Bible Keys to Handle Intrusive Thoughts

by John Beeson

Our thoughts are important. Our minds are a factory of thoughts, some intentional, some not intentional. We strategize, reflect, and ruminate. And sometimes we experience intrusive thoughts, those thoughts that pop into our mind and can feel out of our control.

Recently on vacation I was snorkeling and my mind produced the thought: what if a tiger shark is trailing you right now? My head whipped backward to see if the intrusive thought was a premonition. It wasn’t. Harmless fish schooled behind me.

Our intrusive thoughts can feel overpowering at times. How do we navigate them? Last week we considered three questions to ask ourselves when we experience intrusive thoughts.

Those were:

Is there something different about the season I am in?

Does my personality lend itself to more frequent intrusive thoughts?

Why am I having this intrusive thought?

These questions help us frame the intrusive thoughts and consider how we ought to treat them: are they flagging the presence of stress in our lives? Are they indicators of a battle with compulsive tendencies? Do they reveal sin in our hearts?

Today, let’s press into scripture and consider how to be proactive with our minds.


In 1 Peter 1, Peter encourages his audience that they have had given to them a salvation that was secured by the suffering Christ. That salvation secured for us glories to which even “angels long to look.” Peter then turns and says, “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:13).

Essentially, Peter says, “You are completely secured in the glorious rescue of Jesus Christ, but beware! Guard your mind for battle!” Peter goes on to urge his flock that, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere and brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart…” (1 Pet 1:22). From Peter, we learn a few important truths about our battle with intrusive thoughts.


First, Peter points us to our salvation. Our salvation is the ground of how our minds are shaped, and that salvation is not secured by us, but by Jesus Christ himself. When intrusive thoughts come, look backward to the cross of Christ and forward to the hope that Christ has secured for us in eternity. Intrusive thoughts can act as a mental black hole, collapsing our mental energies into the present and into ourselves. It can feel as though our escape from the dark matter depends on us alone. This is a lie. Peter reminds us that the work is accomplished in Christ. Look to the cross! Christ secured for us a new mind in his atoning work. Look to heaven! Christ has secured for us a transformed and future of complete rest in himself.


Finally, Peter points us to the community of faith. In verse 22, Peter reminds us that our purified minds are not merely for ourselves, but to be directed in love toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. “Love one another earnestly from a pure heart,” Peter says. Jesus calls us to love as a hope-filled invitation outside of ourselves. Intrusive thoughts can trap us in a cycle that is inward and self-focused. Jesus calls us outward in love.


Similarly, Paul echoes Peter’s admonition in 2 Corinthians 10, where he urges the community at Corinth to actively fight the untruths that are being spread by false teachers. He says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Note the two-step approach Paul urges here. First, he says, knock down the untruths. Pick apart the lies that are at the heart of your intrusive thoughts with the truth of the gospel. And then, second, move forward in obedience to Christ. Move outward in action.


Paul reminds us in Philippians, that it isn’t enough to destroy false thinking, we have to create healthy imaginations. In Philippians 4 he says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8). In other words, actively create mental playgrounds of gospel creativity.

Many of us can expend so much energy trying to knock down destructive intrusive thoughts that we leave no energy to build constructive imaginations. We begin to believe the lie that our minds are dangerous and need to merely be shut down. Your mind is a gift and God intends that gift to be used for his glory. God’s desire is to reshape your mind to be a factory of God-glorifying curiosity.


God intends all of this to be done in community. James urges us to “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jms 5:16). Can’t we just confess our sins to God? Why must I reveal the darkness of my mental life to someone else?

James tells us that as we confess to one another and pray for one another, healing will come. I’ve seen this again and again as a pastor and counselor. I’m often the first person someone shares their intrusive thoughts with. Perhaps they have been struggling with lustful thoughts or violent thoughts. They muster up all of their courage to tell me what is going on and then I can see them brace. They prepare for my disgust and judgment. When empathy and mercy come instead, they physically change. They exhale, shoulders loosen, and tears often flow.

Inevitably, I will encourage them to share their struggle with a trusted friend and inevitably they will resist. Why would I want them to go through the pain of sharing again? For a few reasons: first, because sharing loosens the grip that sin has over us. We cannot hide our sin. We are less likely to believe that the sin is just between us and God, we recognize the corporate implications of our sin. Second, because confiding with a friend releases the power shame has over us. Very often those near us will identify with our struggle. They’ve had similar struggles. And they can speak against the untruth that any sin identifies who we are. No, our adoption into the family of God identifies who we are. And finally, bringing brothers and sisters alongside us in our struggles brings powerful spiritual partners in prayer.


Do not be deceived, the battle for our mind is no mere battle against brain matter. It is a spiritual battle. And we need spiritual tools for that battle. So, let us destroy the lies our intrusive thoughts can speak. Let us move outward in love. Let us build minds of God-glorifying creativity. And let us do so in the context of the family of God, of brothers and sisters in Christ.

Your intrusive thoughts do not have the final say in your life. Jesus Christ has spoken a more powerful word on the cross. And he invites you into a joyous place where your mind is an ally, not an enemy in your striving to conform to his likeness.

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