01 March 2016

Strongholds

In 2 Corinthians Paul talks about something called "Strongholds" in the context of spiritual warfare. 

"...For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ."

John Paul Jackson has a neat series on Strongholds and I've been thinking a lot about something he says. As a quick get-up-to-speed step, strongholds are understood as those habits of thought and motivation that get into our heads that are not under Gods influence or control. They are not spiritual entities themselves though they are initiated by, nurtured by, and exploited by spiritual entities. Or put another way, just like the name implies, while a stronghold is not a demon, the woolyboogers build 'em and they live there. Jackson makes several interesting observations including that the defining issue isn't actually one of open or obvious evil but rather rebellion. These are the thoughts that we hang on to stubbornly and won't submit to Christ. We could be thinking the "right" thoughts in an ethical sense but still be doing so in willful disobedience. But what has me thinking tonight is something else.

Jackson says that in his experience these strongholds will almost always dissolve as soon as they've served their purpose. And example he gives is how affairs work. Almost all affairs that lead to a divorce include some element like "This person who is not my spouse loves or understands me like my spouse does not - so I'm going to be with them." But something like 90% of these cases end with the adulterous relationship dissolving in 5 years or less and more than half in less than 1 year. (His stats, not mine, though anecdotal evidence suggests he may be on to something.)

He suggests that the reason this happens is like so: the line of thinking that lead to the affair in the first place was, by definition, a stronghold. It's purpose for being built was to wreck a marriage. Once that's done, the stronghold is abandoned and with person wakes up thinking "what have I done?" But what would that process look like?

One thing this current election has done has been to get me thinking about things in ways I haven't in a while. It's made me reexamine long-held stances and double-check established thought habits given new insight or information. But thinking about thinking is hard. Near the end  of The Big Short Christian Bale's character is at the end of his rope and says, "I may be wrong but I just can't see how...I guess nobody sees how they're wrong or they wouldn't think that way." It's this subtle, almost thrown away line but it is SOOO deep. Every single one of us thinks we are always right - if we thought we were were wrong we'd change our minds (confidence vs. doubt being something different) but it's had work to examine the habits of our own thinking which is where we might discern the outlines of a stronghold...or start to see it crumble.

Any good sales person knows that despite what we say humans make most decisions emotionally. We generally do what we feel and then back fill a rational explanation later. Science has been able to recently "prove" what those in the business of humans have known forever, both for the good and the bad, that the heart is really central and the mind only pretends to be in control. That shouldn't be taken to mean that we can't rationally and deliberately make decisions, we most certainly can, it's just that it's hard work and more often than not we lack the motivation. And when emotions run high the trains of thought needed to support a person make steep walls in the mind, walls mortared together in the presence of pain and so tall they become wickedly hard to see over or walk out of. 

I had dinner with a fellow a short time ago who had been nursing a grudge for several years and I asked him, "What have you been so mad about all this time?" And he said, "...to be honest, I don't really know. I'm not sure that I ever knew." I can't help but wonder, is that what it looks like when a stronghold has been long abandoned by the forces that created it but the prisoners locked inside are only just now getting the news? 

I reckon every stronghold represents, in one analysis, a tremendous investment of emotional energy. We build them (or allow them to built around us?) when we believe we need to defend ourselves against...something. As those walls get higher and higher and they cost us more and more there's a kind of inertia that gets harder and harder to overcome. Intertidal is probably the wrong word but I don't know a better one - it's that sense that says, "I've invested so much in this thing, to abandon it is to admit that the investment was a mistake..."

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 As I'm writing this I realize that, of course, this idea goes in the opposite direction as well. The bible may use the word "stronghold" to denote unhealthy, ungodly patters of thought but there are healthy, godly habits of thought too and they serve basically analogous functions. How do we tell the difference? Are our thought-habits demonic strongholds or are they heavenly towers? I expect there is no easy answer to that but one clue is probably embedded in that thought from earlier about a stronghold being built for a purpose and with a goal. As the first course of stone is being laid do we have the presence of mind to ask, "Where is this going? What will this lead to? What's the logical outcome if I continue building this wall?" Which is just another way of saying that we tell a tree by its fruit.
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But back to the question at hand - how do we experience or observe the abandonment and removal of a spiritual stronghold? 

I suspect one of the unexamined aspects of these strongholds is how they effect people around us. When we are busy erecting these walls around our hearts and our thinking our friends and family can’t help but be caught up to some degree. Thinking of the affair example above, as a person’s mind starts to wander down that path, often over the course of years, people will notice and quite often they will take either a supportive stance, ”You’re right, she never understood you!” or a contrary one, “Dude, what are you thinking?” (see Heb 12:15 on this idea) So when the stronghold starts to crumble these “child strongholds”, which are far weaker than the “parent” may evaporate almost without notice - like a fog burning off that leaves no trace of how it subtly effected one’s thinking. If the poisoned thinking caused that kind of subtle weirdness and distance between people it might disappear overnight with few to realize it was ever there in the first place. Relationships that may have slowly frayed are suddenly refreshed, though likely with a kind of “that was weird” hangover.

For the victim of the stronghold however, it’s not like that. We’re all familiar with “buyer’s remorse” and I bet in many cases that experience is exactly the result of a (generally small) stronghold. We become committed to a train of thinking that we know to be faulty and when the unwise purchase is done - all the energy that convinced us to buy that thing dissipates leaving us with the bill. In fact I’ve heard that exact term applied to the ‘run off with the secretary’ divorces many times. It’s the same regret but with a much higher price tag. Coming down from there involves painful humility, saying “I was wrong” to at least yourself and probably other folks as well and then the potentially crippling consequences, or fruit, that the stronghold bore.

The only way to make such a thing right is to take the biblical advice to tear that stronghold down and discard every singe stone. Or, to use the other germane metaphor, to tear the tree up by it’s roots. But in practice very few people do that - it’s just too painful. So instead they try to take the stronghold down one stone at a time, checking and rechecking if it’s come down far enough. There’s a built-in defensiveness that comes with strongholds. We build them when we feel threatened - whether by others, by life, or by God. Something in us doesn't want to change, doesn’t want the light, doesn’t want to hear what God has to say and so we construct a safe place for our rebellious impulse. To abandon these structures is a mighty effort and takes enormous courage…and it is utterly necessary. When we find ourselves saying things like, “God wants me to be happy.”, “Those outdated scriptures don't apply to me.”, “God will understand.” we are likely in the middle of building and defending a stronghold and we are likely being aided by the enemy. When he abandons the project though - it can make us feel even more defensive because now the angry fire in our gut that  at least kept us warm is now gone and we feel more alone than ever.

Some folks “wake up” and state the long road of restoration but others just double-down and the defensive perimeter grows wider and wider and wider until no thought is subject to Christ, no action is submitted to the throne, and the poor soul wanders through life blaming everybody else for their loss.

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