Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:5)
By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.
I BELIEVE EACH OF US, regardless of our temperament, personality type, coping skills (or lack thereof), cultural background, upbringing, worldview, race, or nationality, come to a specific point in our lives when we decide everything is going to change. We’re done lying—covering up our hidden agenda, weaknesses, failures, bad habits, addictions, mistreatment of those we claim to love, or, maybe for some reading this, our criminal actions, aggression, hatred, manipulation, projecting blame, escaping consequences, and dwelling on our sin-ridden past. No one truly likes admitting complete defeat. But we cannot hold on to a false reality about who we are because of the terrible things we’ve done—we can’t say, “It is too horrible and painful to face.” This is not an option if we truly want to get unstuck.
Many of us decide on more than one occasion that this is the moment we are willing to admit every hidden crutch, falsehood, regression, fall from grace, relapse, slip, or harmful action. An addictions counselor told me years ago why we lie. It’s simple, really: To hide the truth about some feeling we’re having or something we’ve done. I faced a judge several years ago after yet another relapse that ended in criminal behavior and made the following statement: The definition of character is how we behave when we think no one is watching. I could tell by the look on the judge’s face that he was impressed. Unfortunately, I likely said this to avoid jail time and receive probation. I don’t mean this is not a truism for me, or something I don’t want to live by; it was not necessarily true when I said it in court. Not surprisingly, there was yet another relapse and a court appearance down the road.
Lately, I’ve been struggling with whether I ever meant anything I’ve said to family, my two ex-wives, friends, employers, judges, even God. How many times did I say what needed to be presented on the surface without meaning it inside my heart? Were there times when I said it and meant it at the time, only to slip months or years later? Probably, but those times were fewer than I care to admit. Of course, failing to confess this internal struggle and the masquerade I was putting on only served to put an ace wrap on my sprained soul. I continued to believe in something just because I said it out loud without looking within to see if it were true.
I just came off of a horrible weekend this Sunday. It started with extreme physical pain, which is pretty much chronic for me anymore. Severe low back pain due to a collapsed disc, bad neck pain and stiffness (same reason, unfortunately), headaches, severe arthritic pain in my right wrist and thumb, and unrelenting fibromyalgia. No, I am not looking for sympathy. Millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain every day. Nor am I trying to blame my bad choices on pain. I need to stay away from opiates, but it’s not easy. I get incredibly discouraged. My underlying mental illness (Bipolar Disorder, in remission; Depression, Anxiety) has caused added problems. This is what treatment professionals refer to as “double-trouble.” Co-occuring addiction and mental illness, coupled with chronic pain, makes it more likely I will decide to relapse and get high, especially on a narcotic painkiller.
Whenever I have a bad weekend like this one, I also tend to sink into a sad, self-pitying state of mind. If I stew in my “crap” long enough, I start yelling at God. I’ve been known to say to God, “Either cure me or kill me!” Interestingly, I don’t really want to die. I want to live. But here’s the rub: I want to live under my terms, which is happy, peppy, pain-free, a wive I am truly bonded to, plenty of friends, complete acceptance, total forgiveness, and a great job. Oh, and a car, which I have not been able to afford for over a year. I don’t want to feel stressed, unhappy, unloved, lonely, or “damaged.” I want the past to be gone from my memory. On really bad days, I want my past to completely disappear. I want social media and background checks to reveal nothing sordid from my past. I have wondered how to go about getting a new birth certificate, social security number, and a passport, and just go somewhere new and start completely over. (Thankfully, it’s been a number of years since I contemplated that nonsense!) Besides, there are no mulligans in life are there?
How Do We Overcome?
I finally watched the Christian film Overcomer. I don’t think I’ve cried as much during any movie I’ve watched. I have a number of favorite faith-based movies, including the God’s Not Dead trilogy, Breakthrough, Courageous, Fireproof, 90 Minutes in Heaven, War Room, and The Passion of the Christ. Each of these movies have meant a great deal to me. I usually end up watching a film just at the right moment in my life, and invariably take something away I can use. I always end up feeling guilty for how I’ve been living my life. I feel “damaged,” or “less than.” Not until Overcomer did a film hit on this very nerve and set in motion a complete acceptance of who I was, how I unfortunately behave at times, and who I am in God’s eyes. In a nutshell, this movie told my story, only with different names and circumstances.
