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.

I’m an Overcomer

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.”[1] 

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.”[2] 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.

Footnotes

[1] Henry, M., Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), p. 1129.

[2] Meyer, J., Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind (Fenton, MO: Time Warner, 1995), p. 11.

A Quick Study in Biblical Exegesis

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

WHAT IS EXEGESIS?

Whether you have picked up the Holy Bible for the first time, you’re a college student studying biblical interpretation or theology, or have been reading Scripture since early childhood, there will be passages you think you understand but which your pastor, instructors, classmates, fellow church members, or family members interpret quite differently. Such incidents occur when people read any kind of literature, but we become particularly aware of them when we read religious literature—i.e., writings that make claims regarding who we are, where we come from, where we go when we die, and whether our lives have any relevance in the whole scheme of existence.

Not to worry. Although there are many approaches to the Bible, there is also a decent amount of common ground among responsible readers of the Bible. As you can imagine, atheists tend to look for seeming contradictions and inconsistencies in Scripture in an attempt to defeat the claim that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Regardless, it is critical that we read, think about, and write about the Bible carefully and systematically. This can only be accomplished by sticking to common strategies. Exegesis can be useful for understanding an entire text—indeed, it is important to see the commonalities in a publication—but is typically applied to a smaller section such as a brief narrative, psalm, lament, prophetic utterance, speech, parable, vision, or chapter-length exposition. The technical term for this careful study and analysis of a biblical text or passage is exegesis, from the Greek verb exêgeisthai, meaning “to lead out.”

EXEGESIS AS INVESTIGATION

Exegesis may be defined as careful historical, literary, and theological analysis of a text. We could describe it as “scholarly reading” that ascertains the sense and vitality of the text through complete, systematic recording of the intrinsic meaning of the text. Exegesis requires “close reading,” which is a term quite familiar to students of literature. This exercise describes the deliberate word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase consideration of all the parts of a text in order to determine its overall meaning as a whole.

It is worth noting that many people over the decades have come to realize the goal of exegesis is to discover the biblical writer’s purpose or meaning in the original text. This is what scholars refer to as the “authorial intention,” which can be rather difficult to ascertain. Many biblical scholars believe this is not the only goal of exegesis. When I write an original poem, I am sometimes hard-pressed to determine where the idea and the words came from. Some writers have a hard time expressing their intentions for something someone else has written. It is even more difficult to understand the meaning behind the writings of another person from another time and culture. A more modest and appropriate goal would be to arrive at a credible and discernible understanding of the text on its own merits within its own context.

Exegesis is an investigation: An in-depth look at the many levels or composition of a particular text. To engage in exegesis is to ask historical questions about a text, including the situation or occasion. It also means asking literary questions of the text, such as what is its theological or philosophical aim? Furthermore, exegesis includes asking questions about the religious or theological dimensions of the text. Productive exegesis requires us not being afraid of difficult questions, such as “Why does this verse, phrase, or text seem to contradict that one?” Occasionally, exegesis leads to greater ambiguity rather than a clearer understanding. If you experience this, do not give up. Press on in prayer and meditation.

EXEGESIS AS CONVERSATION

Exegesis involves conversation as much as it does analysis and investigation. It is a dialog with readers (living and dead, more educated and less educated, absent and present). It’s a conversation about about texts and their inherent meaning; about sacred words and what they claim to be true—and what others who have analyzed them claim as their meaning. Beneficial exegesis entails listening to others, even others with whom we disagree. Dissent just might lead to a deeper conversation and a clearer answer. For the sake of universal understanding, exegesis simply cannot take place in a vacuum. It’s a process that needs to occur in the company of others through reading and discussing with them—carefully, critically, and creatively—about the text. Those who like to read and study in isolation would not be an ideal biblical exegete.

Many Christians read the Bible alone, which is perfectly fine. Especially when the object is devotional. I often spend time by myself with Scripture. I will find a collection of verses, for example, that teach who I am in Christ and pray and meditate on those passages. In addition, I like to read Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of Scripture, The Message. It is essentially a paraphrase of Scripture, and is an excellent version for reading the Bible in common language.

It is not wise, however, to attempt exegesis alone. Certainly, ministers, students and biblical scholars spend a lot of time examining Scripture prior to preparing for a paper, sermon, or lecture. They often do this in their private study or office. It is critical that whatever translation they use that they become well-prepared to have an ongoing conversation about the text they’ve consulted for their work. Accordingly, they need a proper exegetical method. In this instance, method should not be considered on equal terms with “scientific” or “historical” analysis. Good reading—just like good conversation—is an art more than a science.

