Temptation vs sinful thoughts


Can someone point me to a good resource (book, website, etc) that would help me learn to differentiate between temptations and sinful thoughts? I’m a scrupulous person and have a hard time telling when I’ve crossed “the line” in my thoughts, and whether I’ve resisted temptations strongly enough.

Also if anyone else is in the same boat I’d appreciate your advice.



They used to sell these cylinder shaped woven paper contraptions at fairs when I was a kid. They were called Chinese Finger traps. The object was to stick a finger in each end and try to pull them out. The harder you would pull the harder the Chinese finger trap would hold your fingers. Hence the word trap.

My sense is that avoiding what you feel to be sinful thoughts is a bit like a Chinese finger trap. The harder you try, the more the thoughts will pop up. Now, a temptation I think usually involves a “go/no go” decision wherein we are deciding whether or not to actually participate in an activity that we think is sinful. I think we have a lot more control over this part of the process. It’s easier to control how you act than it is to control what you think.

Back to sinful thoughts. When I have thoughts I’d prefer not to have, I think them through in detail in order to discover what I found attractive or interesting about the thought. Rather than hide from it, I move into it. Once you rationalize them, the thoughts seem to be attenuated, and they come up a lot less.

Just my thoughts on the matter, and as a disclaimer, I have no special credentials that would make me anyone you should listen to.


All sorts of thoughts can happen to us out of the blue…

The fact that a though happened to one- does not mean per se there was any sin.

And for mortal sin one needs not only grave matter, but full knowledge and deliberate (complete) consent…

And they might keep tempting one - and keep returning - but their persistence or attraction does not mean one has sinned. (And for mortal sin one needs to give complete consent.).


For the next few moments --try real hard NOT to think of Apple.

then scroll down.

What did you think of?

An apple.

Even though your will was against it -you did not want to think of an apple.

Now back to unwanted thoughts…

The best thing to do with such thoughts is not to fight them directly --not fear that they will come…do not consent and simply and calmly turn to something else…(or it may be best to keep doing the good thing one is doing…like they come out of the blue when your at work …keep working …etc)

Ignore such unwanted thoughts like one would ignore a hissing goose or a barking dog. One does not stop to argue with a hissing goose or a barking dog does one? No one keeps on walking…and at most laughs at them…

(as noted above the image there comes from a Carthusian Monk from centuries ago…)


Mgoforth, this is a great question as I’ve had trouble with this too. I don’t know of any books that specifically address temptations or sinful thoughts- would be good to read others suggestions later. But what I find helpful is when you have the sinful thought, take it out immediately by placing a prayer to God or a saint. For example, recite the St. Michael prayer “…defend us in battle, be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil…”

However, it doesn’t always help and I think it’s due to your physical state as well. I read that if you’re really stressed you’re more susceptible to giving into temptation or sinful act. So taking care of yourself too will help.


I’ve found that saying the “Hail, Mary” helps me. Our Mother wants to help us to keep all our thoughts on Her Son. Besides, saying that prayer means that our attention is on something else.


Essentially, are you resisting these thoughts or are you cooperating with them? There is the difference between temptation and a sin.


“Scruples and their treatment” by Fr. William Doyle S.J. has helped me a lot in understanding and healing from scrupulosity.
There is a good section about thoughts too if I remember right.
Here you can read it online:



To me it is about the conscience. At some point in any sinful thought, your conscience will speak up. You realize “this is wrong.” Then you have the decision to make: continue thinking about the thoughts or reject those thoughts. If you continue, you are now willfully engaging those thoughts, so it’s clearly a sin. If you reject those thoughts, they will either leave your mind or you will be actively fighting against them. No sin is committed.

Sometimes the mind goes on autopilot thinking about bad things for several moments. This has happened to me. At some point I realize, “what am I thinking?” and immediately pray to God. It can feel bad like you did wrong because the thoughts are objectively mortal sin, but your culpability is greatly lessened from not willing it to happen. When I confess I say something like “I had impure thoughts but rejected them through prayer.” Then the priest knows they were not mortal but could only possibly be venial.


With scrupulosity the problem is that the mind easily goes into things like: “What if I really wanted it anyway?”, “how can I be sure a part of me didn’t want it?”, “was I really aware that it was wrong only AFTER it or maybe I remember it wrong?” etc.
And the whole thing just feels scary and the fear/guilt feeling itself might be interpreted as proof that one has committed something wrong, even though with scrupulous people such guilt feelings can be really exaggerated or even inappropriate.

Speaking from experience… :wink:


to me the rule goes as this:

did I was able to stop something from happening? no? then there is no sin. then the second, this is about toughts that we do not want but still keep coming, Did i consented to them? did i entertained those toughts? there is the clue, if they just come and we just ignore them there is no sin. and usually it is the best way to deal with them, once you lose the fear they become easier to control.


Thanks for all the replies!


When you say that “culpability if greatly lessened from not willing it to happen” do you mean that no mortal sin is committed by autopilot thinking, but venial sin is?


