How to Deal with Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts (for Christians)

Nobody wants to deal with unwanted intrusive thoughts! This article is written specifically with Christians in mind- authored by a licensed Christian Counselor. As Christians, we navigate all things related to mental health through the lens of His Word. Get the answers to the tough questions…

What are intrusive thoughts?

What are examples of intrusive thoughts?

Do intrusive thoughts mean anything?

Can intrusive thoughts be triggered?

Is it a sin if you have intrusive thoughts?

Are blasphemous thoughts unforgivable?

title: how to stop intrusive thoughts

What are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts, images or impulses. When you look up the definition of intrusive, it is defined as “causing disruption or annoyance through being unwelcome or uninvited”. Intrusive thoughts can sometimes be triggered by something in the environment or they can just pop into your mind for no apparent reason. 

Unwanted intrusive thoughts are something that everyone experiences at times. However, these thoughts can create distress; so why do intrusive thoughts create so much distress? Well, here is the short answer… If unwanted intrusive thoughts are causing you much distress, you are likely attaching meaning to a thought that means nothing.

Does everyone have intrusive thoughts?

Research shows that nearly everyone experiences intrusive thoughts at times. “Everyone” includes Christians having unwanted intrusive thoughts, as well. This can be encouraging to know you’re not alone. Every person is different; some may experience disturbing thoughts more frequently than others. The types of unwanted thoughts and images vary from person to person. Additionally, the level of distress that is caused by such thoughts will vary based on how we view and evaluate the thoughts that we’re experiencing.

Can intrusive thoughts be triggered?

This is a great question! The answer is sometimes yes. Sometimes we have intrusive thoughts triggered by an external event, memory or situation. Other times the unwanted thoughts can simply pop into our mind for no apparent reason.

People tend to ask if an intrusive thought can be triggered for a couple of reasons. First, due to shame often being associated with the intrusive thought, if we try to pin it on something external, then it feels less shameful. In other words, it’s a way to manage the emotion of shame. And secondly, if we can figure out a trigger then we can avoid the trigger, thereby avoiding the shame associated with the disturbing thought we are experiencing. The best solution is to change what we believe about the intrusive thought rather than trying to avoid the intrusive thought. (More on that shortly.)

What are examples of intrusive thoughts?

If you are reading this article, you’re probably experiencing intrusive or unwanted thoughts. Above I spoke of intrusive thoughts in a very general way. However, you’re probably thinking, “You don’t know what these thoughts are“… They are sexual, violent, bizarre, blasphemous or really dark and negative. Yes – that’s what unwanted intrusive thoughts are in nature. Remember everyone experiences these thoughts at times.

Sexual Thoughts

It is not unusual to experience sexual thoughts at times regardless of your gender. Sexual thoughts can be shocking or make us feel uncomfortable. As a result we work even harder to push the thoughts away and end up fixating on the very thoughts we want to get rid of. Remember, these are just thoughts and we can let them just pass.

Bizarre or Paranoid Thoughts

Experiencing bizarre or paranoid thoughts is another type of disturbing thought you may experience. But, once again, resist the temptation to believe this means something about you. Rather, allow the thought to simply pass.

Violent Thoughts

Sometimes unwanted intrusive thoughts can be violent in nature. The thought might be related to one harming themselves or others. This only becomes a concern if your violent thoughts move you to planning to follow through on the violent thoughts. If this is the case, seek professional help. Otherwise, allow the thought to pass.

Blasphemous Thoughts

Blasphemous thoughts are unwanted thoughts that call God‘s work evil. It refers to great disrespect shown to God. Many Christians have a fear that unwanted intrusive thoughts that are blasphemous in nature are unforgivable (more on that below). As a result, fear, guilt and shame can become overwhelming. Once again, remember that all fall short and nothing is too big for the forgiveness Christ offers. Christians must avoid the temptation to attach meaning to such thoughts. A Christian’s salvation and identity are in Christ alone and completely secure.

    Are blasphemous thoughts on forgivable?

    Many Christians worry that they have committed the unforgivable or unpardonable sin – blasphemy. Christians who are dealing with unwanted intrusive thoughts wonder, are blasphemous thoughts unforgivable? This fear may be rooted in the verse that indicates speaking against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven (Matthew 12:32).

    However, we must take care not to take a verse out of context. Instead, we must look at the entirety of Scripture. This verse was not intended to bring further despair or overwhelm on anyone struggling with intrusive thoughts. Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees/religious leaders who could see the power of the Holy Spirit working in Jesus as He performed miracles and fulfilled every prophecy regarding the promised Messiah. They were willfully and knowingly calling God‘s work evil.

    As we look to the entirety of Scripture, we know that Scripture indicates nothing is beyond the forgiveness of Christ’s work on the cross. A beautiful example of God‘s enormous grace is the testimony of Paul. Previously known as Saul, he killed Christians, persecuting and exterminating anyone who professed Christ. If God can save him and powerfully use him to expand his kingdom, then He can use you and I! Check out these verses on the amazing grace of God:

    Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. Isaiah 12:2

    “The law was brought in so that the trespasses might increase. But where sin increase, grace increased all the more,”… Romans 5:20

    Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Hebrews 7:25

    Is it a sin if you have intrusive thoughts?

    As a Christian, disturbing thoughts can activate a great deal of shame. Shame is the heaviest emotion of human experiences in my opinion. It’s even the first human emotion identified in the Bible all the way back in Genesis regarding Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit. Certainly, nobody desires to experience lustful thoughts or violent thoughts. But, the reality is that everyone does experience such thoughts. Labeling unwelcome intrusive thoughts as sinful thoughts or bad thoughts is not a productive way to address such thoughts.