Several characters in the film were struggling to varying depths with their walk with God and their individual commitment. When a blind man in a hospital bed asked the main character visiting patients, “Who are you John?” John answered, “I’m a basketball coach.” The bedridden patient asked who John would be if his basketball team was taken from him. He said he was a history teacher, a sort-of cross-country coach (you have to see the movie to get that reference), a husband, etc. The man then asked John, “No, John, I mean who are you? Who would you be if all that was stripped away?” John said, “Well, I am a Christian.” This intrigued the man in the bed. He said, “If you’re a Christian, John, why was that the last thing you listed?” He told John, “You are whoever you put at the top of your list.” John asked if the man was saying John was a bad Christian. Of course, that was for John to answer for himself. Thankfully, he was able to address the question and began to put God first.
No one likes to hear this, but we simply cannot “overcome” under our own power. Most people take offense at this. I did! But no matter what we’re doing and not doing according to our Christian walk, we’re not able to handle everything that comes along. We cannot overcome our sin nature. Addicts and alcoholics cannot stop using on their own. Sexual predators often re-offend years later. Christian men and women have fallen into the sinful practice of watching pornography. Jimmy Swaggart got caught having sex with prostitutes. Many people, including Christians, gossip incessantly. Many judge others. For me, this was a way to take the focus off my glaring defects of character and my habitual sin. It is simply not possible to stop sinning just because we believe in “a god,” or the God of Abraham and Isaac, or Jesus Christ . We can become “saved” and see Christ as our Messiah, but fail to make Him LORD of our lives. We can go to church every week yet continue sinning. This is what the Bible considers “practicing” sin. The initial step to overcoming is to honestly and willingly admitting to Christ that we are broken. If we don’t, there is virtually no chance of defeating the bondage over us. How can we ask for help if we cannot admit there is something broken and in need of fixing?
The Battle Begins in Our Mind
Paul wrote, “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37, NRSV). The Greek word commonly translated “overcome” in Scripture carries no surprising meaning. It simply means “to win a victory,” or “to stand victorious over an enemy.” To overcome in the biblical sense means to live in the victory that Jesus Christ purchased for us through His atoning death. It means victory over our old nature and winning under our new nature. We cannot make the mistake that “salvation” means “overcoming.” It does not. Salvation does involve being set free, but salvation is the vehicle for our deliverance; the means through which we can become victorious; the power needed to defeat the enemy. The word most frequently used for “salvation” in the New Testament is Greek, sôtêria, meaning “deliverance.”
Overcoming, by definition, involves warfare. The battlefield for this warfare is, as Joyce Meyer notes, our mind. In her seminal book Battlefield of the Mind, Meyer explains the importance of thought. She writes, “The mind is the leader or forerunner of all actions. Romans 8:5 makes it clear: For those who are according to the flesh and are controlled by its unholy desires set their minds on and pursue those things which gratify the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit and are controlled by the desires of the Spirit set their minds on and seek those things which gratify the Holy Spirit.”
Our actions are a direct result of our thoughts. How important is this tenet? Consider the following axiom:
Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.
Paul smartly describes this battle we face: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Satan begins each attack by bombarding our minds with a twisted false reality—nagging thoughts, suspicions, doubts, fears, and character assassination. This attack starts as a trickle. Satan knows us better than we’d like, and he knows where the chinks are in our armor. As this attack enters into overdrive, the devil causes “strongholds.” Second Corinthians 10:3-5 says, “For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”
Matthew Henry writes, “The work of the ministry is a spiritual warfare with spiritual enemies, and for spiritual purposes. Outward force is not the method of the gospel, but strong persuasions, by the power of truth and the meekness of wisdom.” Some may argue that this passage specifically refers to the mission of effectively spreading the gospel. Consider, however, that as believers our theology must be a living one. Martin Luther said, “It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned, that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading, or speculation.” Believers learn doctrine in order to participate more deeply, passionately, and truthfully in the drama of redemption. Intellectual apprehension of the gospel alone, without the appropriation of heart and hand—what we believe in our heart and what we do as a result of that belief—leads only to hypocrisy. This is what is meant by needing to get God out of our heads and into our hearts. Otherwise, our theological studies amount to nothing more than accumulation of “data.”
