|OCTOR, THAT PATIENT STINKS!” THE
nurse complained to a busy Los Angeles radiation oncologist. She had been preparing the patient for treatment. “His hygiene is terrible,” she said. “I’ve been trying to clean him up, but there’s still a scabby plaque on his scalp that won’t come off.”
“OK,” the doctor replied. “I’ll give it a try.”
The patient had come in with festering sores, and much of his scalp was covered with a crust of dried pus, blood, and hair. The doctor worked on the area for a while, then gave up. “I’m putting you on antibiotics for a week,” he told the man. “Then we’ll figure out what we need to do.”
At the next visit, the doctor scrubbed the area using swabs and solutions. Eventually one corner began to loosen, revealing pus. But something didn’t seem right. The pus was moving!
“Aagh!” the doctor yelled, recoiling. The pus was full of maggots.
The doctor later commented that the patient took the news rather calmly. His wife was similarly unflappable, responding, “Oh, yeah. He likes to nap in our outdoor hammock. I told him I’d seen flies crawling on his head.”
This disturbing true story carries an interesting spiritual parallel. The patient didn’t seem to care about the maggots because he was accustomed to living in filth. The maggots were there because the flies were there; the flies were there because the filth drew them and they were undisturbed; the filth was there because the man didn’t wash.
And why didn’t the man wash? Who knows? But daily hygiene would have made a world of difference.
Long ago God gave the prophet Jeremiah an invitation for Israel to return to a daily relationship with Him, as a repentant adulterous woman might return to her forgiving husband. “Return, faithless people,” He pled. “I will cure you of backsliding” (Jer. 3:22). Jeremiah grieved with the heart of God because Israel had fallen in love with the easy lure and filth of idols, rather than staying true to a loving, pure God.
Members of God’s chosen community had also become cavalier about the dishonesty in their lives. “If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city,” God told Jeremiah in discussing Jerusalem (5:1). Apparently no one with integrity could be found in the city. Everything had become corrupted—full of maggots, so to speak.
“And my people love it this way,” God exclaimed to Jeremiah in disbelief (verse 31).
They had become so accustomed to the filth in their minds that they didn’t care.
In turning from God, Jeremiah announced, the people of Israel had rendered themselves vulnerable to the military aggression of their enemies. Attacks would surely come, and they would be vicious. Disaster would follow disaster; the whole land would be left in ruins (4:20). Jeremiah’s prophecy could not have been clearer or more specific about the looming invasion.
But there was still time to clean up, to repent. “O Jerusalem,” Jeremiah begged, “wash the evil from your heart and be saved. How long will you harbor wicked thoughts?” (verse 14). Repenting and turning their thoughts toward the things of God would have given Israel health and immunity against the attacks of those intent on destroying them. It was not a difficult formula to follow.
As we now know, Jeremiah’s message was snubbed by most of the people, as was Jeremiah’s God. The “eggs” of the Israelites’ self-serving and filthy thoughts and actions had hatched into the “maggots” of misery as the Babylonians overran the country and took captives.
What’s so powerful and dangerous about our thoughts, if our lives have been given to God? Once we are His, doesn’t He guard our thoughts? Any realistic Christian knows it’s not that easy.
We’re in the midst of a battle, and we have a part in the fight. A look back at Jeremiah’s plea shows that the Israelites were the ones who had the responsibility to do something about their own evil thoughts. God couldn’t do anything about their thoughts without violating their freedom.
Thoughts Have Power
It’s fascinating—and instructive—to review the Bible’s teachings about the power of our thoughts. Jeremiah’s message fits perfectly with words from David, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul on the power of our thoughts in our relationship with God.
Israel’s King David knew from personal experience the power of letting his thoughts follow their natural path unchecked. The “eggs” laid by unclean thoughts hatched sooner rather than later for him. It was a bitter lesson. “The Lord knows our thoughts, that they are but an empty breath,” David mourned (Ps. 94:11, NRSV).* The only way to turn one’s thoughts away from
evil, he discovered, was to consciously turn them over to the searching gaze of God. “Search me, O God, and know my heart,” he pled, “test me and know my anxious thoughts. See
if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23, 24).
In his charge to Solomon before he died, David advised his son to “acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts” (1 Chron. 28:9). Solomon’s life might have been very different had he followed his father’s advice. The keys to thought hygiene were there. Solomon simply didn’t use them.
