Dear Rabbi and Susan,
Is cheating in thoughts as bad as bad as cheating in reality? And how does one drive away those sinful thoughts?
A piece of useful parenting information is to avoid phrases such as, “You’re such a good girl.” Obviously, it is a terrible mistake to tell a child that she is a bad girl even if she has just used your favorite lipstick to draw a mural on the wall. She did something naughty, but it does not touch the essence of who she is. But what is wrong with the reverse?
Let’s imagine that you just watched a toddler snatch a toy from your five-year-old son. Your son gets another toy, distracts the baby with it and reclaims his prized possession. Why wouldn’t you admiringly tell him that he’s a good boy? (No, Julia, this is not mistakenly a Practical Parenting column. It is all relevant to your question.)
Your son did a good thing, maybe even a great thing. He withheld anger and did some effective problem-solving. However, inside he may have felt angry with a strong urge to punch the toddler. Telling your son that he is good contradicts his feelings and confuses him. Complimenting his action (and maybe even rewarding him) is a better idea. Our ultimate goal for him down the road is for him not to even feel angry, but acting correctly is a vital first step.
Back to adults. God does instruct us to control our thoughts. Here are two examples: Leviticus 19:17 tells us not to hate our brother in our hearts and the Tenth Statement (Commandment) tells us not to covet in both Exodus 20:17 and Deuteronomy 5:21. Clearly God expects us to control our thoughts and feelings. My (RDL) mother, one time, reacted with a long, forceful and unforgettable lesson when as a child, I retorted to one of her admonitions with, “Well, I can’t help how I feel!” I have never uttered that phrase since.