In his powerful book, Live No Lies, John Mark Comer introduces us to the work of Evagrius of Pontus. Evagrius was a 4th century monk and author of a number of texts on spiritual formation, especially the formation of the mind. One such work is titled, Antirrhetikos, or Talking Back.
In Talking Back, Evagrius lays out over four hundred tempting thoughts and Biblical responses to them. For example, as one of the tempting thoughts that fall under the category of Gluttony, Evagrius writes, “Against the thought that embitters me in the life of harsh poverty: ‘The Lord shepherds me, and will lack nothing. (Psalm 22:1)'” In other words, when Evagrius is feeling bitter towards his life of poverty as a monk and starts envying the wealth of others, he reminds himself of the truth of scripture found in Psalm 22:1.
Here is another example regarding tempting thoughts towards Fornication. “Against the unclean thoughts that persist in us and frequently depict in us obscene images and that bind our intellect with passions of desire in our dishonorable members: ‘Depart from me, all your workers of iniquity, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping; the Lord has heard my petition; the Lord has accepted my prayer. (Psalm 6:9-10)'” Again, when plagued by temptations, Evagrius turned to scripture. Antirrhetikos is the product of Evagrius’ work in matching up the truth of scripture to the various temptations that plague humanity organized under eight main headings: Gluttony, Fornication, Love of Money, Sadness, Anger, Listlessness, Vainglory, and Pride.
As humans, we are incapable of not thinking.
What Evagrius understood is something that I stumbled onto in my pursuit of recovery from addiction. Basically, as humans we are incapable of not thinking. At our very best, we can focus in on a particular thought. If you doubt me on this, simply try to meditate on your breathing for three minutes without letting any other thought distract you. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Unless you have practiced meditating before, you probably found your mind screaming with different thoughts, all trying to rush to the surface. Some of these thoughts are negative and painful. We don’t want to deal with these thoughts, so we try to drown them out with distraction or numb ourselves with unhealthy coping skills (i.e. addictions and sinful behaviors). Yet all this does it make the problem worse. Now we have shame and guilt to deal with on top of our previous negative thoughts.
We cannot simple wish these thoughts away. Telling yourself to not think about sex does not empty your brain of thoughts about sex. Rather, it only increases your fixation. Again, let’s try a little exercise. Ready? Don’t think about pink elephants. Now be honest, what are you thinking about? In the same way, telling ourselves “Don’t think about pornography” or “Don’t think about alcohol” only serves to make sure we stay fixated on the very thoughts we are trying to avoid.
We must learn to replace lies with truth.
So what is the answer? We must learn to replace lies with truth. When I was coming out of addiction and pursuing recovery, I would find my mind plagued by A) temptation and B) shame. Rather than wallow in those thoughts, I had to learn to replace those thoughts with others. Though my list was not as extensive as Evagrius’, I took comfort in these verses:
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.James 4:7-8a English Standard Version
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.Philippians 4:8
Bottom line, when it comes to fighting evil thoughts and lies, you must focus your conscious mind on truth, particularly truth from scripture. Find a verse or two to memorize. Then, when you are in a spiritual battle for your thoughts, recite those verses again and again until that is all you are thinking about. Over time, the power of the negative thoughts will decrease.