“It just won’t go away! No matter how hard I try, these awful thoughts against God keep coming to my mind. It’s torturing me!” Almost every day, I receive comments, emails, and personal interactions asking the same question: how can I overcome blasphemous thoughts? The amount of terror that they shock into a believer is enough to bring us to a standstill. How can we ever hope to be able to overcome such awful blasphemies?
It may be some comfort to know that we are neither the first nor the last believers to attempt to overcome blasphemous thoughts.
In fact, history is filled with noble, God-fearing men and women who found their minds filled with intrusive, unwanted suggestions to deny Christ, curse God, or do something to reject the Holy Spirit.
Let’s take a brief look at how our spiritual forefathers found relief.
How John Bunyan Learned to Overcome Blasphemous Thoughts
John Bunyan was a Puritan preacher in old England. Unfortunately, in the 1600’s, there were all kinds of rules about who was allowed to preach, and Bunyan wasn’t exactly on the list. Since he couldn’t preach in a parish church, he used to hold gatherings on farms and in open fields.
Well, until big government decided to arrest him for preaching without permission.
It was while in prison that Bunyan wrote the book Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the best-selling Christian books of all time.
Bunyan did suffer from what modern-day folks would call Religious OCD, and struggled fiercely against doubt, fear, and intrusive religious thoughts urging him to deny Christ. Struggling against these thoughts would take up hours and hours of time each day.
In his own words:
While I was in this torment, I often found in my mind a sudden urge to curse and swear, or to speak some grievous thing against God, Christ His Son, or of the Scriptures. Now I thought, surely I am possessed of the devil. At other times, I thought I would lose my mind; for instead of praising and magnifying the Lord with others, if I but heard Him spoken of, presently some most horrible blasphemous thought or other would bolt out of my heart against Him…These things did sink me into very deep despair, for I concluded that such things could not possibly be found among those who loved God.John Bunyan
Bunyan’s great torment lasted several years. His record of the experience is one of the oldest and most expressive historical record of clinical obsessive-compulsive disorder. But eventually, he overcame this great struggle of the mind and faith. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that it would be better to ignore these thoughts rather than fight with them.
The secret that unlocked a wave of progress with his struggle involved objectifying his blasphemous thoughts. Rather than a ferocious battle to avoid these thoughts (which, in and of itself, bound his attention to them), Bunyan was able to objectify the thoughts and see them as separate from himself. He writes,
I thought they would destroy me…I dared scarce cast mine eye [upon them]….[but now] I began to take some measure of encouragement, to come close to them, to read them and consider them, and to weigh their scope and tendency…I found their visage changed; for they looked not so grimly on me as before.”John Bunyan
Today, we would say he performed exposure therapy on himself. Ultimately, facing and objectifying these thoughts allowed Bunyan’s anxiety to decrease enough that he could ignore and overcome the blasphemous thoughts.
Ignatius of Loyola’s “Rules for Discernment”
Ignatius of Loyola was a “brand plucked from the fire” in old Spain. One biographer described the pre-believing Loyola as “a fancy dresser…a womanizer…and a rough punkish swordsman.” But God had a plan for this young man, and after a close encounter with a cannonball that left him with a limp for the rest of his life, he turned to religion.
Loyola is remembered as the founder of the Jesuit order in the 1500’s and for his writings on spiritual disciplines.
Like Bunyan, Loyola also suffered from what would today be called Religious OCD. He feared to step incorrectly, lest he place his foot by accident upon two pieces of straw overlaid in the shape of a cross. He suffered many doubts and intrusive thoughts, and fell into despair at the tortures of his thought life.
Eventually, Loyola was able to classify his intrusive thoughts as “temptations” rather than something he could claim as his own. This revelation led him to write extensively about the “discerning of spirits.”
Loyola offers “14 Rules of Discernment” that offer piercingly insightful advice on how to overcome blasphemous thoughts. The setup is in rules 1 and 2:
First Rule: In the persons who go from mortal sin to mortal sin, the enemy is commonly used to propose to them apparent pleasures, making them imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to hold them more and make them grow in their vices and sins. In these persons the good spirit uses the opposite method, pricking them and biting their consciences through the process of reason.
