On Ugly, Irrational Thoughts

Is it possible to hold one opinion sincerely and occasionally have quite opposite voices running around inside your head? Based on my own experience and what others tell me, I believe it is. There are occasions when powerful, angry, vile, irrational thoughts momentarily flood one’s thinking. I believe this is a common – perhaps nearly universal – human experience. I say “nearly universal” because I’m not sure. I find that people understandably don’t always like to talk about the hidden parts of their lives.

In my more rational moments, I wonder how a Christian can ever have such inward experiences. They shame me. I’m relieved that the words in my head don’t come bursting forth from my mouth. One part of my brain usually stays in control while another part throws its tantrum.

As I read the daily newspaper, I might congratulate myself that I don’t struggle with the same demons that have ruined some poor soul’s life or ruined his reputation, but mine are just as ugly. There are many varieties of these demonic voices, and their particular form varies from person to person. They are irrational in the sense that the angry brain simply grabs the most hateful words it can find to express itself.

Now that I’ve written “voices” and “demons,” I should clarify what I mean.

I don’t mean “voices” in the schizophrenic sense of auditory hallucinations. I simply mean that the internal, rational dialogue that normally takes place in our thoughts turns ugly and irrational. By “demons,” I don’t necessarily mean invisible spirits or exorcist-worthy phenomena. I’m using the term in its more general, less literal sense (extremely evil or cruel; expressive of cruelty or befitting hell.) What is the etiology of these experiences? Evil spirits? Brain chemistry? Repressed infantile rage? I don’t know.

Ultimately, I own them as my responsibility. Like it or not, they are a part of me. I would hate to be judged by my worst thoughts. I guess the bad news is that I am judged by them, whether I let them out or not.

You have heard that people were told in the past, ‘Do not commit murder; anyone who does will be brought to trial.’ But now I tell you: if you are angry with your brother you will be brought to trial, if you call your brother ‘You good-for-nothing!’ you will be brought before the Council, and if you call your brother a worthless fool you will be in danger of going to the fire of hell. (Matthew 5:21-22 GNB)

I am a sinner and irrational rage is one way in which sin occasionally manifests itself. In this case, the old Protestant reading of the Sermon on the Mount is correct. Jesus’ teaching drives us beyond the letter of the law to God’s deeper intention in creation. The Sermon on the Mount demands a righteousness that we cannot on our own attain, thus causing us to despair of our own righteousness, recognize our sinfulness and cast ourselves on the grace of God given in Jesus Christ.

God did not create me to be a person like this, and the grace of Jesus Christ allows me to recognize my brokenness. Psychology might help me understand what’s going on, but it doesn’t let me off the hook. That depraved, irrational rage is me. I need to be delivered from it and its consequences to enter the promised land of peace.

The good news in Jesus Christ is that even my brokenness – my sin – cannot defeat the power of God’s transforming and redeeming love.

How am I to live, then, in this world – redeemed by God in Jesus Christ but still beset by unchristian thoughts? In Luther’s words, I am simultaneously righteous and sinful (simul justus et peccator). When, after a moment’s craziness, I regain my right mind, I can either accuse myself and wallow in my shame or I can tell myself, “Here is a manifestation of your sinful nature for which Christ died.” Jesus died and rose to defeat the power of my sin. I think the faithful response to my inner ugliness is to thank God for his grace and believe his promise of salvation.

God’s grace, of course, doesn’t give me license to let sin run amuck. I should not give free reign to my worst impulses because God loves me anyway. While keeping my rage inside might not lessen its sinful nature, it does keep me from inflicting my sin on my neighbor. Shall I compound one sin with another? I may not be able to control my thoughts, but I am still responsible for controlling my actions. When I don’t, there is no excuse.

I think am also responsible to grow up in Christ, insofar as that is possible in this present evil age. That means prayer for deliverance from the demons or memories or mental images or brain chemicals that are collaborators in my sin. It means taking some concrete steps toward self-awareness, growth and mental self-control. The methods for approaching this task are many and beyond the scope of this discussion. While I cannot master my thoughts by brute force, I can seek with God’s help to become the person God created me to be.

This discussion is, perhaps, especially pertinent for Soldiers who are – or who have been – in combat. The stresses of war can sometimes lead to powerful, irrational, angry thinking. To help Soldiers cope, we normalize the experience: you are not going crazy. You are having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. You’ll get better. All of this is true, but it doesn’t keep the experience from troubling the Christian conscience. And if anyone needs to control his or her behavior, it’s a Soldier. The consequences of letting your anger gain control are deadly and destructive, not just embarrassing or hurtful. Soldiers who are Christians beset by irrational anger must bring themselves before the Lord, not only to cleanse the soul, but to seek God’s power for self self-control and personal growth.