Breaking Free from Spiritual Strongholds

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

I  lived in bondage for so long that I became convinced victory was simply unattainable. My situation was desperate long before I realized how dire it had become. If I were God, I would have given up on me long ago; I would have walked away from the me who couldn’t put together one week of sober living, selfless actions, acceptance, or surrender. I hid behind alcohol, drugs, and pornography. My life was a one-act play of misery and failure, and I was its sole writer, director, and actor. I can’t identify the exact moment when my train ran off the track. That’s okay! I eventually came to accept that my life had become derailed and, regardless of the cause(s), I needed help from a powerful source to lift the toppled engine and cars back on the track.

Today, I feel a sense of urgency to teach those lessons I learned the hard way. This was only possible after I admitted it was not I but my God and Savior who would be doing the teaching. Each of us faces a time in our lives when we must recognize where we’re at versus where we want to be; that we are nowhere near the “vicinity” of what God has called us to do. While in this strange land, we tend to miss the lessons learned. We see no reason for our troubles except to blame them on God or others; we especially miss the glaring evidence that we are causing our own failure! We hide our misery and failure—and our ridiculous attempts to control reality. It reminds me of the wizard: Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

Sadly, it was not until I experienced endless failure that I threw my hands in the air, desperate for freedom, and cried out to God. Most of my prior attempts to let go and let God were fake. I had not truly surrendered. In general, surrender means “giving in,” “yielding” to something. Spiritually, it involves a believer completely giving up his own will, subjecting his thoughts, ideas, and deeds to the will and teachings of God.

Surrender means to yield ownership, to relinquish control over what we consider ours: our property, our time, our “rights.” When we surrender to God, we are simply acknowledging that what we “own” actually belongs to Him. He is the giver of all good things. We are responsible to care for what God has given us, as stewards of His property, but by surrendering to God, we admit that He is ultimately in control of everything, including our present circumstances. Surrendering to God helps us to let go of whatever has been holding us back from God’s best for our lives. By surrendering to God, we let go of whatever has kept us from wanting God’s ways first.

Two factors drastically sabotaged my victory again and again: self-centered fear and belief in a false reality. I was quite good at looking the part (well, most of the time). Just smile, praise Jesus, go to church, teach Bible study at the local prisons, and (when no one was looking) continue to do things my way. I hated the phrase, “Too smart for my own good.” And don’t you dare call me a hypocrite! I was deluding myself with a case of “terminal uniqueness.” I’m not like those other helpless saps! Surrender meant admitting defeat. Well, yeah. That’s the whole point of giving in. Denial, however, will keep us from surrendering. We tell ourselves we don’t have a problem. Worse, we see the problem before us but decide we can fix ourselves.

The Habitual Practice of Sin

The apostle Paul frequently wrote about struggling against his sinful nature. He said, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15, NRSV). From infancy, it appears, we struggle for control to get what we want, when we want it, and in the way we want it. This independent drive to be in charge lies behind every struggle for power, every prejudice, every conflict, and every abuse of relationship since the dawn of time. Paul recognized that the fault lay not with the commandments of God (the Law) but with sin itself (Rom. 7:17). His exhortation in chapter seven illustrates with increased intensity how living in deliberate sin causes our lives to be like a runaway freight train. Paul wrote, “I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (7:23-24).

There have been countless treatises on the habitual practice of sin. We all are born with a nature that wants to do our own will. Typically, this is contrary to God’s will. The Bible calls this nature our “flesh”. When we follow the inclinations of the flesh (our lusts) we commit sin. This information should help us recognize and address habitual sin. For me, it had the opposite effect. It became a loophole for continuing to sin. Honestly, I was practicing premeditated, purposeful sin. Moreover, I was doing so in secret, making every attempt possible to hide my disobedience. I rationalized my habitual sin by saying, “Not even the apostle Paul, who had a miraculous encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus and wrote one-third of the New Testament, could resist sin so how could I?” (Please read my post Do You Look for Loopholes as Christian?)

Habitual sin leads to establishment of strongholds.

What is a Stronghold?

