Jennifer Barnett describes how Christians can take every thought captive and achieve victory in the spiritual battle of the mind. For more on this topic, read her book First Freedoms: Drawing Near to God by Cultivating a Wholehearted Prayer Life.
An old Native American story describes the internal battle in the mind that rages within us. The grandfather in the story tells his grandson that two wolves are within us all. One wolf is evil and the other is good. When the grandson asks, “Which one will win?” the grandfather replies:
“The one you feed.”
Negative self-talk can be crippling, and it can often lead to changes in behavior, attitude, and overall belief systems.
Psychology continues to describe this battle as “cognitive dissonance,” which is the war between “what one knows” and “what one feels.” This struggle exists when conflicting and inconsistent thoughts are in a tug-of-war with one another.
Most of us can relate to the battle we fight internally in our minds.
On any given day, we can try to silence such thoughts as, “I am unworthy and will likely fail,” or, “If anyone knew who I really was, they would reject me quickly.” Sometimes this mental battle is frightening and seems to scream at us in surround sound.
Even suicidal thoughts like, “It would be better if I wasn’t here,” or, “Life is too hard. I should quit,” are terrorizing and shockingly commonplace. Just as frightening are the thoughts that counter every good moral reason, thoughts that are violent, explicit, dark, or deceitful.
These thoughts invade our peace and bring condemnation.
How Scripture Portrays the Battle
Scripture portrays the battle in the mind just as intensely. The Bible presents the battle as one not fought just with flesh and blood but with evil and darkness. And the Scriptures also tell of a bonus for Christians:
Jesus has already purchased our victory through his death on the cross.
This is such good news for the battle!
Consider passages such as:
- “Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13, NASB).
- “For the desire of the flesh is against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, in order to keep you from doing whatever you want” (Gal. 5:17, NASB).
- “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6, NASB).
- “He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13, ESV).
- “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4, ESV).
How comforting to know God does not leave us defenseless and the battle in the mind includes far more factors than just personal struggles. The battle is spiritual with real spiritual forces at work.
God understands that on this side of eternity:
We navigate life within that battle most prominently in our minds.
We are instructed to have “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16, ESV), but our day-to-day mental “home base” is often much more fearful, dark, and chaotic than the mind of Jesus. So how do we arrive there and walk in the victory of the mind purchased for us?
The Battle Plan
Paul offers active and clear steps to winning the battle of the mind in 2 Corinthians 10:3–5:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (NIV).
Let’s break down the helpful steps of this passage.
1. Wage a Spiritual War
When the mind is overrun by thoughts that threaten to choke out goodness and truth, we can take comfort in knowing the battle is not self-contained to the individual but is spiritual.
Spiritual warfare involves unseen spiritual entities—both good and bad—and they are violently opposed.
God and his army have secured the victory because of the cross, but Satan and his army have been given limited power for limited time. As the “prince of the power of the air” Satan has some level of earthly dominion and by definition will entice and defile, steal and destroy, and take any opportunity to bring darkness to individuals and societal institutions.
The good news is that children of God are not under that limited earthly dominion but instead are seated with Christ with his given authority, and they are instructed to be on the offensive when it comes to warfare.
This unseen but very real battle has to be acknowledged for success in this conflict. If we do not acknowledge that the church is to be a demonstration “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord,” then we are vulnerable in the battle (Eph. 3:10–11, NIV).
It would be like a Christian preparing to wage war as a soldier in hand-to-hand combat with an enemy but instead arriving on the battlefield to find he is up against an entire army fitted with modern weaponry.
The soldier would be overpowered because the battle would be much greater than expected. Our battle is much more than it seems, and we have to recognize it rightly. So the first step is knowing spiritual war is real—and then deciding to engage in it.
2. Use Spiritual Weapons
As Christians, we often struggle in the battle of the mind because we are tempted to fight with worldly weapons. Instead, we have to cultivate the spiritual tools to secure victory.
