Image by Josh Applegate on Unsplash
Read Part I: Are You Winning the Battle of the Mind? here
The last few days I’ve had an annoying song stuck in my head—it just keeps repeating. What makes it worse is that it’s not only a song I don’t like, it’s one that has the terrible combination of a catchy tune plus lyrics that promote a false world-view. And this gives me great encouragement!
Let me explain…
The Saint’s Battle
A common battle most saints talked about was the battle in their minds. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and countless others gave detailed accounts of their life-long struggle against “unbidden thoughts”—thoughts they didn’t want, but couldn’t keep at bay. St. Ambrose in his famous “Prayer Before Mass” even mentions these “unguarded thoughts.”
One saint spoke with Jesus about her struggle:
Saint: Lord, why do you allow me to be tormented by such blasphemous and foul thoughts during the sacred Mass?
Lord: Do you take pleasure in them?
Saint: Absolutely not! I find them disgusting!
Lord: Then, if you give no consent, they do you no harm. In fact, they do you great good by reminding you of your creaturely estate and your dependence on me—keeping you humble and leading you to pray. All of this is for your good.
I find it encouraging to remember that: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man,” and that “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
The Way of Escape
Let’s unpack this “way of escape.” The first thing we note is that the “escape” is not what we might have first hoped for—it doesn’t say it is a way to keep temptation from coming. Instead, God guarantees us a way “to endure it” (Revised Standard Version) or “to stand up under it” (New International Version). The “way out” is a way to “stand up under it.”
And, as Jesus noted, the key is not to “give consent.” Without consent, there can be no sin. Fr. Thomas Dubay in his book Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer put it this way: “Simply to feel impatient or angry or envious are not sins, because there is no free will in a mere feeling. We usually cannot control emotions, at least not completely, and hence there is little or no guilt in them. And if there is no guilt, there is nothing to confess, no sin.” The same is true of thoughts that we don’t give our consent to.
A common time to experience these unwanted thoughts and feelings is in prayer and at Mass. That is not a coincidence—the evil one, who “comes only to kill, to steal, and to destroy” (John 10:10), wants to kill your communion with God, especially during those most intimate moments. He wants to steal your joy in being with God, and he wants to destroy your peace in fellowship with Him. And, if the enemy can get you focused on yourself and your thoughts (or his distractions), he can succeed.
A key truth to remember during these temptations is that these thoughts or feelings are not truly “yours.” Satan can suggest thoughts to us to lead us away from God (Acts 5:3, 1 Chronicles 21:1). But thoughts that lead away from God are not from “us.” They are not from the new creation he has made of us, not from the “us” that is a member of his body, not from the “us” that is destined to spend all eternity enjoying His love.
Fight the Good Fight (1 Timothy 6:12)
Fortunately, the saints have given us clear, practical advice on how to win this battle. When tempted—when we find ourselves experiencing thoughts or emotions that are not “true, honorable, right, pure, lovely or praiseworthy” (Philippians 4:8)—we should pray:
- Thanking God for making us aware of the temptation and for using it to remind us to pray (1 Thessalonians 5:18, Romans 8:28, Luke 18:1)
- Pray: “In the name of Jesus, I do not give consent to this (thought or feeling) of name the actual temptation (John 14:13-14, Matthew 18:19, 21:22, Mark 11:24, John 15:7)
- “And I reject it as coming from the evil one, the father of lies with whom I want nothing to do” (John 8:44, Renewal of Baptismal Promises)
In following these three simple steps we turn what Satan intends for our bad (to distract and separate us from God), into something for our good: a concrete decision to reject evil, give thanks to God, acknowledge our absolute dependence on Him, and grow in the virtue of “praying without ceasing” (Genesis 50:50, Romans 8:28, CCC 412, John 5:5, 1 Thessalonians 5:16).
So, the next time you have an unwanted song, thought, or feeling “running through your head,” rather than getting discouraged or troubled by it, rejoice that you are experiencing a struggle common to all the saints. Give thanks that God has provided you with the means to win the battle and, in doing so, to become a saint yourself!
This article was originally published by the Center for Advanced Leadership and Catechetics Consulting. It is republished with permission.
Thank you for this article that arrived at the perfect time. I have been struggling with these terrible images of people in these very unsafe, horrible situations. These would occur before bed, just after doing prayer at night through my Magnificat. It was so troubling that the only way to make it stop was not to reicte that prayer at night. So for several months I stopped and so did those images and I slept much better. However, like you I am reminded this is a ploy of the evil one. So I started again and nightmares (that seem to be obviously from the evil one) have replaced the images. I have been meditating on this and realize if the evil one is so willing to put up this fight and go to all this trouble, there must be something very powerful in the prayer and very amazing about God!
Thank you so much for these as I struggle with this very thing especially at mass. I even got the assistance of the spiritual director which was not helpful. This truly broke it down for me and made sense. Thank you for taking the time.