God continued sending messages to His people through the prophet Isaiah regarding the importance of pure thoughts. “Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts,” He admonished. “Let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them” (Isa. 55:7, NRSV). It was the same formula: repentance, plus the abandonment of evil thoughts, leads to a path that honors God.
It would be nice to think that at least a few accepted the messages delivered by the prophets. It’s clear, though, that as a group, the Israelites didn’t commit to any mental habits that fostered spiritual health.
When the Jewish culture was obsessed with outward appearances and ritual cleanliness, Jesus Himself became frustrated with those who were completely oblivious to the importance of inner purity. “For out of the heart come evil intentions,” He reminded His disciples, “murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matt. 15:19, 20, NRSV).
That’s quite a list! Viewed in terms of basic principles, it covers an extremely broad range of thought.
Don’t Let These Flies Lay Eggs
Does every Christian fight an inner fight, trying to slap away the flies of evil thoughts? The woman who patiently coaxes hymns out of the wheezy old organ every Sabbath? The president of the nearest Adventist university? The poised businesswoman who comments thoughtfully during the Sabbath school lesson study? Church leaders? Pastors?
To visualize what this might look like in real life, let’s imagine a theoretical church member named Kelly, invented for this example. Kelly, the highly efficient and practical mother of two young children, is married to Stephen. She keeps busy juggling children, work, and household duties.
Kelly finds Stephen has become increasingly annoying throughout their years of marriage. In her view, he carries the lighter load in bearing the responsibilities for their home and children. When he makes a joke, it’s not funny. When he voices an opinion, Kelly thinks it sounds dumb. He’s never been immoral or abusive, and if pressed, she would admit that he means well. But as she lets critical thoughts nestle in and lay eggs, she mentally grits her teeth at every interaction with her husband. Her stomach is constantly in a heavy knot, and Kelly realizes life is more pleasant when Stephen’s not in the same room.
The flies of criticism have set in, and sooner or later they’re likely to lay eggs that, when hatched, lead to the death of a marriage, the breakup of a family.
We all struggle with the hygiene of thought in some area, perhaps in ways much different from Kelly’s. The apostle Paul asked: “For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within?” (1 Cor. 2:11, NRSV). If we are honest, each of us knows deep down that we’ve had thoughts in at least one of the categories of evils Jesus mentioned. And our minds don’t naturally purify themselves as we age. We all need David’s, Isaiah’s, and Jeremiah’s advice: “Repent. Turn from your wicked thoughts.”
So what are some practical ways to tend to our spiritual hygiene?
1. Repent. Give yourself completely to God. This is the first step. Doing it once is easy. Doing it again and again, moment by moment, day by day is the basis of building a relationship with God, rather than simply signing a contract and forgetting about it.
2. Cultivate a willing mind toward God. Be open to His leading; practice ways of bringing your mind back to Him during the day. This could mean using visual clues as reminders to think of God (such as when stopped at a red light, or when passing a church); pausing at habitual times to pray silently; or consciously watching for people who need your help. Be creative.
3. Wash daily. Just as the patient in the story needed to wash daily, we need to repent daily and reconnect with God. It’s called devotional time. Set it up. Keep your appointment.
4. Cultivate humility. We are all humbled by the stupid things we do, the ugly actions we dread admitting. Being humbled is not the same as cultivating humility, however. Cultivating humility means being willing to change when shown that we need to change, ensuring that dirt can’t build up again.
5. Avoid the dirt. Just as we avoid muddy puddles when wearing our best shoes, it’s wise to avoid evil thoughts when we’re well aware where they lurk. Collect some interesting, character-building topics to think about when tempted to return to thoughts that take you away from a righteous walk with God. As Paul suggested, “Set your minds on things that are above” (Col. 3:2, NRSV).
6. Ask for help. The man with the maggots could have gotten someone to help him stay clean. Our theoretical “Kelly” could seek some help from a friend or counselor in dealing with her critical and unforgiving spirit. The path of spiritual and mental purity is easier when traveled in the company of fellow pilgrims.
7. Check in with the guidelines. The apostle Paul offered these principles for guiding us in the things we think, say, or do: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent
or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8).
Finally, a bit of encouragement for weary, bruised Christians who feel they’re fighting alone in shabby armor, perhaps losing the battle against unrighteous thinking:
An accomplished Warrior has fought and won the war already, and He has promised that His peace “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).
He will do it.
*Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright ” 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Ginger Ketting-Weller is vice president for academic administration at Walla Walla University, and has continuing experience with trying to keep the flies out of her head.