Truly, our theology must quicken the conscience and soften the heart, or it will surely harden them as we learn only a fraction of the truth or, worse, learn what we need in order to find loopholes and manipulate the gospel. (Read my post Do You Look for Loopholes as a Christian?) In subtle ways, we begin to confuse ourselves with God. We think our words, our understanding, our convictions, our conclusions, perfectly reflect the Word of God. This can eventually lead to a trip down the rabbit hole of self-will run riot. If we are compromising our Christian walk, and dare take a close, honest inventory, we just might see signs of a corrupted theology, marked with fits of anger, prideful debate, jealousy, division, and strife. Our witness becomes far less than what it must be in order for us to display Jesus. This is bad for us, for those we confuse or push away, and bad for Jesus. It develops subtly into hypocrisy. Genuine theology, inversely, contains marks of grace, humility, truth, gentleness, unity, peace, patience, and love (see Gal. 5:22-26). This comes only from putting Christ before us. Humility does not mean thinking less of ourselves, rather thinking of ourselves less often.
No matter the depth and quality of our walk with Christ, we have moments where we fall short. One minute we’re walking in the Spirit, basking in joy and peace, and the next we’re ambushed by some inner thought, a difficult situation, or the hurtful remarks of someone in our lives. Paul clearly expressed this critical difficulty. He said, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; he delivered us from so deadly a peril, and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” (2 Cor. 1:8-10).
It is very important to catch these moments of negative ruminations as quickly as possible. If we fail at this, we miss the opportunity to recognize what should only be a fleeting thought, not the establishing of a stronghold. I learned a term in my undergraduate course in psychology that I try to use regularly. It is called metacognition: thinking about what we’re thinking about! Because the prime battlefield is in our mind, this concept dovetails with being vigilant. First Peter 5:8 says, “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.” We are waged in a war with our enemy, Satan, who is a liar and the father of them. He works subtly at first, then ramps up his attack. If we fail to “kick him out of our mind,” he will establish powerful strongholds. He is in no hurry. He’ll hang around, chipping away bit by bit, until he has convinced us of our “hopeless” situation. Worse, he may eventually get us to doubt our salvation.
Our “defense,” similar to football, soccer, or basketball, must be to see the “ball coming,” then reach out and swat it done before it lands in our mind. We cannot let the devil score. The Bible provides many weapons for our defense. Most importantly is hiding the Word of God in our hearts so that we might not sin. This is not memorizing Scriptures for the sake of “knowing them.” That is not a proper strategy for defense. It refers to knowing in our hearts what the Bible says about who we are in Christ, and what Jesus accomplished on the cross. The very next defense is to properly “suit up.” We need to put on the whole armor of God (see Ephesians 6:11-18). Many believers have heard this verse a thousand times. Few know what the “entire” armor entails. Worse, many Christians think we put it on to do battle—during each skirmish with Satan—then take it off. Funny how the imagination works; we consider “armor” to be heavy or restricting, so we take it off. We must “wear” this armor during our time in this world.
Praise and prayer are also effective for battle. Praise defeats Satan fairly quickly, and it tends to brighten our outlook and mood. Whenever we choose praise, which helps create in us a sense of gratitude no matter the situation, it’s as though we took off dirty, scratched, dark glasses and put on a clear pair. Prayer, of course, is the primary means of talking to God. We need to acknowledge our predicament (vigilance) and ask God to grant us courage, discernment, and wisdom. Further, if we practice continuous and diligent prayer, we spend time daily in the Father’s presence building a relationship; we find ourselves thanking Jesus for the horrific death he experienced as our proxy, and we start regularly tapping into the power in the Name of Jesus.
Let me close with this key Scripture from the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13).
I believe this is a critical topic worthy of consideration. I therefore encourage feedback from my blog readers in order to dialog on overcoming troubles and temptations in the Christian faith. Please leave a comment or question in the box below. Thanks for reading. God bless.
 Henry, M., Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), p. 1129.
 Meyer, J., Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind (Fenton, MO: Time Warner, 1995), p. 11.