Cheating thoughts vs. cheating actions

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?

Kind regards,


Dear Julia,

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. 

Indeed, entertaining wrong feelings or bad thoughts may well damage our relationship with an individual, like our spouse in your example.  It also reveals a crack in our relationship with God, but it doesn’t harm society in the same way that bad behavior or a wrong action does.   However, doing the wrong thing damages our relationship with individuals, with society and with God.  We must recognize that doing something wrong is far more egregious than thinking something wrong, as bad as that may be.   Desiring someone else, contemplating adultery or even fantasizing about it are certainly harmful but not nearly the same betrayal of our spouse that committing adultery is.

Sinning in action is certainly a greater problem than sinning in our hearts however  we are expected to direct our thoughts correctly.  Telling ourselves not to think about something specific doesn’t help. We’re sure you’ve heard that the best way to get someone to think of a pink elephant is to tell them, “Whatever you do, don’t think of a pink elephant!”

What we can do, however,  is redirect our thoughts. When we catch a forbidden thought or negative emotion entering our consciousness we need to take action. Thoughts don’t control thoughts, only actions do.  For those on a high level, studying the Bible may be enough to divert negative thinking. For the rest of us, something that requires our concentration like doing a puzzle or singing a song out loud or making a phone call may work better. Physically changing our posture by going for a walk or exercising can be helpful as well. Even if it’s nighttime, getting out of bed and washing a few dishes may be the ticket.

Beating ourselves up for having the wrong thought in the first place is not a good idea. If anything, like the pink elephant example, it will simply make us focus on exactly what we are trying to eradicate. Obviously, if our thoughts center on one person, we must do what we can to minimize contact with that person and avoid interaction. But the best way to get a thought out of our head is to engage in activity that replaces that thought with another one. In the case you mention, another idea is to do loving things for our spouse. As often happens, our feelings will follow our actions, leading us to feel more affectionate and focused towards them.

Happy thoughts,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

14 thoughts on “Cheating thoughts vs. cheating actions”

  1. Excellent advice. Actions always outweigh feelings as the Rabbi often teaches. Success in relationships, finances, personal health, and so many things require us to set aside our thoughts and feelings (I don’t feel like exercising) and just do it as Nike says! Drivers that cut me off may elicit feelings of anger and thoughts of wanting to flip them off, but what I do matters so much more. I’m sorry I didn’t see you, have a nice day! Lol. I hope to align my thoughts and my feelings and my actions, but actions matter most.

  2. Vickie Sanderson

    Thank you, Rabbi, for this week’s wisdom. I would like to add a story from my own experience on this subject. I had a long habit (even prior to marriage) of romantically fantasizing about movie or television characters. After marriage I would often question (God was prompting) if this fantasizing was appropriate in marriage. I would justify the habit as “this is a fantasy about a fictional character. There is no way I could meet this character and actually cheat, so it is not cheating”. However, the occasional prompts would continue. When I actually stopped the habit of 30 years, I found that the dissatisfaction I saw when engaging with my husband disappeared. Why? Because in our fantasies the outcome is ideal for us. My ego was stroked to perfection. Every whim and desire was met. Every challenge was conquered with little effort. Human nature was not existent. I was loving my self. There was no room for God or my husband in this fantasy.

    1. What insight you gathered, Vickie. It is very difficult to stop a habit of so many years and may you and your husband reap blessings for your deciding to do so.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      I admire your searing self-awareness, Vickie,
      Well said! You captured so effectively, the perils of fantasy. Secular culture tries to assure us that it is harmless “fun”. Nothing could be further fromt he truth as you sensitively describe.

  3. I love both Rabbi Lapin and Susan and I read their work regularly but this advice makes me sad that they don’t value the teachings of the New Testament. Matthew5:
    21 “You have heard that it was said to those [a]of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother [b]without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’[c] shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, [d]‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of [e]hell fire.
    Adultery in the Heart
    Matthew 5:
    27 “You have heard that it was said [a]to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
    James 1:
    14 But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. 15 Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.
    Matthew 15:
    18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. 19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.

    1. Shane, we trust that when people ask our advice they know they are asking for ancient Jewish wisdom. We are very clear that our Bible goes from Genesis through Chronicles. That is where our faith is and that is the only area we claim any knowledge. Our Christian readers certainly should ask their pastors or priests if they want a Christian religious or theological answer. When they write us, they are asking us.

  4. Thank you. Was quite on point for a discussion I seem to have with G-d after I go to bed 2-3 times a week. I’ll try getting up and washing the dishes or something concrete.

    1. This only works for those of us who are not meticulous about going to bed with no dirty dishes in the sink, Leslie :).

  5. “Feelings follow actions” is one of the most valuable pieces of wisdom I have gotten from Ancient Jewish Wisdom.

  6. This advice of the rabbi’s is excellent, and I would like to add another reflection which helps some people.

    A long time ago, when I was enquiring about exactly this issue, I was told about what a certain desert father said to younr hermit who had asked how he can prevent sinful thoughts. The father asked him to go outside and catch the wind, to which the younger man replied that it would be impossible. ‘And in the same way, it is impossible to stop all the thoughts that can come to you…your choice is to say “yes” or “no” the father said. It’s a matter of just politely but firmly refusing to entertain it in your mind.

    And that profound and simple advice has helped me a lot over the years. Rather than make a burden of an unwanted thought, it is possible just to refuse it without feeling it’s a particularly big deal . Sometimes thinking or saying ‘no thanks’ can sound almost funny and disempower any tendency to give the thought any further consideration. If you focus on the thought and how awful it is, you run the risk of it keeping you company for longer. Just let it go.

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