In his fictional nightmare 1984, George Orwell conceived a society that punished illegal thinking. Winston Smith, Orwell’s main character, knew that even if he never breathed a word of what he was thinking, he had already committed an unforgivable crime—wrong thoughts.
“The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed—would still have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper—the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.”
Fortunately, Orwell’s predictions about 1984 proved ultra pessimistic. Such totalitarian control of our thoughts has never come to pass.
You should know, however, that God can read our minds, and He is interested in our thoughts. But unlike the leaders of Orwell’s fascist fantasyland, who destroyed those who harbored “wrong” thoughts, God doesn’t want to punish us for the evil that crosses our minds. Instead, He wants to change our thoughts and bring them into harmony with His own thoughts of compassion, mercy, and self-sacrificing love. He wants to make these changes because He knows that if the thoughts of our hearts are pure, the rest of us will be too. “Keep your heart with all diligence,” says Proverbs 4:23, “for out of it spring the issues of life.”*
For this reason, God’s tenth commandment towers over the rest. The first nine deal with actions, words, and physical manifestations of the thoughts that stir within. People don’t steal, commit adultery, or kill unless the thought first germinates in their minds, where it sprouts, grows, and finally ripens into the act itself. The same is true of using the Lord’s name in vain, bearing false witness, or dishonoring parents. The first nine commandments all deal with outward actions and words, but the tenth makes the transition from this physical world into the realm of the imagination—the mysterious dimension of the soul. The tenth commandment deals with our thoughts alone, apart from our actions.
Of course, thoughts and deeds are linked. You can’t have the action without first having the thought, any more than you can have a chick without first having an egg. The tenth commandment is God’s attempt to crush the bad egg before the evil chick hatches. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17, NIV).
unlike the thought police
God isn’t like Orwell’s thought police. He wants us to think. He created us to use our minds. He prohibits only certain thoughts. His prohibition is not arbitrary; it deals only with covetousness and not even every type of covetousness because not all covetousness is evil. The psalmist exclaims, “My soul longs, yes, even faints / For the courts of the Lord; / My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (Psalm 84:2). Like the psalmist, we may safely covet a relationship with God. The tenth commandment forbids coveting only that which does not, and should not, belong to us. We have no right to our neighbor’s wife; therefore, we have no right even to desire her. Both the deed and the desire are sins.
Greed, covetousness, and desire are not just ancient passions. If anything, greed has become almost an art form today—a philosophy, a way of life. “Greed is all right,” announced former Wall Street arbitrageur Ivan Boesky during his commencement address at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Business Administration in 1985. “Greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” Boesky should know. The year prior to his arrest for insider stock trading, he made $100 million on Wall Street.
What we think—not just what we say or do—has consequences because what we think often translates into action. Just ask Ivan Boesky. The tenth commandment, therefore, serves as a hedge against trampling upon the rest. People who obey the tenth commandment are better prepared to obey the first nine. People who break the tenth are on their way to breaking any of the rest of them.
The tenth commandment is actually the legal formula for the basic biblical truth that God is concerned with our innermost being. “The LORD does not see as man sees,” says the Bible, “for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). David wrote, “O LORD, You have searched me and known me. / You know my sitting down and my rising up; / You understand my thought afar off ” (Psalm 139:1, 2).
God’s ten-commandment law towers over human legal codes because it deals with our thoughts, motives, and innermost intents. No human law can do that. God alone can discern the secrets of the soul. “For You alone know the hearts of all the sons of men” (1 Kings 8:39). Human laws control actions and sometimes words; lying in court, for example, is illegal. But God calls us to a law that transcends the action—a legal code for the mind itself.
This principle bears on the very essence of Christianity. When asked which commandment is greatest, Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40).
Both deal with love—a thought, an emotion, the motive of the heart. Like the tenth commandment, these two principles—love for God and love for human beings—are concerned with what goes on inside, where God alone can see. Jesus hangs all the Law and Prophets on not just our actions but our thoughts themselves. No wonder God is concerned with the heart!
For many of us, the idea that we can be condemned for our thoughts is terrifying. If, apart from committing the act, a person becomes guilty simply by lusting in the heart, who is innocent? If God knows the evil that lurks within and judges us guilty of that evil, even if it never comes out, who can stand on the day of judgment? Paul warns, “This you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5).
If wrong thoughts are in themselves sin, then all humanity stands condemned before God. We all, like Winston Smith, are guilty of thoughtcrime. “Do not imagine that you will save yourself, Winston, however completely you surrender to us,” said O’Brien, Winston’s captor. “No one who has once gone astray is ever spared. . . . We shall crush you down to the point from which there is no coming back.”
Though we, too, have gone astray, God deals differently with us. All of us who have committed thoughtcrime (or any other crime) can be spared—can be saved—thanks to Jesus Christ, who has died on our behalf. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
He suffered, being tempted
Because Jesus became a human being like us, lived with us, and shared our temptations, He can sympathize with our struggles. “In that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). God “knows our frame; / He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14).
Jesus not only faced the same temptations we face but also overcame those temptations. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15, NIV). And through Jesus, we can overcome temptation as well. The good news of the gospel is that besides forgiving our sins, Jesus gives us the power to overcome them—all of them, even thoughtcrime.
God will cleanse us from the filth and debris that have accumulated in the cracks and crevices of our brains. He wants to sweep away the trash that poisons our lives. He wants to purge the stains on our souls. He wants to do more than just heal our broken hearts; He wants to create new hearts within us. And upon these new hearts—not upon tablets of stone—He wants to write His law. “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” ( Jeremiah 31:33).
Many have longed for this change in their lives. King David said, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, / And renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23, 24, KJV).
And these longed-for changes can take place.
Let the wicked forsake his way,
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
Let him return to the LORD,
And He will have mercy on him;
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:7).
But how can we control our thoughts? That is the question. How can unrighteous people forsake their unrighteous thoughts?
Without a doubt, only God’s supernatural power can provide victory for us in Christ. But we must cooperate with that power. By beholding, we become changed. One key, then, to controlling covetousness and other sinful thoughts is to fill our minds with those things that do not incite such desires. “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8, KJV). God will give us victory over covetousness, anger, lust, pride—all the silent inner sins of the soul that only we (and God) know about. But we must cooperate.
No question, you are guilty of thoughtcrime. Had you lived in Orwell’s 1984, your destiny would be certain. “People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your onetime existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated.”
Fortunately, Orwell’s nightmare fantasy was only that—a dark fantasy. In reality, we have a loving Creator, an all-powerful God who has no desire to destroy us for our sins. Instead, through Jesus Christ, God offers cleansing and victory and eternal life to everyone, everywhere, for every sin—even thoughtcrime.
James Morgan is a freelance writer and occasional contributor to Signs of the Times®.
* Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture in this article is quoted from the New King James Version.