For example, when fear overtakes us, we often try to ignore it or identify it as our “lot in life” to wrestle with. We try to fight the fear on our own, but we come up lacking—because the battle is spiritual, and we don’t have the right weapons.
But God “has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7, NKJV). If God did not give fear to us, then we must acknowledge where fear comes from and then remove it spiritually instead of fighting with our own strength (which will lead to defeat).
The good news is we have been given weapons that have the divine power to demolish totally the arsenal that attacks our minds.
In First Freedoms, I describe how prayer is a tool we use for spiritual warfare, along with worship, rest, and the Word of God. We can claim a confident victory when these weapons are used near to God, as we securely submit to his battle plan in his presence.
3. Invade the Stronghold
In his book The Three Battlegrounds, Francis Frangipane defines a stronghold as “a house made of thoughts.” These “houses” or fortresses in our minds give protection, like a fortified structure that is difficult to assault.
When the Lord is our stronghold, as in Psalm 18, that is our safest place in the battle. But when the fortress is built with lies and unholy thoughts, that fortress must be taken down.
These strongholds that provide refuge for the enemy are built brick by brick in layers of self-deception, self-cursing, fears, anger, unholy thoughts, and lies about God that feel true. They are mortared in isolation and denial.
But in 2 Corinthians 10:3–5, Paul confidently declares those fortresses will come down if we use heavenly weapons. They must be demolished, but not in our own strength—only with the nearness and power of God.
4. Take Thoughts Captive
Looking at a well-built stronghold that has stood for years and attempting to demolish it on our own is overwhelming. Yet we often attempt and come up short using only our human abilities.
This can commonly feel like waging war against ourselves, which feels not only counterintuitive but fatalistic. But if we know the battle is spiritual and we have the victory on the winning side, we can go to God with the thoughts that counter his truth and leave them with him.
For instance, Jesus “disarmed the powers and authorities,” making a public mockery of them (Col. 2:15).
If we have thoughts that counter God’s holiness, we can immediately take them to him.
But we must take the thoughts captive first, and make them submit, not to our authority, but to the authority of Jesus.
I often instruct people in prayer times to take the thoughts as if they were grabbing them around the throat and demanding they answer to Jesus.
Doing this is not a gentle or passive action, but it’s an active and immediate response to something threatening.
Christians must view these thoughts that counter God’s truth as dangerous, and give them no refuge. We cannot fight them alone, and we certainly cannot demolish a stronghold composed of similar thoughts built upon one another.
We choke hold the destructive thoughts and run to Jesus.
Then we come near to God because true peace exists close to him.
He certainly has the power to demolish them and speak the needed truth to our hearts. His truth can answer questions such as, “Jesus, it true that I’m not worth loving?” or, “Jesus, this thought plagues me. Where did it come from, and why does it have such power?”
God gives his heart and his invitation clearly in James 4:7: that we submit to him and resist the devil—and we draw near to him as he draws near to us. He is our stronghold and any thoughts that fly like at arrows us must answer to him.
The Rising Statistics of Serious Mental Battles
Last week’s blog was on mental health statistics associated with loneliness and prayer. But mental health issues go far beyond loneliness.
In August 2020, for example, the CDC published the study “Mental Health, Substance Abuse, and Suicidal Ideation During COVID-10,” which reported that twice as many adults considered suicide in 2020 as they did in 2018. Those statistics arose, along with increased fear and generalized anxiety disorders.
In weekly Freedom Prayer times that I participate in, I see many Christians crumbling under the weight of overwhelming thoughts. They believe the battle is solely on them to combat, and they are ready to give up.
I also have seen an alarming increase of youth who are tormented by accusing and terrorizing thoughts. Most of these thoughts start with accusations about their identities and lead to voices saying, “End it.” Most of these youth are in the church in solid Christian families. The battle is real.
By definition, that threatening voice that offers death is the voice of the enemy, and we must intentionally disciple the process of taking thoughts captive, especially for the youngest in our flock, or the enemy will continue to hide behind accepted labels and culturally appropriate mental health terminology.