Although there are certain principles that must be followed in order to properly read, analyze, and report on Scripture, exegesis is an art. An acquired skill. The key is learning what to look for, what questions to ask, and how to put your exegetical analysis together for public discourse. This can never be done with complete certainty or with only a “method” in mind. Instead, an exegete needs not only have principles, rules, hard work, and research skills, but also intuition, imagination, sensitivity, and the ability to listen for the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Exegesis is Investigation, Conversation, and Art

According to Michael J. Gorman (2009), good exegetical practice must involve understanding the unique setting (historical context) in which the text was produced and how it fits within the book or text being studied (literary context). We can understand a text only if we pay careful attention to both the whole and the parts (details)—like the proverbial forest as well as the trees. In addition, there are several options which can be applied to the work. Exegesis is typically a rather technical and challenging undertaking.

Interpreters of the Bible systematically use a number of general approaches and specific methods to help them engage with the text they are examining. Some of these methods are called criticisms. The use of the term criticism, as in redaction criticism, does not necessarily imply negative judgment; the primary meaning is analysis as it applies to the historical, literary, or theological value of a text.

The Synchronic Approach

One approach to exegesis is called synchronic (meaning “within time,” or “same time”). However, this method looks only at the final form of the text as it stands in the Bible. It is not concerned with the “long view” or “prehistory” of the text—including any oral traditions, earlier versions, or possible collateral sources. Instead, this approach uses methods designed to analyze the text itself and the text in relation to the world in which it first showed up as a text. This method is not unlike narrative-critical, social-scientific, and socio-rhetorical. To take a socio-rhetorical approach typically involves integrating the ways people use language in their everyday existence.

Types of Criticism in a Synchronic Approach

  • Literary Criticism—the quest to understand the text as literature by employing either traditional or more recent models of literary criticism that are employed in the study of literature generally; corollaries of literary criticism are genre and form analysis, the quests to classify a text as to its type
  • Narrative Criticism—as a subset of literary criticism, the quest to understand the formal and material features of narrative texts (stories) or other texts that have an implicit or underlying narrative within or behind them
  • Rhetorical  Criticism—the quest to understand the devices, strategies, and structures employed in the text to persuade and/or otherwise affect the reader, as well as the overall goals or effects of those rhetorical elements
  • Lexical, Grammatical, and Syntactical Analysis—the quest to understand words, idioms, grammatical forms, and the relationship among these items according to the norms of usage at the time the text was produced
  • Semantic or Discourse Analysis—the quest to understand the ways in which a text conveys meaning according to modern principles and theories of linguistics
  • Social-Scientific Criticism—the quest for the social identity, perceptions of the world, and cultural characteristics of the writers, readers/hearers, and communities suggested by the text; usually divided into two distinct sub-disciplines, social description and social-scientific analysis

It is worth noting that the above approach is often used in the study of literature as well as Scripture. Taking a synchronic approach to the text is quite similar to the technique used by literary critics analyze a poem or other short text. When explicating a poem, for example, they may consider the following features of it:

  • Genre and implied Situation—the type of literature the text is, and the life situation implied by the text
  • Intellectual Core—the topic and theme (the “slant”) of the text
  • Structure and Unity—the arrangement of the text
  • Literary Texture (e.g., poetic)—the details of the text
  • Artistry—the beauty of the text

Let’s look at an example from Scripture by taking a synchronic approach to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). An exegete might ask questions such as the following:

  • What are the various sections of the Sermon, and how do they fit together to make a literary whole?
  • What does the narrator of this Gospel communicate by indicating the setting of the Sermon, the composition of the audience before and after the Sermon, and the audience’s reaction to it?
  • What is the function of the Sermon in the Gospel’s portrayal of Jesus and of discipleship?
  • How would a first-century reader/hearer understand and be affected by this Sermon?

The Diachronic Approach (The Historical-Critical Method)

The second approach to exegesis is the diachronic (meaning “across time”) approach, and it focuses on the origin and development of a text, employing methods designed to uncover these aspects of it. It takes the “long view” of a text and may be considered a longitudinal perspective. This approach is often referred to as the historical-critical method, and it was the approach of choice by many, if not most, biblical scholars of the twentieth century.

