Ego-Dystonic Thoughts and Images
As a priest over the years a number of people have asked me for assurance of their salvation. Of course as Protestant this is not something that I have been able to offer, except to ask if they have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour? When this has been affirmed I have, expressed that they have fulfilled what the Bible determines to be the root by which we can are saved. However, for a significant number this assurance has not been enough to assuage their nagging fears.
Of course there may be many reasons for this, but one issue in particular, has been recurrently raised with me. One woman recently asked me for assurance of her salvation, yet at the same time as she said that she believed, ‘Jesus was Lord’, she felt compelled to say, ‘Jesus was not Lord’. Whenever she wanted to praise God she would also think of images or words that were opposing and blasphemous. As a result of these intrusions she feared that she had committed the unforgivable sin, and certainly was not a child of God.
Many other Christians have expressed similar concerns, some becoming plagued with sexual images of religious figures during worship, or making statements opposing to God or the Holy Spirit in prayer. The sad result of these compulsions is that the person feels far from God, sometimes unsaved and wracked with guilt. Their presence often results in the individual stopping prayer or worship for fear of the thoughts or images returning.
Paul writes in Romans 7:17-19, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do. I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.”
The psychological term for these sort of thoughts is ego-dystonic, effectively meaning; in opposition to the self. They have very specific meaning to Christians but are also dramatically complicated by our concept of sin. In the passage I have abbreviated from Romans above we see distress that is very similar to that expressed by people with ego-dystonic thoughts. Paul is reflecting upon the broken and sinful nature within us all, but also the disparity between his desire and his actions. However, people who suffer from ego-dystonic thoughts never follow their thoughts with actions, in fact the thoughts offer them nothing but distress and shame. Their will is to rid themselves of the thoughts as quickly as is possible.
For people who are suffering in this way, attempting to rid themselves of these thoughts is the worst possible course of action, indeed these thoughts have only become strong because of repeated attempts not to think them. Our brains calibrate very quickly to the presence of danger, if thinking a certain thought might put you eternal future in jeopardy, it is highly likely that you with think it by attempting not to. If you want assurance of your salvation, ask yourself, do you enjoy these thoughts? Do you want to have them and feel great about them? If not, you have absolutely nothing to fear.
You may go on having the thoughts or images, but God sees you as his child afflicted by suffering and not opposed to him. If you are praying or worshipping and these things come into vision, don’t stop what you are doing, mealy look through the images or past the words towards the cross of Christ. Don’t try and push them out of vision, just allow them to be there and allow Jesus to stand with you, he has seem it all before, it does not offend Him. Ironically, the less you begin to care about the thoughts or images, the more quickly they will go away. If you know that they do not pose a threat to your relationship with God, it is likely that they will begin to fade. Being isolated and ashamed of these things will also strengthen them, so find a trusted friend, ask them to read this article and then talk them through what you are struggling with.