Overcoming Lustful Thoughts

Overcoming Lustful Thoughts

If you’ve been struggling with lustful thoughts, you probably already understand that they’re wrong. Maybe you’ve even tried to stop before, and not had much luck.

Behavioral patterns—especially mental ones, like lustful thoughts—are incredibly tricky to overcome. In order to stop having these unwanted thoughts, you need to understand what they are and where they come from.

In this article, we’ll discuss how lustful thoughts work, why Christians do our best to stay away from them, and why it can be so hard to overcome lustful thoughts. We’ll go over why your efforts to overcome lustful thoughts haven’t worked in the past, and what you can do to really start making progress towards your goal of having more clean and pure thoughts.

You can do this! In order to really get lust out of your life, you’ll need a little bit more than good intentions and prayer. You’ll need to understand how your mind works.


Why Do Christians Have Lustful Thoughts?

The Bible makes it pretty clear that lusting after someone—ie, looking at them in a sexual way, wanting to, or fantasizing about, being sexual with them—is wrong. Jesus taught, in Matthew 5:28, "But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

Not only are we supposed to stay far away from the sin of sexual immorality, we are supposed to stay away from anything that could even lead us there. Lust is one of those things. The Bible teaches that lust can drag us away from God. It isn’t what He wants for us.

1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 explains it well. "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust…"

Like most other Christians, you’re probably doing your best to live a life of self-control, holiness, and honor.

So you might be thinking, why can't I overcome these lustful thoughts?

Where do Lustful Thoughts Come From?

The short answer? Humans are sexual beings. And that’s okay! Our bodies and our sexuality are gifts from God. He has given us specific instructions on what to do and not do with these gifts. We are taught in the Bible that it is wrong to sexually lust after other people.

However, we also live in a hyper-sexual society, and sex sells. There are entire marketing campaigns intentionally designed to trigger a lustful reaction in you, so that you’ll seek out and buy whatever product they’re selling. You don’t have to look far to find skimpily-dressed men and women in the media, or even just on billboards on the street.

These can cause thoughts that don’t align with your values to pop into your head, specifically lustful ones. The fact that a lustful thought has come in doesn’t make you a bad person or a hypocritical Christian.

It makes you human.

It’s what you do with these thoughts that counts.

What Do I Do When Lustful Thoughts Come?

What do you do when you see something that triggers one of these thoughts that you’ve been trying to get rid of?

The answer may be surprising to those who have been struggling with overcoming lustful thoughts: don’t suppress the thought.

Suppressing a thought means instantly pushing it away, thinking something like, “I can’t think about that, that’s lustful and bad.” You’ve probably tried this approach already, and what happened?

The thought came back.

Why does that happen?

Ironic Process Theory

It has something to do with the brain’s natural reaction to a suppressed thought, something scientists refer to as the “Ironic Process Theory,” or the “white bear problem.” In 1987, a social psychologist named Daniel Wegner (PhD) did a famous study where he asked people to try not to think about polar bears, and then monitored a stream-of-conscious narration of their thoughts.

And guess what they thought about almost every minute?

Polar bears.

The American Psychological Association published a helpful article summarizing what he discovered about getting rid of unwanted thoughts. “He found evidence that when we try not to think of something, one part of our mind does avoid the forbidden thought, but another part "checks in" every so often to make sure the thought is not coming up—therefore, ironically, bringing it to mind.” (You can read read more about it here.)

Wegner found that purposefully suppressing unwanted thoughts made them more likely to reappear, and with a more powerful punch the second time. This theory can explain why, when you’re trying your best to overcome lustful thoughts, they seem to come up more and more and more.

So, if you aren’t supposed to immediately push these thoughts out, what are you supposed to do?

If Not Suppression, Then What?

Author E. M. Bass Barlow said,

“Our thoughts do not define us. All sorts of thoughts will come through your mind, like guests, or like visitors. What’s up to us is what kind of home we create for them to pass through, and what defines you is which ones you invite to stay.”

An approach that is especially popular among therapists and psychologists is called mindfulness. A mindful approach to overcoming lustful thoughts would be to notice them without freaking out, and let them go away with out acting on them.

Allowing lustful thoughts to show up and leave again without dwelling on them can be tough, especially if we’re used to immediately stressing out over—or even acting on—these thoughts when they come. But each time you notice a lustful thought and let it go without dwelling on it, or turning to masturbation or pornography, this little victory reminds your brain of what your values really are, and shows it that you can overcome lustful thoughts.

A mindful approach would be less like saying to yourself, “Oh my gosh, that’s a lustful thought! Get it out! Absolutely not! Okay, let me set a reminder on my phone not to have any more lustful thoughts.” It would be more like saying, “I see you, but I am not a lustful person, so you may go now.” And then moving forward with your day.

Mindfulness + Action = Success!

Combining this mindful approach with some actionable items is how you can best set yourself up for success to overcome lustful thoughts. Below are some action items for you to try.

  1. Remember that we live in a hyper-sexual society. Unless you live in a tiny cabin in the woods and never leave, you will see sexual and lustful imagery. It doesn’t make you a bad person.
  2. Don’t seek out the things that trigger lust within you. Whether that be pornography or something else, don’t go looking for it. (If you've been struggling with pornography, find some help and advice here.)
  3. Create an “escape route” for yourself. Instead of dwelling on a lustful thought, turn your mind onto something interesting, something you’re excited about, or something you’re currently working on. This will help you nudge your brain in a better direction.
  4. Focus on the kind of person you want to be. Giving in to lustful thoughts and inappropriate sexual desires is not consistent with the kind of life the Bible teaches us to live.
  5. Pray for strength! God is your strongest ally, and no one wants to see you succeed more than He does. Remember what He says in Isaiah 41:10: "Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”

If you’re doing all of these things and still find yourself struggling with lustful thoughts—or if it’s become something you obsess over and is disrupting the flow of your daily life—it might be time to consider getting help. Online support groups can help you stay accountable to your goals, and therapy is a vital resource in learning to understand your own mind and how you deal with distressing thoughts.

The team here at Relay has created a recovery app to help you live a life free from lustful thoughts and the negative habits that can accompany them. You’ll be placed in a group with other people who understand exactly what you’re going through; and you’ll work on your recovery together.

We wish you many blessings as you work to overcome lustful thoughts, and live a life that’s consistent with your faith. Breaking a negative thought pattern is challenging, but with God on your side, you can do anything!

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