Guest Writer Sabine Baring-Gould
“Why think you evil in your heart?” (Matthew 9:4).
Thoughts are only thoughts! Who is to beheld accountable for them? They are clouds blown about by fancy, taking various shapes. God is not so hard as to judge us for our thoughts; He will try us by what we have done, not by what we have dreamed. No garden is without weeds; there are tares in every cornfield. Who speaks thus? Is it those who are conscientious and scrupulous to drive away evil thoughts? Or those who allow their head and heart to be a hive in which they dwell?
I allow that evil thoughts must enter the mind, and I add that they do no harm so long as they are not admitted into the heart. I allow that it is impossible to keep the mind so closed against evil that no bad thoughts find admission. There is no sin in the bad thoughts coming, but the sin begins when they are allowed to settle, and to fly-blow the heart.
I am not going to speak today anything that will distress those good souls who struggle with, and drive away, evil thoughts when they torment them; God has seen fit to try them with these, as He suffered the Israelites to lie tried by the remnants of the heathen nations which remained in the land (Numbers 33:55)—but I am going to speak to those who indulge in evil thoughts of all kinds, and make no effort to banish them. I tell them that this is a dangerous thing. If they rely on being safe so long as they keep their bodies from evil, and allow their mind and heart to revel in evil thoughts, they are guilty of sin; they may not be staining their bodies, but they are corrupting their souls.
I lived for some weeks on the side of the Rhine where a bridge connected the German side of the river with the town on the other side, which is in Switzerland. When the market-women came over the bridge, the Custom-House officers made them open their baskets, and they looked in to see whether they brought over anything taxable. I would have you examine all the thoughts that come drifting through your head, and if they are bad, and not allowable, turn them back.
“Why think you evil in your heart?” Our Lord tells us that sin commences in the heart, and is as truly in the thought as in the act. “You have heard that it was said by them of old time, You shall not kill. But I say to you, That whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment … You have heard that it was said by them of old time, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, That whoever looks on a woman to lust after her, has committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:21, 22, 27, 28).
John Chrysostom truly said, “Men’s souls are not so greatly injured by the temptations that assail them from outside, as from those evil thoughts that poison them within.”
There may be evil thoughts of many kinds, envious thoughts, discontented thoughts, profane thoughts, unkind thoughts, angry thoughts, avaricious thoughts, impure thoughts. All these thoughts come buzzing about the head and heart, and will settle to do harm, unless driven away. They are only little thoughts. Each is small, but altogether they are a great host. They are like flies.
Pharaoh, king of Egypt, was plagued with flies. They came on his servants, and the houses of the Egyptians were full of swarms of flies, “and the land was corrupted by reason of the swarm of flies” (Exodus 8:28-32). The heads of a great many people are like the houses of the Egyptians—full of swarms of evil thoughts thick as flies, and all as small, and in themselves as insignificant. The flies tormented the Egyptians when they sat in their chambers, flying round them, buzzing in their ears, lighting on their hands and faces; when they went to their meals the flies were there, all over the meat and the bread, and falling into their cups, and defiling everything. When they went to bed, the flies were in their bedrooms, and all night long were racing over their faces, and driving away sleep.
Now, look at your evil thoughts, you who are plagued with a swarm of them. When you kneel down to say your prayers, they are there distracting your attention. When you are at table or with friends, they are there disturbing your thoughts, perhaps corrupting your conversation. When you are alone, they are there filling your mind with images and sounds. When you are in bed, they are there, keeping you awake. Your thoughts—these evil thoughts, so numerous, in such swarms, never forsake you. In church they are present, disturbing you. When you walk, they surround you, when you work, they interrupt you. And, like the flies in Egypt, “the land is corrupted by reason of the swarm.” Your heart is corrupted by the bad thoughts always hovering over it, and settling down on it.
Am I drawing a fanciful picture? Not at all. I know it is so with many, I do not say all, but with many. They disregard evil thoughts because they are such trifling things—like flies, so easily brushed away; like flies, so light and volatile; like flies, so little. And yet they utterly degrade and corrupt the heart. “The land was corrupted by reason of the swarm of flies.”
When Abraham prepared a sacrifice to the Lord, there came down on it swarms of birds of carrion. And when they did so, we are told that Abraham “drove them away” (Genesis 15:11). The chief baker of Pharaoh had meats in a basket on his head, and the birds came down on them, and carried them off. “The birds did eat them out of the basket on my head” (40:17). To Abraham was given a promise of a great blessing and glorious future. To the baker was given a warning that he should be hanged within three days. One drove the birds away, and the other did not.
Now this applies to evil thoughts. If you will be like Abraham and be blessed, you will drive the evil thoughts away as fast as they come on. If you let them come, and make no effort to repel them, they will carry away from you all the graces with which you have been endowed at baptism, and they will corrupt your heart as well.
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Beachy Head Light, East Sussex, England
*Adapted from Sabine Baring-Gould [1834-1924], The Village Pulpit, Volume II. Trinity to Advent / A Complete Course of 66 Short Sermons, or Full Sermon Outlines for Each Sunday, and Some Chief Holy Days of the Christian Year (London: Skeffington & Son, 1886), sermon 56. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.