Paul was speaking of a “change in ownership in Romans 7. Certainly, grace is in control under the New Covenant. More importantly, however, a new Master has replaced sin. Union with Christ makes the new believer a servant of the Righteousness of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we move into a new mindset: One of obedience. Paul impresses upon us  that being under grace should not create in us a moral laxity. Sin was our master before we were redeemed. The righteousness of Christ that leads to eternal life calls us out from among the darkness of sin and disobedience. It is important, however, to note that our freedom as believers is limited. Contingent might be a better word. We either continue to put ourselves at the disposal of sin (remaining its servant), and eventually die; or we devote ourselves to Christlike obedience unto eternal life.

Paul teaches us about strongholds in 2 Corinthians 10:5: “We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” He sets the stage by stating that although we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war with typical weapons. He says, “for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (10:4). In her powerful book Praying God’s Word, Beth Moore writes, “Basically, a stronghold is any argument or pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.”1 Habits (actually, anything that exalts itself against the knowledge of God) tend to look bigger or more powerful than God. Whatever we let overpower us becomes our master!

Strongholds consume so much of our emotional and mental energy that the abundant life we’re promised by Jesus is strangled. We are cut off from the sunlight of the Spirit. Rendered powerless, we stumble and fall. The resulting guilt keeps us from seeking forgiveness. Satan, the proverbial lion who roams the earth seeking whom he can destroy, whispers an endless stream of lies in our ears. Matthew West delivered this powerful message in his song “Hello, My Name Is.” 

Hello, my name is regret
I’m pretty sure we have met;
Every single day of your life
I’m the whisper inside
Won’t let you forget.
Hello, my name is defeat
I know you recognize me;
Just when you think you can win
I’ll drag you right back down again
‘Til you’ve lost all belief.
These are the voices,
these are the lies
And I have believed them,
for the very last time.

The primary  battlefield on which we wage war is the mind. Paul says, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col.3:2). Satan wages war in our minds because the most effective way to influence behavior is to influence thinking. This battle has already been won through Christ, but the devil plays make-believe. He lost the right to control those who believe in Jesus; however, through lies, he tricks us into thinking he’s still in charge. Don’t believe him: Jesus disarmed the principalities and powers of this earth, making a public example of them (Col. 2:15). Nothing is bigger or more powerful than God. Not even the strongest addiction or the most deeply-rooted feeling. We need only apply the proper weapons and we can defeat the devil at his deceptive practices.

Our weapons are not carnal; they are not of this world. They are grounded in divine power and associated with the knowledge of God. Their purpose is to take captive all our thoughts, allowing us to transform our minds. Paul said, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 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. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Eph. 10:11-13). Carnal is the exact opposite of spiritual. Because we wrestle against principalities, powers, and the world rulers of this present darkness, only a spiritual solution will suffice.

What do these weapons look like? “Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph. 6:13-18a). Beth Moore writes, “The sword of the Spirit, clearly identified as the Word of God, is the only offensive weapon listed in the whole armor of God.”In addition to the sword of the Word, we are to “pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”

Matthew Henry writes, “Spiritual strength and courage are needed for our spiritual warfare and suffering… the Christian armour [sic] is made to be worn; and there is no putting off our armour till we have done our warfare and finished our course.”3 Incidentally, we are to remain clothed with the whole armor of God until the day we are called home to paradise. Paul is describing heavy armor typically worn in battle. Truth (or sincerity) is our girdle. There can be no spirituality without wholehearted trust. The righteousness of Christ is our breastplate, which protects our heart against attack. Our feet must be shod with the preparation of the gospel. This means our attitude and our motives must be grounded in a clear knowledge of the gospel. We must carry the shield of faith, which stops the arrows of the enemy. Lastly, we need perseverance: we must remain persistent in doing that which is required for victory despite difficulty or delay.

Mind Over Matter?

Paul wisely said, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Conversion and sanctification aid in the renewing of our minds. This involves a change of the heart, not of substance or circumstance. Clearly, the more we are equipped with God’s armor, the better we can withstand any circumstance or temptation. The process of sanctification—dying to sin more and more—is how this renewing is accomplished. The end-goal, of course, is spiritual perfection (maturity). The general definition for maturity is “the state, fact, or period of being mature.” Synonyms for mature include complete, cultivated, developed, prepared or fit for a purpose, ready.

