Q: I have a question on prayer. It seems obvious that individuals may pray aloud or in private, forming their prayers mentally to be directed to God via their thoughts. If that assumption is valid, isn't it also reasonable that God hears our every thought? Those thoughts must surely include many that are negative and damnable. I've raised this question with my minister and a Catholic friend. That friend's quick response was, "Of course, that's why we need to ask forgiveness all day long." -- C., Monroe, LA, via snail mail)
A: Does God punish us for bad thoughts? I don't think so, but the issue is really whether something has to be an act to be a sin. Is thinking about adultery, for example, the same as actually committing adultery? My view is that both are sins but they're not the same sin. Sin is not a yes-or-no thing; like goodness, it has gradations.
Sinful thoughts are bad because you can't do a bad thing without first thinking about it. We read in James 1:14-15, "Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." Evil desires are not quite and not yet sins but they lead to sin. The Jewish term for our evil desires is yetzer hara . Because of their corrosive spiritual power, our bad thoughts ought to be our own personal spiritual tripwire. When we think them, we should try to get control of them.
Our culture is so hyper-sexualized with ads, movies, chat rooms and easily accessible pornography that sexual sins have fertile soil in which to grow. I've counseled people who became adulterers due to pornography and Internet sex chat rooms. What began as mere thoughts grew into full-fledged sin. So even though thoughts are not sins, they're in the neighborhood.
Borrowing the language of drug addiction, I would call pornography a "gateway sin." Pornography is also bad not only because it leads to sin but because it separates love and sex, which is a moral and spiritual issue in itself. Sex is not a mere bodily function but a physical and spiritual form of intimacy that strengthens love and marriage. Anything that weakens love and marriage, exploits and objectifies women, and makes sex a predatory game is bad even if it doesn't lead to any other sins.
We need to try to keep our thoughts pure, or at least semi-clean. The problem is, nobody has such self-control. Our minds often leap to crazy, wild, corrosive thoughts. What we can do is to reflect on these thoughts and try to understand where they come from and what they tell us about our impulses. Then we can try to steer clear of situations that stimulate such thoughts. I eat too much and I'm trying to control this habit. I try to avoid "food porn" shows on TV, which stimulate my desire to go eat the world.
It's important not to become overly guilt-ridden about bad thoughts. This could bring on depression or lead you to think, "Hey, I already thought the bad thing, so maybe I should just do it since I've sinned already." Remember, a sinful thought is different from a sinful action. An action is a direct sin requiring atonement and forgiveness.
I think God knows all this, and I don't think a healthy spiritual life can be built on a belief that God is Big Brother in the Sky, wagging a finger at us whenever our animal brains send us wild animal thoughts. God is more mature and more merciful than that. I think God is sending me this message when I write down a carrot cake recipe from a food show: "Hey, Gellman, why not just eat a raw carrot?"
NOTE: As I've often explained, I consult with experts on the theology of other faiths when I'm asked a question about them. My Mormon contacts are rather slim, so I appreciated this clarification from a faithful reader about Mormon beliefs about the afterlife:
COMMENT: "I read your column every week and have great respect for you and appreciate the way you handle the issues presented to you. I do want to clarify something on the issue of what Mormons believe about Christ as it relates to the afterlife. We believe that those who did not accept Christ in life will be given the chance in the afterlife. Many other Christians believe that if you die without accepting Him, that you've missed the opportunity. He is merciful and just." -- M., Kenosha, Wis., via email@example.com
REPLY: Thanks. I'll be looking for you at the pearly gates, and if it is indeed Jesus checking people in, I'll be happy to sign in, but I know there will be more than a few Jews banging their heads and saying, "And for this I gave up lobster?"