Types of Criticism in a Diachronic Approach

  • Textual Criticism—the quest for the original wording of the text and the ways later scribes might have altered it
  • Historical Linguistics—the quest to understand words, idioms, grammatical forms, and the relationships among these items, often with attention to their historical development within a language
  • Form Criticism—the quest for the original type of oral or written tradition reflected in the text, and for the sort of situation in the life of Israel or the early church out of which such a tradition might have developed
  • Tradition Criticism—the quest for understanding the growth of a tradition over time from its original form to its incorporation in the final text
  • Source Criticism—the quest for the written sources used in the text
  • Redaction Criticism—the quest for perceiving the ways in which the final author of the text purposefully adopted and adapted sources
  • Historical Criticism—the quest for the events that surrounded the production of the text, including the purported events narrated by the text itself

A diachronic analysis of the Sermon on the Mount, for example, might involve the exegete asking the following questions:

  • What written or oral sources did the evangelist (writer of the gospel) adopt, adapt, and combine to compose this “Sermon?”
  • What are the various components of the Sermon (beatitudes, prayers, parables, pithy sayings, etc.), and what is their origin and development in Jewish tradition, the career of the earthly Jesus, and/or the life of the early church?
  • What does the evangelist’s use of sources reveal about his theological interests?
  • To what degree do these teachings represent the words or ideas of the historical Jesus?

It is very important when studying biblical texts that we consider not only our own preconceptions, biases, and presuppositions, but also those of the writer of the original text or sources used. For example, there are practitioners who deny the current operation of miracles or the role of the Holy Spirit. These individuals are called cessationists. They believe that spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healing ended with the last apostle. Consequently, they also do not support a modern-day office of apostle. I do not support this conclusion.

Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Eugene Peterson, in his translation The Message, puts it this way: “For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s totally himself.” How can we limit Jesus to certain “dispensations” relative to the works of the Holy Spirit, especially in isolated or developing countries where the Gospel has yet to be preached? Besides, in John 14:12-14 Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (NIV).

The Existential Approach

There is a third approach that is often applied when practicing exegesis, but it does not seem to have an official or commonly used name. Michael J. Gorman (2009) says this method could be labeled existential. It seems this technique is often criticized. This is true for a number of reasons.

Those who support the existential approach to reading Scripture are predisposed to see the subject text as something to be engaged with. Existential methods are therefore considered “instrumental.” They see the text as a vehicle; a means to an end as opposed to an end it itself. For them, perhaps it is a springboard. The existential approach by its very nature will include elements grounded in a reality beyond the text itself. In other words, metaphysical. With this approach, the text “bears witness” to the subject matter. This “something beyond” may be a set of relations among people, such as a “spiritual” truth beyond the “literal.” I believe this approach may also be categorized as theological or transformative. Remember the precept that God’s Word is alive and is power unto personal or psychic change.

The existential (theological or transformative) approach is by nature self-involving. Exegetes using this method do not see the text as a historical or literary artifact to be examined, but as something to engage with—as something that could or should affect their lives. The text is taken seriously with respect to present-day experience, as it impacts the individual and the community. We see this with the Word of God, which has the potential to create a new self and a new community. It is, therefore, both personal and corporate.

Types of Criticism in an Existential Approach

  • Theological exegesis, missional interpretation, and spiritual reading—exegesis is done in the context of a specific religious tradition and or religious purposes
  • Canonical criticism—exegesis is done in the context of the Bible as a whole
  • Embodiment or actualization—exegesis is done in the context of attempting to appropriate and embody the text in the world.
  • Ideological criticism (including post-colonial criticism), advocacy criticism, and liberationist exegesis—exegesis is done in the context of the struggle against unequal power relations and injustice and for justice or liberation

Interestingly, the existential approach is subjective and leaves a lot open to personal interpretation. This can be both good and bad. The existential approach has been with us in Western civilization since the Enlightenment. Enlightened individuals tend to equate knowledge and education with the procurement of truth. This rather ethereal approach to acquiring knowledge is often limiting as it involves an individual’s ability to apply collective values and intuition to understand others and the world around them. Existential methodology features metacognition, which is the act of thinking about what it is you’re thinking about. The upside is people well-versed in this approach are able to see “the big picture,” and are less likely to get lost in the minutiae.

