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.
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.
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin