Temptations and Gray Areas


At what point does a temptation warrant a trip to the confessional?

For example, men have hundreds of impure thoughts each day. If they are ‘entertained’, then that might require confession. But if they are not entertained and the sinner rejects them, then that shouldn’t require confession - at least that’s my understanding.

Or how about those times, when your being seriously attacked with temptation. It is perfectly clear to you that a force outside of yourself is forcing a behavior that is not your own. You realize the gravity of the situation and go on the offensive, calling upon Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and whatever Saint, to help you avoid the situation. Although your victorious, because of this intervention, did the previous situation warrant a trip to confession?

If we look deeply into these situations, the sinner is focused on self. The more focused on self we are, the more we remove ourselves from the embrace of the Father. If we were truly ‘selfless’, we would think only of God and have a complete desire to do his will and not our own. Yet, upon this examination, I realized that any act of self gratification, impure thoughts, or wayward thinking, would mean a trip to confession daily. This is not easy for a man living in a world of debauchery.

What are your thoughts?


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.


This is encouraging, but I must repeat my former question: At point does temptations require us to go to confession?

In the middle of our day-to-day struggle with temptation, the soul - in the state of grace - continues to decline in those graces with each infraction or venial sin. Thus the need for the sacraments. The thing is, that - admittedly - I may let my guard down sometimes and unawares thoughts will enter my head and the next thing I know, I realize that my mind is producing scenarios and activities that are sinful. That’s when I do turn to God or Our Lady for aid.

I’ve heard from some priests in confession that these thoughts won’t leave me until five days after I’ve died, as one priest humorously told me. They’ll always be with me. Are they really just a distraction and nothing more? Can I really receive Jesus’ body, blood, soul, and divinity with the stain of those thoughts on my mind? Or am I being scrupulous?


I confess my temptations, and my dreams even though I am sure they are not my own.* Just to be safe.*


See, that’s really interesting and I feel the same way, for the most part. I want to be on the safe side every time I receive Him in the Eucharist. Do others feel this way?


Well, I think Hlafdige did answer it.

As he said, we can’t control our thoughts or where they come from . . . and often they just stream by in the back of our mind for the most part unnoticed. The line in the sand, if you will, is the point in which we “notice” or become “aware” that our thoughts are tending toward sin. The key, then, is what to do about it.

If we resist those temptations at the moment of recognition . . . even if they return frequently and we momentarily stumble . . . then we are practicing virtue. This is how we are strengthend . . . it’s exercise for the soul. If we persist in them or indulge them, then we are practicing vice. And as this persisting becomes more and more habitual . . . meaning we put up little or no effort to fight . . . then we have an even bigger problem – a disordered desire.

So the long and short of it is if you’re aware that you’re not resisting, then it’s probably time to go in . . .

Dave. :slight_smile:

PS - A wise young priest once told me to confess sinful thoughts that we are actively and in good faith resisting is a sign of scrupilosity . . .


. . . and to add to Hlafdige’s thoughts regarding prayer, “awareness” of where are thoughts are - whether sinful or not - is the key to praying without ceasing. Once we become “aware” our thoughts have strayed and are not centered on God or the duties of the present moment, then we simply and gently recall our mind back to Him. And you will probably repeat this recalling hundred’s of times a day if you’re really serious about praying this way.

“The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence is a wonderfully simply guide if you’re interested in learning more.



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