How Do You Break the Stranglehold of Strongholds?
Note: The following material is taken from Soul Physicians.
Do you ever wonder why that same besetting sin repeatedly defeats you? Despite your continual decision to stop sinning in that same old way, do you find yourself returning again and again to the identical sin? Why can’t you find the victory promised in Christ?
The Apostle Paul answers your life questions in 2 Corinthians 10:3-7 as he explains that strongholds are fleshly mindsets burned into our minds through the world, the flesh, and the Devil. They are destructive patterns of thinking and habitual false ways of looking at life without spiritual eyes. Over time they become embedded in our minds like a mental fortress suppressing the truth and habituating our wills to evil.
My mental stronghold sin takes a unique shape because I manufacture or carve my idol in my image—according to my non-God story of my life, according to my personally chosen perception of reality. Each particular act of sin is a branch off the tree from which I carve my idol. The root of the tree is my sinful imagination. The fruit of the tree is what I choose to nourish myself with—God or non-god. In the strongholds of my mind I form and shape the very idol of self that I worship instead of God (Isaiah 44:14-17).
Practical Life Questions
Personal sanctification and biblical counseling require us to identify and expose person-specific strongholds. They force us to ask and answer questions like:
“What is my image of God?”
“What is my pattern of dethroning God?”
“How do I typically try to make life work apart from God?”
“What does my style of relating say about my underlying beliefs about life?”
Since strongholds involve longstanding patterns of thinking, we also need to probe questions such as:
“Where was I recruited into this false belief about God?”
“When did I begin to surrender to this lie?”
“What sinful pleasure have I taken in this lie?”
Repenting of Sinful Strongholds
Repentance literally means a change of mind. I change my mindset from a fleshly one to a spiritual one. I change my mind from a stronghold ingrained in the flesh through the enticement of the world and the allurement of the Devil, to a mindset in which I take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ.
Dallas Willard explains the prominence of repentance. “The ultimate freedom we have as human beings is the power to select what we will allow or require our minds to dwell upon” (Willard, Renovation of the Heart, p. 95). Repentance is the choice to reject the mental set of our old mind, replacing it with a mental focus in harmony with our new mind.
Repentance and mortification walk hand-in-hand. Repentance is the daily putting off and breaking up of the whole complex of conformity to the world, the flesh, and the Devil. In mortification through repentance, I’m involved in the life-long process of detecting my characteristic fleshly mindsets and turning from them.
Loading the Conscience with Guilt
To repent of a mindset, I must first recognize its insanity, see its vileness, and sense its ugliness. The Puritans labeled this process, “loading the conscience with guilt.” John Owen, in his classic work The Mortification of Sin, describes the process. “Get a clear and abiding sense upon thy mind and conscience, first, of the guilt, secondly, of the danger, thirdly, of the evil, of that sin wherewith thou art perplexed” (Owen, The Mortification of Sin, p. 107). Owen pictures a Christian struggling to defeat a besetting sin. Victory is stalled. The believer is perplexed, feels trapped, senses defeat. How can this Christian uproot sin? What will motivate this believer to hate sin with a holy hatred? Owen suggests the following principles of loading the conscience with guilt.
Consider the danger of this particular sin. See the danger of being hardened by its deceitfulness (Hebrews 3:12-13) (p. 110). See the danger of God’s discipline (p. 111). See the danger of loss of peace and strength (p. 112).
Consider the evil of it. It grieves the Holy Spirit (p. 115). The Lord Jesus is wounded afresh by it (p. 117). It will take away your usefulness in this generation (p. 117).
Charge your conscience with the guilt of law breaking. Consider the holiness, spirituality, severity, inwardness, and absoluteness of God’s holiness (pp. 119-120).
Bring your sin to the gospel not for relief but for further conviction—look on him you have pierced and be in bitterness (p. 121). “Say to thy soul, ‘What have I done? What love, what mercy, what blood, what grace, have I despised and trampled on! Is this the return I make to the Father for his love, to the Son for his blood, to the Holy Ghost for his grace?’” (pp. 121-122). “Have I defiled the heart that Christ died to wash, which the blessed Spirit hath chosen to dwell in?” (p. 122). “What can I say to the dear Lord Jesus? How shall I hold my head with any boldness before him? Do I account communion with him of so little value, that for this vile lust’s sake I have scarce left him any room in my heart?” (p. 122).
Consider the infinite patience and forbearance of God toward you in particulars (specifics) (p. 123). Remind yourself of his gracious withholding of judgment (p. 123).
Pray for and pursue a constant longing for deliverance (p. 124).
Ponder what occasions led to your giving in, and guard against them (p. 128).
Reflect on the excellencies and majesty of God and how far short you are of him in holiness (p. 131).
When your heart is disquieted by sin, speak no peace to it until God speaks it. Do not grant grace before you have a distaste for your sin (p. 145).
Place faith in Christ for the killing of your sin (p. 161).
Expose Sin’s Ugliness
These practices seem foreign to us today because we have lost the spiritual awareness that Owen had. He knew that the defiled imagination glazed, adorned, and dressed the objects of the flesh—making them look beautiful, causing them to seem preferable to God and God’s way. He understood that the fleshly imagination darkened the soul like a thick cloud intercepting the beams of God’s love and favor (Owen, The Mortification of Sin, p. 53).
Since sin prettifies sin, we must putrefy sin; we must expose sin’s horrible ugliness. We must realize that every act of sin reveals a mindset surrendered and agreeable to sinfulness. We need to allow sinful actions to expose sinful imaginations and affections, and then perceive and acknowledge how horribly corrupt it is for a saint to live like a sinner, for a child of God to live like a prodigal (Owen, The Mortification of Sin, p. 95).
Magnify Christ’s Graciousness
To break the stranglehold of strongholds, I must expose my unique strongholds, repent of my sinful mindsets, load my conscience with guilt, and enlighten my mind to Christ’s grace and truth. As important as it is to load the conscience with guilt, unless we lighten the conscience with grace, we would be terrified to ever come before our holy God. Yet we can and should come boldly into his presence having had our conscience cleansed by Christ (Hebrews 10:19-23). Even as I load my conscience with guilt, I do so surrounded by the awareness that God is gracious even when I am sinful. I face the horror of my sin in light of the wonders of Christ’s grace.
A Prayer of Rational Repentance
“Father, I’ve finally come to my senses. I confess as sin my foolish belief that I can make life work apart from You. I’ve arrogantly suppressed the truth of how perfectly well You care for me. I’ve denied Your fatherly love for me. I’ve sinned against You by believing Satan’s smaller story, fleshly mindset that You are not my Supreme Good. I’ve allowed my view of reality to become filled with contemptuous images of You. I’ve allowed my mind to be squeezed into the mold of this temporal world, living according to the dominant plot theme of the earthly story. I’ve been like a deaf man straining to hear the Gospel story. I’ve denied the Cross. I return to You now repenting of these idols of my heart. Though I am not worthy in myself to be called Your child, by faith I claim my adoption in Christ. Thank You for forgiving me and accepting me in Christ.”