Joyce Meyer wrote, “How can we express the importance of our thoughts sufficiently in order to convey the true meaning of Proverbs 23:7?”4 This verse says, “For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (NASB). Meyer says the mind is the leader, the driving force, of all actions. Paul tells us this. Romans 8:5 says, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (NRSV) (emphasis mine). Truly, our behavior is a direct result of our thoughts. The first step in victory is thinking about what you’re thinking about. This is called metacognition in psychology. It is a worthwhile tool for identifying irrational or erroneous thought patterns that are producing the very problems we experience. In other words, we create our experiences through the power of our thoughts.

Some typical strongholds include the following:

  • Unbelief
  • Idolatry (worshiping our things)
  • Pride
  • Rejection
  • Depression
  • Addiction
  • Sexual Dysfunction
  • Unforgiveness

I will be presenting detailed lessons on the above strongholds over the next few weeks. Whether you are currently fighting a stronghold in your life, or desire to counsel and teach others who are stuck, I hope you will find the tools you need, based on sound biblical principles, to empower you in such work. I intend to start with unbelief. Many Christians believe, yet they wonder if they have enough faith. Jesus describes a situation in Mark 9 where a certain man sought healing for his son. Jesus said to the father, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes” (9:23). The man replied, “I believe; help my unbelief” (9:24). The number one reason we do not receive what we ask of God is because we lack faith. Others have been deceived by the devil regarding the truth of the gospel. Satan’s only weapon is to attack our minds and cause uncertainly about what we hold to be true. Or, worse, he lies to us about who we are in Christ, causing condemnation.

I hope you will return next week for the first installment on attacking strongholds.

1 Beth Moore, Praying God’s Word: Breaking Free From Strongholds (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 3.

2 Beth Moore, 5.

3 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 1153.

4 Joyce Meyer, The Battlefield of the Mind (New York, NY: Warner Books, 1995), 11.

Why Do Christians Still Sin?

If we really knew God, our behavior would change radically and instantly.

Many Christians are living under half a Gospel. Christ died for our sins. When we pray to receive Him, believing in our heart that He is the Messiah, we die with Him, and are buried with Him. If we leave it there, where is our resurrection? If we do not repent from continual, deliberate sin, do we not act as if His death and resurrection was a worthless gesture? Think of it this way. If you came across a dead man lying along a road and you had the power to save him, what would you do? Give him life? If that is all you did, then he would merely die again one day. You would have to cure the disease that caused him to die in the first place.

The True Definition of a Christian

Regardless of how overused the word Christian has become, the biblical definition of a Christian is one who is a follower of Christ; a disciple of Jesus (see Acts 11:26). A Christian is not merely someone who has ascribed to a particular set of religious beliefs or practices, joined a church, said a penitent prayer, or participated in certain sacraments or rituals. A Christian is a person who has responded to the conviction of the Holy Spirit and has put his or her whole faith in the finished work of the cross of Christ for salvation. Christians have repented of their sin and have made Jesus Lord of their lives. Romans 10:9-10 says, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NIV).

We Can’t Deny We Still Sin

The Bible says, “For the wages of sin is death… (Romans 6:23a, NIV). Jesus went to the cross and died for our sins. Is the whole Gospel simply curing the disease that caused us to die? Not at all. Finish reading the verse: “…but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 23b). When we forget the entire Gospel, we remain fleshly. We are forgiven yet not redeemed. Sounds strange, right? Almost counter-intuitive. Surely, we’ve been ransomed from the wages of sin by the death of Christ. However, full redemption provides a number of benefits we need in order to live righteously. Redemption provides us with eternal life; forgiveness of sins; a right relationship with God; guidance from the Holy Spirit; adoption into God’s Holy family. When we’re redeemed, we become different people. We are truly alive in Christ. We are now free to choose to live in the Spirit and not in the flesh.

The First Epistle of John was written to Christians. We’re told in 1:8-10, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (NIV). God tells us not to deny that we sin, saying if we do, we’re actually calling Him a liar. Verse 9 indicates what we’re to do when—not if—we sin. He promises to forgive us and cleanse us of the unrighteousness associated with our sin.

