I struggle with unwelcome thoughts too and have been to confession many times seeking absolution for getting stuck in my thought loops and the grace not to repeat them. But reading the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, who dealt with this pastoral problem often, has changed my thinking. Two things about their approach stand out.
One is how seldom the elders who gave advice to those under mental temptation answered in terms of sin and repentance. Very often, their advice was psychological:
A brother came to see Abba Poemen and said to him, “Abba, I have many thoughts and they put me in danger.”* The old man led him outside and said to him, “Expand your chest and do not breathe in.”* He said, “I cannot do that.” Then the old man said to him, “If you cannot do that, no more can you prevent thoughts from arising, but you can resist them.”
Another is the simplicity, the passive and indirect quality as it were, of the resistance they expected of their hearers. You go on living under the attack of the bad thoughts, but the „you“ that does so is saying the Jesus Prayer and attending to your work. Turning to God doesn‘t make the thoughts go away, it just defuses you from them, keeps at least part of you from identifying with them.
A brother asked one of the elders, “What shall I do?* My thoughts are always turned to lust without allowing me an hour’s respite, and my soul is tormented by it.”* He said to him, “Every time the demons suggest these thoughts to you, do not argue with them.* For the activity of demons always is to suggest, and suggestions are not sins, for they cannot compel.* But it rests with you to
welcome them, or not to welcome them.* Do you know what the Midianites did? They adorned their daughters and presented them to the Israelites.* They did not compel anyone, but those who consented, sinned with them, while the others were enraged and put them to death.* It is the same with thoughts.”* The brother answered the old man, “What shall I do, then, for I am weak and passion overcomes me?”* He said to him, “Watch your thoughts, and every time they begin to say something to you, do not answer them but rise and pray; kneel down, saying, ‘Son of God, have mercy on me.’”
Temptations are a source of suffering, suffering throws us back on ourselves, we make some kind of move from self towards God and find it hard, temptation tells us that this isn‘t working, that we‘re not doing it right and will never make it, we suffer again, this time from self-doubt and fear of future defeat. And yes, we „entertain“ these thoughts sometimes, but we turn ourselves around towards God again and are tempted again and suffer, over and over again.
If we were truly ‘selfless’, we would think only of God and have a complete desire to do his will and not our own. But we aren‘t, and we don‘t. So we start where we are, and don‘t beat ourselves up for it. St. Therese found herself so driven to distraction during prayer time by some nun‘s teeth-clicking noise that the only prayer she could offer was the effortful acceptance of the noise and her own distraction.
To our human sensibilities the fight can begin to look pointless, like a vicious circle. But Therese tells us that God sees it as a gesture, like a baby‘s attempt to climb the stairs which eventually gets noticed by someone who will carry him up.