October 4, 2005
FREEDOM FROM SINFUL THOUGHTS. By J. Heinrich Arnold. Farmington, PA: The Bruderhof Foundation, 2002. Pp. x + 81.
Readers seeking a quick fix for the problems flowing from original sin will be disappointed by J. Heinrich Arnold’s Freedom from Sinful Thoughts. Indeed, the overarching theme of Arnold’s small book is a familiar one: faith in Christ. But the book must be valued from another perspective: Arnold’s personal encouragement to Christians new and old to persevere in the journey toward holiness.
Each chapter is titled according to the advancing stages of Christian perfection, beginning with “The Struggle” and ending with “Living for the Kingdom.” Between these two chapters Arnold balances realism and hope. He warns the reader that “we will never be completely free from temptation” (5). But he also promises that “a pure heart can become a reality for each of us” (66).
Arnold knows that the struggling Christian is often lost in a cloud of confusion. Therefore, Arnold does not shy away from categorical statements. Because it is derived from Scripture and confirmed by experience, Arnold is convicted about his advice. He first clears away the fear of scrupulous Christians: temptation is not sin. He cites the example of Christ’s temptation in the desert. To more confident Christians, he is equally clear: will power always collapses under the enticement of the imagination. Efforts to fix oneself up always fail. Finally, one piece of advice is likely to surprise the Catholic reader who has labeled Arnold a Protestant: to be freed from our sins, we must confess them to another person. He acknowledges the usual apprehension of this practice, but insists that in time it builds community and brings joy. Arnold’s clear, uncompromising teaching is perhaps the best feature of the book.
Arnold also balances a traditional interpretation of the Bible with the insights of modern psychology. In chapter two, he explains the urgency of prayer in the face of temptation: “The issue is not merely thoughts, feelings, or images, but warring spirits – Paul calls them powers, authorities, and potentates of darkness” (7). But his focus is practical: if we indeed are beset by demons, then this is evidence that we cannot win the struggle against sin by our own will power. To further demonstrate that the will is unsuited for the task, Arnold turns to modern psychology. He devotes a chapter each to two technical terms: suggestion and autosuggestion. The reader is left uncertain about their distinction, but the general idea is simple. Recall the experience of having a thought on the tip of your tongue. If you feared losing the thought, you probably did. Likewise, when the will suppresses a sinful thought, the will’s focus on the thought inadvertently brings it to the forefront of the mind, where the person is likely to act on it.
Although for Arnold a quick fix to the problem of sinful thoughts is impossible, there is nonetheless a key to its solution. That key is faith in Christ: “If we do not entrust ourselves to him completely, we will never find the full inner freedom and peace he promises us” (33). A welcome respite from self-help literature, Christians of all stripes will benefit from Freedom.