1 John 3:9 says, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God” (NIV) [Italics mine]. These types of seeming contradictions confuse new Christians and drive agnostics and atheists crazy. This, however, is not a contradiction. John’s idea of committing sin on a permanent, habitual basis is further explained in 3 John 1:11: “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God” (NIV).

In 1 John 3:6-9, the apostle is examining the question of whether a person “born of God” can commit sin. In verse 6, he writes, “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.” In verse 9, he emphatically shares, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin.” John seems to say it is not possible for those who are really  born again to continue to sin. If that were true, there would not be many genuine Christians. This is not what John means. Remember, every believer still possesses a fallen, sin nature, as well as the indwelling Holy Spirit. This reminds me of the old Cherokee saying that we all possess two wolves inside us. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, and ego. The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, truth, compassion, and faith. Which wolf will win the fight? The one you feed.

The correct translation of 1 John 3:8 should be, “The one who practices sin.”

What Does It Mean to “Practice Sin?”

Hebrews 10:26-27 says, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (NIV). The Greek word for committing sin (poieo) means to be seen sinning, or to display a sinful behavior. Certainly, this will present a poor witness, making the Christian appear hypocritical. I’ve been there, my friends. Far too many times. I’ve often said, “If I don’t start behaving better in public—stop raging at stupid tailgaters, for example—I’m going to take the Jesus First plate off the front of my car.” The Greek word for practicing sin (prasso) means to perform repeatedly or habitually, and hints of deeds, acts, or using arts. Notice the plurality and repetition here.

In Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, we read the following regarding Hebrews 10:26-31:

The sin here mentioned is a total and final falling away, when men, with a full and fixed will and resolution, despise and reject Christ, the only Saviour; despise and resist the Spirit, the only Sanctifier; and despise and renounce the gospel, the only way of salvation, and the words of eternal life… all this does not in the least mean than any souls who sorrow for sin will be shut out from mercy, or that any will be refused the benefit of Christ’s sacrifice, who are willing to accept these blessings. Him that cometh unto Christ, he will in no wise cast out” (pp. 1212-1213).

The Nature of the Problem

The Bible teaches we are dead in our “trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) and “were by nature children of wrath” (2:3) [Emphasis added]. In other words, we were born physically alive but spiritually dead. We had no access to God’s presence in our lives, nor knowledge of His ways. We simply lived our lives devoid of God, unless and until someone introduced us to the Gospel. Paul plainly explained, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want” (NIV).

The flesh can be described as existence apart from God—a life dominated by sin or a drive opposed to God. Obviously, the flesh considers itself self-reliant rather than God-dependent; it is self-centered rather than Christ-centered. Mankind, accordingly, is sinful by nature and spiritually dead. But, at the moment of salvation, God transfers us from the domain of sin and darkness to the Kingdom of His beloved Son (see Colossians 1:13). Additionally, sin’s dominion through the flesh has been broken. As believers, we are no longer in the flesh—we are in Christ. We have to believe that our new identity is in the life of Christ and commit ourselves accordingly.

If you are a new creation in Christ, have you ever wondered why you still think and feel at times the same way you did before? Because everything you learned before you knew Christ is still programmed into your memory. Unfortunately, there is no mental delete button. Surely, this is why Paul says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2, NIV) [Emphasis mine]. We have to renew how we think, not delete our old way of thinking.

Concluding Remarks

God’s work of atonement changes us from sinners to saints. No doubt this is a hard concept to comprehend as a new Christian. The radical change—aptly called regeneration—is effected at the moment of salvation. The ongoing change in the believer’s daily walk continues throughout life. The progressive work of sanctification, however, is only fully effective when the radical, inner transformation by regeneration is recognized, accepted, and appropriated by faith.

New believers are dominated by the flesh and deceived by the devil. It takes time and practice to renew the mind and overcome the patterns of the flesh. We have to believe we have a new nature. Our “new self” is oriented toward God. Being a child of God and being free in Christ is positional truth and the birthright of every believer. However, because of a lack of repentance and ignorance of the truth, many believers are not living like liberated children of God. Our freedom from sin’s domination hinges on knowledge of the truth.

Hmm. In other words, the truth will set us free. Where have I heard that before?