Review of Freedom from Sinful Thoughts by Heini Arnold

Dallas Willard

Originally published in The Plough

Heini Arnold. Freedom from Sinful Thoughts. (Rifton, NY: Plough Publishing House, 1973) xv + 118.

Opportunity never knocks twice, we are told. But temptation does—and three times, and four times, and . . . . It wears us down with the persistence of a dripping faucet, or knocks us off balance by renewing its old demands in new settings and unexpected associations.

Satan knows what persistence can do. In most activities, a carefully guided persistence achieves a cumulative effect. Forces generated in one try are carried over into the next. A car stuck in sand or mud sinks deeper in response to a strong burst of power, but rolls free when gently rocked forward and backward to gain momentum.

A nagging thought of resentment, envy, lust or fear can build to an inner store that shakes the soul to its foundation. The repeated assault, just by its mere continuance, can rob us of confidence in God’s presence in our lives and make us despair of ever finding the purity for which our hearts long. It may even destroy an individual who would stand, joyous and firm, before a single direct onslaught of sin, death and hell.

Young people who desire to follow Christ closely are especially vulnerable to persistent temptations. Their character and pattern of life work is not yet established to the point where they are automatically carried forward by the good which engages them. Their experience and understanding of God’s grace has not yet shown the how He is triumphant over all, including their own innermost thoughts and feelings.

But all age groups can be paralyzed or cast into despair by persistent temptation. Satan is no respecter of persons. He knows that the power with which we directly resist an idea of wrong doing passes over to that idea and is turned against us. He plans his attacks accordingly. The stronger vs resist, the stronger becomes our fascination or obsession. Paradoxically, we are trapped by our own efforts to avoid evil. Many never learn what Saint Augustine put so well from his own experience: “Beware of despairing about yourself; you are commanded to put your trust in God, not in yourself.”

Sensing the increasing power of the idea, and looking only to our own strength, we then begin to think that we will never escape, and that the temptation will surely have its way with us. This suggestion, this evil counsel of our despair, seizes our will. We may enter a ceaseless struggle of avoidance—even arranging our whole life around avoidance of the evil which we are nonetheless convinced we cannot escape.

The onlooker may see in this situation a mere confusion of faith: too much faith in self, too little faith in God’s goodness and power! But the one caught up in it needs precise directions on how to escape. Wise and effective counsel is provided by Heini Arnold’s little book, Freedom from Sinful Thoughts: Christ Alone Breaks the Curse. With deep insight into the workings of the mind and how Satan uses them to attack us, he brings us through the steps toward deliverance by union with Christ.

1. Those who are set to do the will of God must know that their temptation is not sin. How hard it is for the person under attack to accept this! Therefore the author wisely begins with the point (page 6) and returns to emphasize it again and again.

Our first union with Christ is in His temptation. We may glibly profess that Jesus is the Son of God. But it is not easy really to believe that “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2-3) when that means he entered a life with the natural limitations and burdens of our own. But the very heart of the gospel which saves us is: He entered our normal human circumstances and was tempted on all the points in which we are tried—“yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) “An evil, tempting thought is not a sin. If we dismiss the thought from our minds, we have not sinned—just as Jesus never sinned.” (page 9)

The necessary emphasis here for the troubled soul is not that He did not sin, that he overcame temptation, but that temptation itself did not defile Him. Satan lies to us. Take lies away and his power is completely broken. He tells us that we are already defiled by the temptation. Thus he hopes to bring us more easily to the sinful act in question, or to some other one caused by our despair. For have we not already lost the battle?

But our resistance and hatred of the very temptation—as well as the action which it presents—shows that our real will is on the side of God. There we stand with Jesus Himself, though in the midst of temptation. “When in spite of evil thoughts, ideas, and images we really want God and Christ in the deepest core of our hearts, it means that Christ is deep within our hearts.” (page 35) Our very struggle is proof of where our deepest will lies—though we may not be able to discover this by picking over our conscious thoughts and feelings.

2. We must also join Christ in His abandonment to the will of His Father, beyond our own will. We will not to sin, and that is good. But our will cannot save us. Heine Arnold leads us to Eckhart’s teaching about detachment as the route of escape from self-will in the struggles against evil. This great master of The Way tells us: “The just man . . . wishes for nothing else and desires nothing different from what God decrees for him. If God’s will were to please you in this way, you would feel just as if you were in Heaven, regardless of what happens or does not happen to you.” (page 38)

In Christ we learn that I do not have to have my way even if my way is right. Eckhart and his master, Jesus, understood that even triumph over temptation is loss if it merely amounts to me getting my own way. This abandonment to God’s will, this detachment to what I want (even if it be good), trusts God in whatever comes. And if that be a persistent temptation I will accept that too as an opportunity to trust God and be with Him.

3. But what if I am defeated by the temptation? What if I do the evil things to which I am tempted? Is that to be accepted as God’s will? No. But God cares and lives beyond our defeat. And here is our third point of union with Christ. The deepest by far. Our union with His cross. There He experienced sin and God-forsakenness. There he somehow knew what we feel when we fall into sin and away from the Father. And then beyond the point where all seemed lost as He stood in our sin with us, beyond death, he knew a resurrection life in the power of God beyond human failure.

On the cross with Christ we learn that a failure is not the end, and that forgiveness through His blood means freedom to take up the resurrection life. “We give ourselves absolutely and without reserve to Jesus with all we are and have. Ultimately, all we have is our sin. We must lay our sin before Him in trust. Then He will give us forgiveness, cleansing, and peace of heart; and these lead to a love that cannot be described.” (page 108) “If we are really able to believe that Jesus is faithful to us even though we are unfaithful, we will have the experience of seeing Jesus as He is.” (page 72)

The heart of liberation is in the realization that we can trust Jesus with our sins. He was called “Jesus” just because He was to save His people from their sins. (Matthew 1:21) We cannot escape them, but He will actually take them away if we give them to him for that purpose. They will simply be replaced in our lives by the good which He gives us to do and to enjoy.

4. His life is present in His church. The final point of our union with Christ comes as we open ourselves to those who minister Him from His life in them. “The Cross points to our brothers. Jesus is present wherever there is a gathering in His name. The power of forgiveness is there too; there, the heart of one who is troubled can free itself of all its load of sin, by opening up and telling everything in trust to someone appointed by the Church.” (p. 109)

The inner vision and experience of union with Christ in His temptation, in his surrender to The Will beyond His own, and in His death and resurrection, find affirmation in the life of His people. Release from self-effort finds the reality of an overcoming power flowing through our lives together.

We see it working. The cycle of struggle, despair and self-accusation is broken as we enter into the onward flow of God’s workings in us and around us. Persistent temptation to evil loses its grip on those who are given up to doing what is good in the goodness of God. Thus, Christ in us breaks the curse of sinful thoughts.

Dallas Willard. Review of Freedom from Sinful Thoughts: Christ Alone Breaks the Curse by Heini Arnold. The Plough (1986).