    Instead of condemning or beating yourself up, let’s talk about how to manage and even stop the intrusive thoughts so you can get back to putting your energy into the things God has entrusted to you.

    Do intrusive thoughts mean anything?

    People often ask, “do intrusive thoughts mean anything?” But what they really mean to ask is, “Do intrusive thoughts mean anything about me?” As I mentioned earlier, we tend to attach meaning to ourselves when we have an intrusive thought. In other words we personalize the thought. We wrongly believe that the mere existence of the thought means we are bad.

    As a result shame and guilt gets activated within us. Shame and guilt are the feelings that flow from the thoughts. Let’s talk about how the sequence of events works.

    First, the intrusive thought pops into your mind. Maybe something triggered it or maybe the unwanted thought just appeared. Second, the belief or initial thought comes. “This means something is wrong with me“. Next, we will experience emotions from the thoughts. Those emotions are shame and guilt typically. And a quick definition of shame: shame is a painful emotion that causes us to believe we are worthless and of no value to others or God, unacceptable and worthy of rejection.

    Finally, this emotion will move us to isolate, withdraw and ultimately hide from God and others. Let’s summarize – intrusive thoughts activate a sequence of thoughts and emotions within us. Next, we believe and think something is wrong with us and then experience negative emotions (typically guilt and shame). As a result we act on those emotions by withdrawing, hiding and keeping our disturbing thoughts to ourselves.

    Anxiety and Intrusive Thoughts

    Unwanted intrusive thoughts and anxiety may or may not be connected. Remember, research shows nearly everyone experiences unwanted intrusive thoughts, although many researchers believe everyone has thoughts at times that are violent, sexual, blasphemous, bizarre or negative and dark in nature. Here is the main difference; how the thoughts are judged! Someone who may have clinical anxiety or OCD may have an unwanted intrusive thought and are more likely to view their thoughts as bad, immoral, shameful, sinful, etc.

    As a result more time is spent worrying about the implications of the unwanted thoughts and increasingly focus on the thought and engage in self condemnation. Whereas someone who does not have clinical anxiety is more likely to dismiss the thought and move on with their day without giving the unwanted intrusive thought more headspace.

    Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Intrusive Thoughts

    Obsessive compulsive disorder (simply defined) is a pattern of distressing thoughts and fears (obsession) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsion) in an effort to decrease or manage the distress experienced from the thoughts. I can’t emphasize enough… Everyone experiences intrusive thoughts at times. Anyone with clinical anxiety will respond to such thoughts with negative judgment, focus on the thoughts and experience negative emotions such as fear, shame and embarrassment. In the absence of clinical anxiety, experiencing an intrusive thought will be easily let go and not assigned any meaning at all.

    How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts

    Nobody enjoys horrible thoughts popping into their mind. As Christians, we must figure out how to take thoughts captive. And the weapons of our warfare are knowledge of God‘s Word, and prayer. Both weapons wielded in the power of the Holy Spirit.

    As a Christian counselor and life coach I weave biblical truth with research based treatment. God‘s Word has been telling us to take thoughts captive long before cognitive behavioral therapy came along, but the two are actually synonymous.

    Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Proverbs 4:23

    The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:4–5

    Christians who are seeking to take disturbing thoughts captive will become aware of thoughts, feelings and internal dialogue. We are trying to identify the lies; next we exchange the lies for the truth. While this sounds simple it is difficult. However, if God‘s Word calls us to do something such as taking thoughts captive, we can trust God to help us, empower and enable us to do His will.

    Taking Unwanted and Intrusive Thoughts Captive as Christians.

    1. Identify the activating thought. This step will be more straightforward. Name the unwanted thought that activates the distressing emotions.

    2. What are you saying to yourself about the thoughts? You are likely attaching meaning to yourself based on the unwanted ant thoughts and images. Name the judgments you are making about the intrusive thought.

    3. What feelings are coming up? Name those uncomfortable emotions. Shame, guilt, and fear are common negative emotions associated with intrusive thoughts. You may be interested in the article, “What does the Bible say about emotions?”.

    4. Are you doing something to manage your emotions? Pay attention to your reaction. Do you tend to withdraw and isolate? What is your response to those emotions?

    5. Now it’s time to seek God‘s Word to help trade lies for Truth. We find that in His Word, the Sword of the Spirit. Choose some Scriptures to confront what you’re saying to yourself. For instance if you are condemning yourself (as identified and step two), grab a verse that aligns with Truth.

    “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”… Romans 8:1

    Get the free five day email course on taking thoughts captive– authored by a Christian counselor trained in cognitive behavioral therapy and equipped with knowledge of God and His Word.

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      Wrapping Up Intrusive Thoughts and Christians

      If there’s anything you walk away with today let it be this: first, everyone experiences unwanted intrusive thoughts at times. Second, resist the temptation to judge yourself for the disturbing thoughts. A thought is just a thought – let it go! Third, God calls us to take thoughts captive. He will help us in the battle of the mind!

      2 Comments

      1. Grace on October 27, 2022 at 10:25 am

        Hey Sunshyne,

        Thanks and God bless for this article. It’s really helpful! This is something i really needed in 2020 when I struggled with this a lot. I have a question though – when taking captive intrusive thoughts, it seems like someone might fixate on it whilst going through the steps rather than just let it pass. How do you merge these two concepts without falling into the trap of letting it pass and not fixating whilst taking it captive?

        • Sunshyne Gray on October 31, 2022 at 11:12 am

          That’s a great question, Grace. Letting the thought pass would become a skill with practice; taking thoughts captive incorporates saying a new thing to ourselves. In other words- we attach meaning to intrusive thoughts, to ourselves. We have to identify if we are attaching lies to ourselves- the “letting the thought pass” would be what we do as a result of taking thoughts captive. Hope that helps:)

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