“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. (exodus 3:5-6)
Many times we suffer from impure or immoral thoughts and desires. Oftentimes these shock and horrify us, causing us to think that we are evil. But there are many misconceptions concerning this very personal trial, and oftentimes the lack of understanding results in grave consequences. I have been asked by a good friend to write on this subject, therefore I will attempt to explain the difference between temptation and sin in thought, as well as the proper way of enduring and avoiding evilness of thought.
The holier one becomes, the more likely he is to experience serious trials and temptations, even of this nature. Likewise, the higher a person's level of morality, the more earnestly he avoids immorality, the more intense the suffering he will experience in these temptations which put thoughts and images in his mind that he would least like to think about. For this reason it is very important, even for saintly people, to understand that this distasteful trial can be used for good.
Reoccurring sinful thoughts are, perhaps, the most difficult temptation to distinguish from sin. This is because the line that separates this temptation from sin is very, very thin. It is a temptation if we sincerely try to avoid it, and if we pray for purity of mind and heart, as well as earnestly apologize for these thoughts within us. It is sin if we do not attempt to avoid it, or if we foster and take pleasure in these feelings within us. God knows when our motives and intentions are pure, and He understands when it is not our fault that these thoughts occur within us. However, He also knows when it IS our fault, and when the measures we take to avoid these evil thoughts are far less than we are capable of... so what are we capable of, and how can we seek relief?
The best combatants of unintentional evil thoughts and desires are humility and prayer. To accept these trials humbly, offering our suffering to God for the sake of those who would, perhaps, suffer more and fall into sin as a result of the temptations we are experiencing. What does it mean to accept these trials humbly? When we realize that we are unable to deter them, when we recognize our own weakness and sinfulness, we are moved to a childlike need to trust in God's mercy and accept that He alone is perfect, and He alone can make us perfect. To show Jesus our love in the midst of these distasteful trials, we should pray earnestly for purity, and insist that we trust in His mercy. If we go to Him, actively desiring His will, seeking His pity, and bravely fighting all that besets us, He cannot help but love us and give us His grace. We should not be afraid to bring our troubles to Mary, Most Pure, either. She will hear us out with her motherly tenderness, and come to our aid. We should ask her to instill her purity within us and bring us safely to her Son.
In addition to enduring these temptations when they beset us, we can also take measures to fortify ourselves against them. Regular prayer, mortification, sacrifices, and careful attention to rules and restrictions strengthen our willpower and discipline us to do the right thing when tested. These do not have to be extreme observances, but perseverance and careful practice showing our loyalty makes us far more capable of following God's will and maintaining a right and moral conscience during tests. Mental discipline, and learning to carefully restrict and focus one's thought during prayer, is also very beneficial to inner peace. Likewise, focused meditation leads to silence of the heart which can relieve, even extinguish cumbersome thought.
Like active discipline and fortification, surrounding ourselves with wholesome and pure things and edifying literature moves us to a height which many exterior temptations cannot reach. Reading the lives of the saints and Holy Scripture, as well as reverently receiving the Sacraments, gives us grace and inspiration which causes us to think more readily of beautiful things and of God. Avoiding temptation and praying that Christ will live in our thoughts does not always remove this trial, however. Sometimes Jesus allows us to endure it for our own benefit, or for the benefit of others. When this is the case we should follow the example of the saints and offer it to God, praying earnestly whenever such cumbersome thoughts arise.