Second Rule: In the persons who are going on intensely cleansing their sins and rising from good to better in the service of God our Lord, it is the method contrary to that in the first Rule, for then it is the way of the evil spirit to bite, sadden and put obstacles, disquieting with false reasons, that one may not go on; and it is proper to the good to give courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations and quiet, easing, and putting away all obstacles, that one may go on in well doing.Ignatius of Loyola
Doesn’t the second rule sound exactly like the experience of scrupulosity? To the worldly-minded, the devil’s temptations are of pleasure and vice. For the heavenly-minded, temptations are of an altogether different nature.
His point is that this phenomenon is not from your own mind. These discouragements and blasphemous thoughts are pare of an insidious tactic being used against you.
But he goes on. The third and fourth rules discuss “consolation” and “desolation,” as spiritual seasons that we cycle between in our walk with God. The big idea that helps people with religious OCD? Whilst in spiritual desolations, don’t make any changes. Keep on doing what you’ve been doing. Ignore the urge to do more (compulsive spirituality) or do less (compulsive avoidance). If you want to make changes in your spiritual life, save it for a time when you’re thinking rationally and non-emotionally.
Lessons from Charles Spurgeon on How to Overcome Blasphemous Thoughts
Charles Spurgeon, a Baptist preacher of the 1800’s who is still famous today, is remembered for drawing massive crowds. If you’ve never heard of Spurgeon before, just imagine him as the Billy Graham of his day.
Spurgeon knew something about the disturbing blasphemous thoughts that torture believers. Listen to what he writes:
I have heard someone say, “I am tormented with horrible thoughts. Wherever I go, blasphemies steal in upon me. Frequently at my work a dreadful suggestion forces itself upon me, and even on my bed I am startled from my sleep by whispers of the evil one. I cannot get away from this horrible temptation.”
Friend, I know what you mean, for I have myself by hunted by this wolf. A man might as well hope to fight a swarm of flies with a sword as to master his own thoughts when they are set on by the devil.
I do not wonder you feel that you are without strength to stop these hideous and abominable thoughts which Satan pours into your soul; but yet I would remind you of the Scripture, “When we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.”Charles Spurgeon
There is more to these short quotes, and I recommend reading the entire sermon. What he expresses is groundbreaking. His emphasis on Romans 5:6 lays a foundation for truly learning to overcome blasphemous thoughts.
His logic is like this:
- We get stuck battling our blasphemous thoughts because we can’t believe Satan’s suggestion that we are so horrible.
- Satan expects us to fight back by trying to prove we are not blasphemers.
- We surprise Satan and win the fight with an unexpected strategy: admitting we ARE horrible sinners, capable of blasphemy and much worse — but praise God, “when we were yet without strength, Christ died for the ungodly!”
The strength in Spurgeon’s argument is that nothing can rebut the truth that when we were without strength, Christ died for the ungodly. Before you could get yourself fixed up enough to find God’s approval…before you got your mind cleared from all those blasphemous thoughts…Christ stepped in.
Teachings of John Climacus on How to Overcome Blasphemous Thoughts
One of our oldest records of how to overcome blasphemous thoughts comes from the 7th century, from a monk named John Climacus.
Very little is known or agreed upon about Climacus’ life, but it is believed that he worked in law or administration of some type until his 40’s. After the death of his wife, he entered the monastery in the Sinai peninsula of Egypt (today called Saint Catherine’s Monastery).
Climacus is best remembered for his book, Ladder of Divine Ascent, which describes an idea that was very much in vogue in the 7th century: that by asceticism and bodily denial, you could raise your soul to union with the divine.
Unfortunately, some of the young monks who went to the desert to deny their passions and find holiness through self-denial encountered great temptations along the way. One of these great temptations seemed to be blasphemous thoughts.
Climacus wrote to those who trembled at such trials:
If you have blasphemous thoughts, do not think that you are to blame. God knows what is in our hearts and He knows that ideas of this kind come not from us but from our enemies…
This unholy demon not only blasphemes God and everything that is divine. It stirs up the dirtiest and most obscene thoughts within us, thereby trying to force us to give up praying or to fall into despair. It stops the prayer of many and turns many away from the holy Mysteries. It has evilly and tyrannously wearied the bodies of some with grief. It has exhausted others with fasting and has given them no rest. It has struck at people living in the world, and also at those leading the monastic life, whispering that there is no salvation in store for them, murmuring that they are more to be pitied than any unbeliever or pagan…
Anyone disturbed by the spirit of blasphemy and wishing to be rid of it should bear in mind that thoughts of this type do not originate in his own soul but are caused by that unclean devil who once said to the Lord, “I will give you all this if only You fall down and adore me” (Matt. 4:9). So let us make light of him and pay no regard whatever to his promptings. Let us say, ‘Get behind me, Satan! I will worship the Lord my God and I will serve only Him’ (Matt. 4:10). May your word and your effort rebound on you, and your blasphemies come down on your own head now and in the world to come.” To fight against the demon of blasphemy in any way other than this is to be like a man trying to hold lightning in his hands. For how can you take a grip on, seize, or grapple with someone who flits into the heart quicker than the wind, talks more rapidly than a flash, and then immediately vanishes? Every other kind of foe stops, struggles a while, lingers and gives one time to struggle with him. But not this one. He hardly appears and is gone again immediately. He barely speaks and then vanishes.
This particular demon likes to take up residence in the minds of simpler and more innocent souls, and these are more upset and disturbed by it than others. To such people we could quite rightly say that what is happening to them is due not to their own undue self-esteem but to the jealousy of the demons…
Hold this foe in contempt and you will be liberated from its torments. Try cleverly to fight it and you will end up by surrendering, for the man who tries to conquer spirits by talk is like someone hoping to lock up the winds.John Climacus
Climacus made two simple points: first of all, recognize that these thoughts are not from you. Second of all, don’t fight against it — rather, hold it in contempt and redirect your mind towards Christ.
These are truths that have been like a healing balm to tortured, obsessive souls for the last 14 centuries.
Learning to overcome blasphemous thoughts is no easy matter. It’s not easy, but at least we know what we have to do. The answer has been pretty consistent for centuries:
- Recognize your blasphemous thoughts as “not yours”
- If tempted to avoid them, learn to face them head-on; if tempted to argue with them, learn to casually dismiss-and-redirect
- When in times of spiritual desolation, keep right on going with what you’ve always done, despite the negative feelings
- Cling to Christ as your very personal Savior, a Savior of weak sinners who are “without strength” to earn acceptance
These truths will be as a guiding light to us in our darkest moments. Write these four steps on a card and keep it in your wallet or desk drawer. When vile curses pop into our heads or urges to push God away with profanity, pull out this little card and remind yourself of what you need to do.
Again, it’s not easy. But it’s not cryptic or vague. We know what we need to do. It’s just a matter of digging new neural pathways into our brains, and that takes time.
Don’t be discouraged. Keep putting one foot in front of another. Keep applying these time-tested techniques as often as you can. If you fail one day, it’s ok. Get back up tomorrow and keep applying them. Rome wasn’t toppled in a day, and neither can we overcome blasphemous thoughts by haphazardly applying good practices once or twice.
I like how Grantley Morris (who has been writing about scrupulosity for over two decades) phrases it: “For effective medical treatment one must take identical pills day after day. Likewise, you need to absorb these truths by reading them over and over.”
Come to passages like Romans 5:6 and read them over and over again: For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
No, I don’t want you to start a Scripture-reading compulsion where you begin using Bible verses like magical mantras to make your anxiety go away. That’s not what I would like to say. But there are certain Biblical ideas that deeply affect the way we interact with our doubts and fears. These need to be absorbed into the soul by consistently focusing on them.
Take heart, dear friend! You’re in the company of many others from ages past who struggled with the same thoughts. And guess what?
All these guys made it through. And so will you.
Best wishes on the journey,