In my opinion, once we allow that a person could be homosexual by nature and not by choice, we have also legitimated the practice of homosexual activity. I do not equate noticing that a person’s attractiveness with overt or even covert sexuality. When a male is attracted to a female there is nothing intrinsically sinful in the attraction (although if it is sexual, and either of them is married, the sexual intent is sinful). When a male is *sexually* aroused by another male, that attraction is sinful by definition, not because of the attraction, but because of the unnatural sexual desire.

      Once again – it is just my opinion – but I think the church can be of greater help to those who feel conflicted in this respect if we were more consistent in our teaching and quit trying to carve out such “nuanced” exceptions. I freely admit that I could be mistaken here, but I just do not see how allowing for a God-given inclination to homosexuality while denying the full expression of that inclination is any kind of helpful.

      Thanks again – I miss our hours-long conversations. Kind of lonely out here in the sticks.

      Paul

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  2. Paul, I also miss the long conversations and I think maybe we could hash this out better in person. After reading your comment, I do think our difference here is more than semantics (something I was not sure of until this last comment). There are a couple of things on my end I can clarify, but I will leave the last word to you on your blog. I do not think that homosexual orientation is normal in any case. However, I also do not think that many homosexuals choose that orientation. Why would someone do so? And I have heard far too many stories of people completely confused as to why they have those desires, desires as every bit as strong as we experience for the opposite sex, to doubt the sincerity/integrity of those who tell me and others that they have not chosen those feelings. All of us are called to live holy and pure lives. I do not lessen the standard (more importantly nor does Jesus) of what that means for those with same-sex attraction. But though that attraction is certainly abnormal, I do not believe that makes them a sinner any more than me. And I believe there MUST be a way for them to live faithful lives while living with that attraction. I’ll leave it at that. Keep up the good work!

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    1. Hey again David – no worries about the comments. Gives me something to do when I should be working on my sermon! 🙂

      I guess I have to plead ignorance here, but I don’t see much of a third rail between a God given trait and one that is freely chosen. But, lest I be chided for a hard heart, I believe that what many proclaim as “homosexual” inclinations are nothing more than a deep seated loneliness and desire for same-sex companionship. However, given the hot-button issue of homosexuality and the militancy of a very few, a person (and I am thinking mainly of young people who are still struggling with moving from adolescence into adulthood) are basically convinced they are homosexuals, even though they are deeply conflicted about what that means. Hence, I see many (although perhaps not all) who *struggle* with homosexual feelings are not struggling with sexual feelings as much as they are other emotional issues. In our society, however, sex is so tied to emotional closeness that the two are far too frequently connected (hetero or homo sexual!) It is more a product of our post-modern culture and our “cult of victim-hood” that has more people so-called “coming out” than before. Note: how many little children (elementary age) are now supposedly confessing their homosexuality or trans-gender desires, when it is obvious to me at least that children that age do not even understand the tiniest little thing about sexuality at all.

      Here is where I see the church as being a greater help by saying, “No, these overt sexual fantasies you are expressing are actually sinful, and if your desire is to live fully pleasing to God we need to examine why you are expressing these feelings and how they are a rejection of the very nature of God.” In other words, I think a large number of those who claim to be homosexuals are simply being lied to, and they are accepting that lie because it gives them credibility and a place in this culture that is perversely honored and acclaimed. By showing them that their feelings are real, but NOT what our culture says they are, we can be of greater benefit than tacitly agreeing with the fundamental lie – that two men or two women can share a sexual relationship and be blessed by God.

      For a biblical example – David and Jonathan shared a love that was exceptional – even surpassing that of heterosexual love according to David – yet that friendship was not sexual (contrary to what our liberal friends have to argue). I’m sure you have male friends whose bond is just as close to you as Katie, but in a non-sexual way. I know I had a friend one time whose friendship to me was very profound – we could talk about virtually anything – but there was not the slightest hint of sexual attractiveness. What is missing in today’s oversexed conversations is the reality that males can – and frequently do – have incredibly tight relationships with other males, and I know that females have equivalent deep and emotional bonds with other females – but whereas in generations past those friendships would have been identified and praised as “Platonic,” now they are labeled as homosexual or lesbian and the uneducated partners come to see their relationship as homosexual – yet as you mentioned, with deep conflicting feelings.

      It should come as no great surprise to you that I am channeling Dietrich Bonhoeffer here when he pointed out that playing along with any sin is actually far less loving, and more spiritually destructive, than actively confronting it. By naming the sin we allow the person to repent, to make confession and to seek forgiveness. The role of a pastor, for him, was not necessarily to condemn, but to faithfully identify that which kept a person from his or her relationship with God. It is the proper use of the prophetic role, which then allows the pastor to fulfill the priestly role and to serve as the confessor’s intermediary to God through prayer and restoration. Hmmm. I’m beginning to sound way too Lutheran here. But I think that knowing me you can see where I am coming from.

      Love to hear from you again – every Luther needs his Melancthon, or something like that.

      Peace!

      Paul

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  3. You’re on a roll Paul. Another thoughtful and timely articles. It challenges some of our ideas. Paul spoke of taking thoughts captive. David in Ps. 139 states that God examines us in vs. 1 and then asks God to examine him again in the last two verses. That is not something that is appealing because we really don’t want to know what is in our minds and heart, yet it is necessary. I appreciate your willingness to write this and your attitude behind it. Thanks again.

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