An existential analysis of the Sermon on the Mount might involve asking the following questions:

  • To what kind of modern-day faith and practice does the Sermon call contemporary readers?
  • How might the text about “turning the other cheek” be a potential source of difficulty or even oppression for the politically or socially downtrodden?
  • Does love of enemies rule out the use of resistance or violence in every instance? What does it mean practically to embody the teachings about non-violence in the Sermon?
  • What spiritual practices are necessary for individuals and churches to live the message of the Sermon in the contemporary (albeit pluralistic, self-centered, reactionary) world?

Scholars who approach a text in this way use diverse methods and have a wide variety of goals or agendas. Both diachronic and synchronic methods can be appropriated, and others may be introduced as well. Practitioners  of existential exegesis judge the adequacy of a specific method on the basis of its ability to assist in achieving the overall goal of exegesis. This goal may be described as something rather fundamental, such as conversion or spiritual maturity, or for something more specific, such as a personal encounter with God.

EXEGESIS VERSUS HERMENEUTICS

Making sense of Scripture is an arduous and sometimes confusing undertaking. Some scholars describe exegesis and hermeneutics as “How to read the Bible for all it’s worth.” There is an appreciable difference between explaining what the Bible says and agreeing what it means by what it says. It seems many in the church today tend to argue over how the Bible should control or impact their lifestyle, if at all. This is in part why each individual who approaches interpretation of Scripture will bring a great deal of subjectivity to the exercise. If you study Scripture intent on finding loopholes to justify how you’re living or what you’re believing, you will likely end up confused, indecisive, and (unfortunately) miserable.

The difference between exegesis and hermeneutics is not as sharp as you might think. It could be said they are two sides of the same coin.

Exegesis is the interpretation of a text by way of critical analysis of its content in order to clarify its true meaning. The main goal in exegesis is to uncover the original intended meaning of a given text through careful, systematic study. When we undertake examination of biblical texts in accordance with exegesis, we are examining the text in order to decode the original meaning and determine how it applies to a current situation. Exegesis, by its nature, includes reaching back into history.

Hermeneutics is the study of the principles and methods used to interpret religious texts and philosophical works. Its main goal is to determine the contemporary relevance of such ancient writings. Specific to the Bible, hermeneutics looks for ways that Scripture applies to the “here and now.” In 1764 French philosopher  Voltaire wrote, “The Bible. That is what fools have written, what imbeciles commend, what rogues teach, and young children are made to learn by heart.” Numerous skeptics of Christianity have attacked the names, dates, events and conclusions in the Bible, often proclaiming that Scripture is riddled with errors. For example, people who accept Darwinian evolution ridicule the claim of Creation as a leftover fantasy from the age of barbarians and illiterates. These early scholars believed that science would ultimately provide concrete answers about the origin of life and the universe. We’re still waiting for that to happen.

Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Jr. (2017) discuss how presupposition can skew what we seek and how we interpret. They write, “We are convinced that the goal of hermeneutics is to enable interpreters to arrive at the meaning of the text that the biblical writers or editors intended their readers to understand” (p. 224). Of course, most Christians hold the presupposition that God’s Word is eternal and will always be relevant. It is inspired and alive, having relevance beyond its original circumstance or intention. It is a living text.

It seems appropriate to take a moment to accept and engage with the fact of presupposition. Here are a few critical elements presupposition that needs to be faced:

  • Admit that you have presuppositions
  • Identify those presuppositions that you bring to the task
  • Evaluate or assess your presuppositions
  • Embrace those presuppositions you believe to be valid
  • Take steps to discard those presuppositions you deem invalid

CONCLUDING REMARKS

If we are going to explain, interpret, or translate Scripture in a manner that preserves its meaning and power, we have to move from mere “rules” for decoding texts to a more far-reaching understanding of how to understand Scripture. It also must include admitting our own presuppositions, biases, and preconceived notions, which may or may not be true. It is important to rely on the Holy Spirit to illuminate Scripture. The Spirit will (i) convince us that the Bible is accurate and true, (ii) instill in us an ability to possess rather than merely comprehend the meaning, and (iii) eventually lead us to conviction in our hearts that enable us to fully embrace and live within its meaning.

References

Gorman, M. (2009). Elements of Biblical Exegesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Klein, W., Blomberg, C. and Hubbard, Jr., R. (2017). Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 3rd Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.