Yes, I believe it would be venial sin. The only time I believe it would not be a sin at all would be nocturnal emissions and related dreams. Maybe there is no culpability at all in the situation I described (“autopilot”). I prefer to go with a safe assumption that some sin was committed. Maybe more prayer would strengthen the conscience, so this wouldn’t happen. Saints have succeeded at this, so it must be possible for all of us if we become holy enough and trust in God.

A similar situation occurs when I am in the middle of work but then start thinking about all the chores I need to do when I finish work. For maybe 5-10 seconds, my mind starts going through all the steps of what I will do when I get home. Then my mind realizes it is still work time, I am wasting time, I need to get back to work. My mind can take some time to realize what it is thinking of is not good. In this case, it is not good to think of this planning at this moment. In the case of impure thoughts, it is never good to think of them ever. But both situations my mind can wander for a little bit before the conscience realizes what is going on. I, of course, pray every day for a better conscience, and trust God as much as I can do answer that prayer.


Thanks so much, Jared, for your very helpful response!


All sorts of thoughts can “happen” to one – without there being any sin committed.

If a person does not realize at all what is happening - and stops as soon as they realize what those thoughts are - there need not be any sin. But rather virtue.

Sin is in the will.

This is not to say that there cannot be venial sin in thoughts (grave matter) where there is not the needed full knowledge and complete consent for mortal sin --but it can be the case as I noted that* no sin* is committed.


Thanks, Bookcat!


So long as we live in this world, we cannot remain without trial and temptation: as Job says, “Man’s life on earth is a warfare.” We must therefore be on guard against temptations, and watchful in prayer, that the Devil find no means of deceiving us; for he never rests, but prowls around seeking whom he may devour. No one is so perfect and holy that he is never tempted, and we can never be secure from temptation.

Although temptations are so troublesome and grievous, yet they are often profitable to us, for by them we are humbled, cleansed, and instructed. All the Saints endured many trials and temptations, and profited by them; but those who could not resist temptations became reprobate, and fell away. There is no Order so holy, nor place so secluded, where there are no troubles and temptations.

No man can be entirely free from temptation so long as he lives; for the source of temptation lies within our own nature, since we are born with an inclination towards evil. When one temptation or trial draws to a close, another takes its place; and we shall always have something to fight, for man has lost the blessing of original happiness. Many try to escape temptations, only to encounter them more fiercely, for no one can win victory by flight alone; it is only by patience and true humility that we can grow stronger than all our foes.

The man who only avoids the outward occasions of evil, but fails to uproot it in himself, will gain little advantage. Indeed, temptations will return upon him the sooner, and he will find himself in a worse state than before. Little by little and by patient endurance you will overcome them by God’s help, better than by your own violence and importunity. Seek regular advice in temptation, and never deal harshly with those who are tempted, but give them such encouragement as you would value yourself.

The beginning of all evil temptation is an unstable mind and lack of trust in God. Just as a ship without a helm is driven to and fro by the waves, so a careless man, who abandons his proper course, is tempted in countless ways. Fire tempers steel, and temptation the just man. We often do not know what we can bear, but temptation reveals our true nature. We need especially to be on our guard at the very onset of temptation, for then the Enemy may be more easily overcome, if he is not allowed to enter the gates of the mind: he must be repulsed at the threshold, as soon as he knocks. Thus the poet Ovid writes, “Resist at the beginning; the remedy may come too late.” **For first there comes into the mind an evil thought: next, a vivid picture: then delight, and urge to evil, and finally consent. In this way the Enemy gradually gains complete mastery, when he is not resisted at first. And the longer a slothful man delays resistance, the weaker he becomes, and the stronger his enemy grows against him. **

Some people undergo their heaviest temptations at the beginning of their conversion; some towards the end of their course; others are greatly troubled all their lives; while there are some whose temptations are but light. This is in accordance with the wisdom and justice of God’s ordinance, who weighs the condition and merits of every man, and disposes all things for the salvation of those whom He chooses.

We must not despair, therefore, when we are tempted, but earnestly pray God to grant us his help in every need. For, as Saint Paul says, “With the temptation, God will provide a way to overcome it, that we may be able to bear it.” So, let us humble ourselves under the hand of God, in every trial and trouble, for He will save and raise up the humble in Spirit. In all these trials, our progress is tested; in them great merit may be secured, and our virtue become evident. It is no great matter if we are devout and fervent when we have no troubles; but if we show patience in adversity, we can make great progress in virtue. Some are spared severe temptations, but are overcome in the lesser ones of every day, in order that they may be humble, and learn not to trust in themselves, but to recognize their frailty.
-The Imitation of Christ, Book 1, Chapter 13


I always thought that sinful thoughts in themselves were temptations.

LOVE! :heart:


Thanks Robert. Truly an awesome book! My problem has always been second-guessing whether I’ve crossed that threshold of the will…whether I’ve consented to the evil thoughts. Thanks again to everyone for their responses. I hope to be able to see clearly one day, but for now at least I’m fairly blind in that area. I try to remember that even that is a trial to be endured with patience.


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