I predict these statistics will only continue to rise, and the church must overcome by recognizing the battle and discipling people with tools in prayer to get near to God and find truth.
Renewing the Mind in the Battle
Romans 12:2 invites us to “be transformed” (ESV) by renewing our minds. We must practice this active response in taking thoughts captive again and again until it is our knee-jerk response to thoughts that don’t match God’s Word or God’s character.
As Romans 8:37 says, “We are more than conquerors” in spiritual battle (NIV). Like a Special Ops soldier who practices loading his weapon for hours a day so he can do so without thinking in the heat of battle, we are to be diligent in renewing our minds.
We must take the thoughts captive and demand they submit to Jesus.
But the next step is just as important. We must walk in the truths that God gives so we are not only rejecting the lies but filling our hearts and minds with truth.
This truth was secured with the Lord as the safe stronghold. That truth must be cultivated and built upon and renewed often—even multiple times a day.
The Science of Renewing the Mind
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to grow and change its wiring in response to changed thinking. Neural pathways in our brain can literally rewire themselves according to how we think.
This science belongs to the Lord who in his created order gave humans a grace in brain science that exemplifies his glory on display and his heart for restoration.
Even the most broken of thought patterns can be renewed.
That alone is a marvelous gift, but in the most intense battles, we are often unable to fight alone. But the gift in this process of renewal is we don’t have to.
When we go to God and receive truth that is holy and eternal, we can rewire our thought patterns more securely than any mantras or self-help ever can. It’s a spiritual renewing that is at our core, and we can then walk it out in practice.
Imagine trying to state, “I’m not afraid,” in the middle of a panic attack or onslaught of fear. Now imagine doing that but adding, “Because God said so and told me his truth. You can ask him because I no longer live that way.”
God’s truth adds weight and authority to the mix.
This spiritual battle is an interesting reality that even psychology acknowledges on some level. In a Psychology Today article titled “Fighting the Battle,” the author states: “Everyone has demons, mental illness or not, but these types of demons are different; they can convince you to believe their lies. Their lies are different for everyone—mine tell me I’m worthless and I don’t deserve to be happy.”
This author’s testimony speaks to the spiritual reality present even if coming from a secular perspective.
The battle is spiritual and if the evil side is acknowledged, then it is an injustice not to offer access and freedom to the holy side for a battle plan and victory. That battle language is common in our society, but it is often missing in the gospel of Jesus.
If psychology has made it commonplace to refer to “demons” and allow them an acceptable way to hide out in everyday speech, then the church must provide the keys to winning the battle of the mind by giving tools to encounter Jesus.
If we acknowledge one side and ignore the other, the enemy wins. He parades as though he is winning as of late, and the church must respond with the truth and tools in prayer for victory.
Victory in the Battle of the Mind
In Christ, we can achieve victory in the spiritual battle of the mind, and Scripture offers practical steps to secure it. The people of God must recognize that in their own strength, they will lose the battle.
But by drawing near to God, abiding in his presence, and running with a choke hold on plaguing thoughts, we can work with God, who has the power to demolish those thoughts.
We cannot fight a spiritual battle with worldly weapons. We have been given divine weapons that must be utilized and mastered while resting at the stronghold with God.
With him, our victory is secure. And when we are secure, we are equipped to offer that security to a very lost world without hope in the battle.
We overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the words of our testimonies.
If you have secured personal victory in your own battle of the mind, that testimony is powerful and inviting.
The church was made to walk in this secure victory, and we must proclaim this victory.
That testimony is powerful and an invitation that speaks strongly to the victory found in Jesus. The battle in the mind can be won when we appropriate the finished work of the cross and fight with God’s truth.
The church is strengthened when God’s people are mentally and spiritually equipped to fight. We have the victory and we must be ready for battle.
Jennifer Barnett is the author of First Freedoms, which outlines not only tools for spiritual warfare but steps to connect with God in prayer and tools for freedom. She is passionate about the church building Freedom Prayer teams to meet the rising need for tools in the battle.